Dear colleagues and friends,

I am hardly able to convey my joy and pride for the honour of the Thalia prize 2018.

First of all: I humbly say, thank you.

My joy is immense because the Thalia prize is the kind of recognition that a theoretician dreams of. What more can I hope for than being credited for reframing the critical discourse in theatre with a theoretical treatise like the one on Postdramatic Theatre? What an honour it is to be chosen by an institution whose members are of such international, and dare I say, intercultural breadth, such as the IATC!

Let me also express my satisfaction that this meeting takes place here, in the wonderful city of St. Petersburg, a city resonating with so many associations of modern history of (not only) world theatre, and with names from Vera Komissarzhevkaya and Meyerhold, to Georgy Tovstonogov, Lev Dodin and, of course, Valery Fokin. I remember that it was here that one of the two presentations of the Russian edition of Postdramatic Theatre took place. The translation and publication were initiated by Anatoli Wassiliev, whose work has had so many points of contact with the postdramatic. I want to send out a big hug and a great thank you to him.

Hans-Thies Lehmann presenting his acceptance speech. Next to him Margareta Sörenson, the president of IATC. Photo: Franco Bonfiglio

I want to say here a special thank you to the one person who stood beside me and often sat beside me in the theatre through all these twenty years, living next door to Postdramatic Theatre. I speak of course of the incomparable Eleni Varopoulou. I know, Eleni, that this was not always easy. Let me say: without you as my beloved wife, my critical companion and inspiration, I would not be here today to receive the Thalia prize. So, thank you for everything in this moment, Eleni Varopoulou.

The recognition, which finds expression in the award twenty years after the first publication of the book, and 26 translations later, gives me great encouragement to continue my work. It was not even in my dreams to think of theatre in Brazil, or Japan for instance, when I was writing the book. The fact that the book could, in spite of this limitation, become productive in these different theatre cultures, is perhaps due to a certain discipline. I insisted on the rule that you do not allow yourself to write about things you do not really know.

The task of the critic today is without doubt transcultural. In this sense, he has large shoes to fill. However we should not misunderstand this challenge as a license to go for strolls in exotic theatre landscapes like dilettantes. Only if we read performances, as indeed all art, as answers of artists to problems—problems they come across in their attempt to articulate the reality of our world—do we have a chance to understand what is à l’ordre du jour (the order of the day) in other regions of our world. And, emerging works give us a truer sense than season highlights do.

From left to right:Peng Tao, Deepa Punjani, Emmanuel Dandaura, Margareta Sörenson and Hans-Thies Lehmann. “. . . ‘postdramatic’ seems to work in many countries, beyond theory, as an encouragement especially, for younger theatre people to deviate from customary ideas and conventional practices, in order to find and affirm their own ‘tone.’” (Lehmann). Photo: Franco Bonfiglio

Let us be warned not to fall prey to the trap Walter Benjamin pointed out with the remark that he, who wants to always be up to date, is for that very reason damned to be always a step outdated.

Generally speaking, the concept “postdramatic” seems to work in many countries, beyond theory, as an encouragement especially, for younger theatre people to deviate from customary ideas and conventional practices, in order to find and affirm their own “tone.” Politically speaking, it was, and still is, regarded as a “compagnon de route” in the struggle against the overwhelming norms and rules of the dramatic model of theatre—norms that were institutionalized not without a certain cultural imperialism, practically around the world. For this reason, in Latin America, “postdramatic” was often identified with “post-European.”

Sometimes, this conflict has emerged in strange time lags. For example, in China, a heated controversy has erupted over the allegedly overarching influence of contemporary “Western” theatre. And by Western they mean postdramatic. Now, the book, translated by Yinan Li, is really very popular in the Chinese theatre world. It is already in its third print, since its first publication, in 2010. I was offered the chance to publish an essay on the issue in the journal of the Shanghai Theatre Academy and I accepted. I was glad about the opportunity to intervene is this controversy on a somewhat official level.

Hans-Thies Lehmann: “. . . theatre will again probably be what it was mostly throughout its long history – more philosophy on stage than staged politics.” Photo: Franco Bonfiglio

I argued against the accusation that artists and curators who give space to postdramatic theatre were allowing too much “Western” influence, by turning the tables on the polemic. I pointed out: “What has been blooming worldwide under western influence—or more precisely western cultural imperialism—wasn’t that exactly the dramatic set-up of European theatre?! Wasn’tit this dramatic mode with its privilege for readable meaning, dramaturgy, protagonists who play through conflicts, and decisions in dialogue, that were exported to or imposed on the whole world? Therefore, the truth is just the contrary: to stubbornly cling to the dramatic model is actually a position that amounts to advocating the continuing subordination of one’s culture to ‘Western’ culture.”

I certainly hope that I do not have to insist before this audience that the term postdramatic theatre does not mean theatre without text. And that not all text written for the stage is “dramatic.” Following the dialectical approach of my admired teacher Peter Szondi, I simply propose more precision and terminological clarity in the use of the term “drama.” Yet, when I wrote on the “postdramatic,” I was conscious of the fact that contemporary theatre takes place in an environment deeply informed by media culture, a culture of images, and in a digital world. This general development was bound to have an effect on the status of the literary dimensions of theatre. Here, the status of the text is obviously reduced. This shift is taking place before our very eyes.

It can be seen as an effect of a more general transformation: from a concept of culture which is embodied in “works” to a concept of culture that finds expression in “performances,” in the widest sense of the term. A well-known German feminist theatre group has chosen the name “She She Pop.” They do not wish to make a secret of their consciousness. Their way of thinking, feeling and making experiences, is deeply impregnated by pop culture more than by the tradition of literary culture.

The chairperson of IATC Margareta Sörenson, delivering her speech, and Hans-Thies Lehmann. Photo: Franco Bonfiglio

There are people who may dislike this fact but it is a stubborn reality, which will not go away. Some of us like culture to stay the way we have known it. It is as if culture is set in stone. Bertolt Brecht’s little poem is a tongue-in-cheek expression of resistance to change:

“Keep silent!
What do you think will change easier?
A stone
Or your opinion about it?”

Postdramatic writing can be of the highest literary order. I mention only names from the German-speaking world here: Heiner Müller, Peter Handke, René Pollesch, Elfriede Jelinek. The dwindling relevance of the literary dimension in the present world does not imply a disdain of the great tradition of dramatic texts—which is at the center of my book Tragedy and Dramatic (!) Theatre (2016).

The usefulness of terms and concepts are best measured by criteria that help open up new perspectives of the phenomena they describe. The term “postdramatic”has stood this test. For example, it opened new ways to think about the hotly disputed theme: if there is a place for tragedy at all in our world. If you distinguish between tragedy as drama and the tragic experience, which is about venturing into the unknown, overstepping given limits, defiance of disaster, you can say that, in our times, this tragic experience has taken forms beyond drama and even beyond the traditional dramatic idea of theatre, in general. For example, in the Brechtian Lehrstück (even if this view of Brecht might be surprising); in Beckettian standstill; in a wide range of postdramatic theatre; and performance practices from Kantor to Fabre, from Einar Schleef to Romeo Castellucci.

Hans-Thies Lehmann with the Thalia Prize cane in his hands. Photo: Franco Bonfiglio

Please allow me a short remark in closing that concerns the political dimension of theatre. I want to touch upon it in order to let you on my next writing plan. Up to the present day, postdramatic theatre is created under the more or less explicit demand to be “political.” But it seems to me that there is a growing awareness that, as a rule, the political can appear in the theatre only, so to say, modo obliquo, as a fundamental questioning of our being together in a polis, rather than taking positions on concrete political issues.

If this observation is correct then theatre will again, probably, be what it was mostly throughout its long history—more philosophy on stage than staged politics. I think often of the wonderful prophecy that Robert Wilson made about Heiner Müller. He said, “In 400 years, people will read Heiner’s texts not as political texts but as philosophical texts.” That was a further stimulus for me to begin writing a small book. I promise it will be small. The working title is “A Small Philosophy of the Theatre.”

With the Thalia prize’s help I hope to see it printed in 2019, before an event we are planning in Berlin; an international conference at the Academy of Fine Arts, from November 21 to November 24, 2019, on the subject “Twenty Years of Postdramatic Theatre Worldwide.” We hope to bring together dozens of speakers from all over the world; artists, dramaturges, curators, critics and academics will be invited to discuss their experience with the theory and practice of postdramatic theatre and performance. I warmly invite everyone to join us there.

That’s about it, folks.

Thank you again for the Thalia prize.

Thank you, thank you! 

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Thalia Prize 2018 Acceptance Speech By Professor Hans-Thies Lehmann