If You Had Only Spoken . . . Counter-narratives and Marginalized Histories of Women on the German Stage in Romania Before and After 1989

Cristina Modreanu*


Connecting the dots between one of the few feminist productions in communist Romania, one based on the play Desdemona—If You Had Only Spoken Eleven Uncensored Speeches of Eleven Incensed Women by Christine Brückner (1988), and a production featuring six outstanding German-speaking actresses based on their confessions and created by multimedia theatre director Carmen Lidia Vidu, Romanian Diary: Timisoara (2018), the article will mirror the atypical activity of the German State Theatre in Timișoara, Romania, over three decades, with a focus on marginalized histories of women artists. One of the two theatrical institutions of its kind in this country, this is a place created for the German minority yet functioning for a mixed audience, since this minority has decreased over the decades, especially after the fall of the Berlin wall and the massive political changes in Eastern Europe. Timișoara German State Theatre has played a pivotal role in the continued existence of a German community in communist Romania, this being proven by its on- and off-stage history, as well as by the multidirectional memories and counter-narratives brought on stage by actresses from different generations in Romanian Diary: Timisoara. The article is based on in-depth research in the Timisoara German State Theatre’s archive, interviews and stage confessions of the actresses involved in these two projects, one of which, Ida Jarcsek-Gaza, was a protagonist in both, exactly thirty years apart. The written format of the article benefits from a tridimensional immersion via a QR code which can be scanned with a mobile phone or other devices to reach a video interview with this actress.

Keywords: German, theatre, women, multimedia, feminism

On the territory of today’s Romania, the theatre was first performed in other languages than Romanian. As a colonized territory, first under the Ottoman Empire, later under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Romanian culture has been permeated by the ruling class’s values and ways of spending time, cultural activities amongst them. As a recognition of the mix of cultures in this part of the world, the historical minorities—Hungarian and German—have been given official rights by the communist regime after the Second World War. Among these rights has always been the right to preserve their own culture, and theatre has been instrumental in this sense.

In 1918, when all Romanian kingdoms united under one state named Romania, the various groups of German populations—Transylvanian Saxons from the Sibiu area and Swabians from the Banat area—became citizens of the new state and spoke the same language; they all formed the German minority, which grew to consist of around 745,000 persons in 1930 (Nica 23).[1] In the second part of the twenty-first century, especially after the second world war, this community gradually decreased:

The war and the following events, the accusations of fascism and the collective guilt of the community and then the efforts to reunite families followed by a continuous exode, all these eroded the traditional German communities in Romania and they finally determined the massive emigration to Germany, especially in the 70s and 90s.

Nica, 32

Nowadays, the number of persons identifying as Germans living in Romania is as low as 36,884, representing 0,1% of the population in Romania, with a 40% decrease compared to the last census from 2002.[2] Despite this decrease of the German community, at this moment there are two German-speaking theatre companies in Romania organized as repertory theatres subsidized by the local administration, one in Sibiu, the other one in Timișoara. There is also an acting school in the German language; a program at Timișoara West University opened in 1992 on the initiative of an actress who was at the time Timișoara German State Theatre’s manager, Ildiko Jarcek Zamfirescu,[3] an iconic figure of the German State Theatre in Timisoara, as she was its manager for a long period between 1983 and 2001, under two very different political regimes and working conditions. In 1983, when she took over, Romania was confronted with an unprecedented economic crisis with a dramatic impact on the budgets of the theatres which decreased by 40%, thus forcing them to move from fully subsidized institutions to almost self-dependent ones. Among other interdictions, theatres were not allowed anymore to include in their repertory foreign plays for which author rights needed to be paid in foreign currency, a decision that especially affected Hungarian and German theatres in Romania. German communities were also confronted with massive migration in the 1980s, when citizens who legally asked for the right to emigrate were put on hold, not being able to work anymore while they were waiting for the official answer, which meant that German-speaking theatres had to suspend a lot of their productions for lack of actors (Jarcsek Gaza). All these came on top of the usual censorship measures which all theatres in Romania were facing at that time in their daily activity.

Censored Speeches

In this context, when they started working on a new production in 1987, actress Ida Jarcsek-Gaza and director Ondine Bleier (later Bleier-Dietz) had no idea how difficult it was going to be to bring the final result on stage. First, there was the text written by the German playwright Christine Brückner, published in 1983 under the title Ungehaltene Reden ungehaltener Frauen, which was going to be translated and published in English only in 1992 as Desdemona—If You Had Only Spoken: Eleven Uncensored Speeches of Eleven Incensed Women. A good connection between the literary staff of the theatre with their peers in Germany helped them discover new texts for the stage, this one among them. At the time of the Romanian staging, while in the world “1980s feminism was a vibrant, growing field of critical and artistic practice” (Dolan XXVII), Christine Brückner was not at all considered a radical feminist in Germany. Ondine Bleier-Dietz remembers she was asked to direct the production as she was known to be a feminist, but she felt the material was “too light in terms of woman power. It was not Scum Manifesto or Vagina Monologues, it was even contradicting some of the feminist dogma, but we started working at it anyway” (Modreanu 136). But, for Romanian theatre repertories, this play giving voice to women who were contesting the dominant culture was a very unorthodox choice. In the Romanian staging, just five out of eleven monologues were chosen to represent five female personalities, all interpreted by Ida Jarcsek-Gaza: Clytemnestra, Katharina Luther, Laura (Petrarca’s lover), Megara and Gudrun Ensslin, representing the military group Red Army Faction, arrested as a terrorist and found dead in prison in 1977.[4] Even if the Red Army Faction, also named the Baader-Meinhof group, were far-left militants fighting against the capitalist ideology, they were anarchists, criticizing the state, which was not something to recommend them in a state practising duplicity in external politics like Romania in the 1980s.

Ida Jarcsek-Gaza in Ungehaltene Reden ungehaltener Frauen (1988). Photo: Courtesy of German State Theatre Timisoara

The small team of the production felt the pressure for self-censorship, and in the argument, the director had to write to get the approval of the state committee (this was required to stage any text). The director replaced Gudrun Ensslin’s name with… Rosa Luxemburg. They got the approval, and the text was staged but under the different, neutral title Love Bears a New Name. This title was used for two years and was replaced with the original one after the fall of the Berlin wall, in 1989. Another act of censorship came when the poster of the production was ready: the director’s idea to use the icon for the feminine sex was not approved, so they replaced it with an abstract symbol similar to an eye, less powerful than the designer would have liked to.

More than that, before the opening, an essential member of the team abandoned the ship: Gerhard Schibinger, the musician who was supposed to play live on stage, giving a musical replica to the actress and, at the same time, embodying the masculinity against which the women channelled in the monologues were rebelling.

Final version of the poster. Courtesy of German State Theatre Timisoara

Geri gave up overwhelmed by the “ultrafeminine” content and the atmosphere of the rehearsals, I believe he felt for the first time in his life in minority and more than that it was difficult for him to represent the essence of masculinity on stage, believes today Ondine Bleier-Dietz.

Modreanu 136

The last “battle” had to be fought at the official general rehearsal for the state representatives, a commission deciding if the productions can be seen by the audience or not, the last step of the censorship system. At this point, the fact that the monologues were given in German and not all censors were fluent in this language played in favour of the artists and the production was approved to go on stage, despite its obvious feminist and anti-patriarchal, even anarchist (in the monologue of Gudrun Ensslin) content.

Semi-erased video fragments from an early 1990s studio recording made by Romanian public television and a series of photos from the German State Theatre’s archive show us a small round stage on which a slim tall ageless woman changes her clothes to become a different character and addresses the darkness around her. The intensity of her words is the thread connecting all characters, as she shape-shifts from the most radical one (Gudrun Ensslin) to the soft-spoken one (Petrarca’s Laura). It is not a “big” production, definitely not impressive for its stage design, lighting or other stage elements; it is a conduit for women’s voices, and its value still stands as one of the very few feminist productions on Romanian stages in the 1980s. Only one descriptive review is preserved in the archives, and it does not underline the feminist value of the production, so we can presume that any impact on an audience not educated to identify this type of issue was at best subliminal. But, looking back, we realize that this production fills a gap in the history of women’s theatre and German theatre on Romanian stages.

The production was a powerful manifesto indirectly criticizing the double standards of the communist regime: while women were praised in the official discourse as “life and work comrades,” they were victims of the same traditional relationships in the couple, and they bore most responsibilities in the household while working outside of it too, as much as the men. At the same time, they didn’t have access to higher positions in the state and administration hierarchies, only to the executive positions at best.[5] The fact that Ondine Bleier was asked to direct this production was an exception, the majority of creative positions in theatre being assigned to men.

Ida Jarcsek-Gaza in Ungehaltene Reden ungehaltener Frauen (1988). Photo: Courtesy of German State Theatre Timisoara

The obstacles the Romanian production of Desdemona had to overcome in the 1980s are representative of the everyday fight against censorship in the theatre, a difficult reality in a dictatorship like Ceaușescu’s regime. The case also underlines a paradox: while the official discourse was obsessively criticizing the capitalist ideology, actions against it, like the ones conducted by Red Army Faction, were considered too dangerous, for fear they might inspire local potential rebels. An interesting aspect of the on-and-off stage memories of German-speaking actresses connected to this production is the fact that multilingualism had the power to help the artists overcome the censorship obstacle. Paired with the effects of a massive migration of German citizens in the 1980s, this phenomenon defined the life of the German theatre community in Timișoara.

The Revival

While at the beginning of the 1980s “Timisoara German State Theatre’s repertory consisted of over 400 productions” (Vintilă 49), actress Ida Jarcsek-Gaza, who played the five women in this production, remembers there were only a few productions they could still play by the end of the decade. As soon as a German citizen asked for permission from the state to emigrate, he/she was immediately banned from working in the theatre, even if it could have taken months until their papers were approved and they could leave the country. A few years later, in 1989, the fall of the Ceaușescu socialist nationalist regime found Timișoara German State Theatre in a dire situation. One essential initiative by Ildiko Jarcsek-Zamfirescu saved not only this institution but one can say the continuity of German theatre in Romania and even more:

The vision she demonstrated by creating an acting school in German language in order to train professional actors not only for Timișoara but also for Sibiu and Szekszard, Hungary, facilitated a flux of graduates for the German theatres, changing for the better the quality of the productions and the content of the repertories.

Vintilă 120

An acting school in the German language meant not only a better selection of young candidates who spoke the language but also educating future actors belonging to the local community, familiar with German culture and ready to help bring their generational peers to a theatre-lacking audience. Also, the connections to their larger families and friends who have already left the country helped expand their horizons and ideas, bringing new material for the German theatre repertory or even proposals for directors to stage here.

The revival of Timișoara German State Theatre continued alongside the socio-political and economic transition of the country, and after 2000, the actress who played the female historic characters in Desdemona became its manager. Ida Jarcsek-Gaza was born in 1947 in a mixed German-Hungarian family in Timișoara, and she has been working in the Timișoara German State Theatre since 1970. She was its manager between 2003 and 2007. In a recent interview, she told me she believed that the “German community isolated itself within the confinement of its language and culture before 1989, preserving its core values, instead of resisting the political regime.” This is why one of the most important things she did while managing the institution was inviting directors from German-speaking countries to stage productions in Timișoara German State Theatre to open new windows to the world.

In the current repertory of the theatre, among other things, she plays the senior of the six women in a production reflecting upon the history of the city of Timisoara, including its German community, as seen through the eyes of the actresses working here. Part of a larger theatre project designed by multimedia director Carmen Lidia Vidu, Romanian Diary: Timișoara focuses on the personal lives and socio-political views of six women living in contemporary Romania; namely, in this multicultural city chosen to be the European Capital of Culture in 2023.[6]

From left to right: Daniela Török, Olga Török, Silvia Török, Ida Jarcsek-Gaza, Ioana Iacob, Tatiana Sessler-Toami. Foto Maria Stefănescu. Photo: Courtesy of Romanian National Theatre Festival
More Than Feminist

If the 1987 production based on Desdemona qualified as a feminist one, in that it was meant to give voice to famous female historic characters who were traditionally silent, always in the shadow of their famous husbands placed “on the axis of social power and ideological control” (Dolan XX), the 2018 production is far more than that. The six women it features are not fictional characters at all; the actresses were encouraged by the director to bring their real selves on stage and to speak directly to the audience, joining the postmodern belief that “character can no longer act as a stable referent, and that narrative can no longer be assumed to be a coherent, linear system that delivers a single, authoritative meaning” (Dolan 42). More than that, with an exclusively female team, the production dismantles the canon of “the male gaze,” delivering a set of progressive gender meanings. Despite the difficulty of this exercise, asking for a psychological self-investigation and exposure, the traditionally trained actresses of different ages succeeded in offering their points of view about the history of Timișoara and its multicultural context, about learning citizenship in the middle of the transition from a socio-political regime to another, about growing up as part of a minority in a changing society, about being a woman and an actress in Romania and, most interestingly, about performing womanhood in Eastern Europe on stage and in the streets, which are a stage in themself.

Silvia Török in Romanian Diary. Timișoara. Photo: Ovidiu Zimcea. Courtesy of German State Theatre Timisoara

Answering a set of questions from the director, regarding their views on the city, theatre, marriage/personal relationships, religion, as well as their set of values and their fears for the future, the women painted a picture very different from the official image of the Romanian society, as seen in the media and public agora. Starting from examples in their own lives, they insisted on the traumatic side of society, the damaged relationship with or own history and the cracks in the current generations provoked by lack of communication with their parents, which planted the seeds of a general lack of confidence and direction. Talking about how they perceive Romanian women in general, the actresses spoke about how tired their peers look, how overwhelmed they are by the difficulties of living in Romania and how overworked, one of them underlining that “over the age of 40 Romanian women look older than their peers in other countries” (from Olga Torok’s confession in Romanian Diary).

Opening up in an unprecedented on-stage confession, one of the actresses spoke about how she was sexually abused at the age of seven (a reality all too frequent in this country) and about her struggle with an eating disorder and fear of commitment; another one confessed about her anxieties and lack of confidence; one spoke about the local racism against Roma people; while another concluded that “the main problem of Romanian society is the father figure, the father being either absent or alcoholic” (from Daniela Torok’s confession in Romanian Diary).

In their critique of theatre institutions, the actresses said they wish for theatre to contribute to changing society for the better, they pleaded for more experiments in theatre and different types of theatre spaces and they complained about working with male directors: “I was yelled at, I was told I am no good, I was humiliated, dismounted piece by piece, I thought about quitting…” (from Daniela Torok’s confession in Romanian Diary).

In the multimedia context created by the director and her team with a selection of family photos, quotes and social references projected on the big screen in the background, the actresses directly addressed the audience and gave their monologues edited by the director from the extended interviews taken in the preparation of the production. They told their off-stage stories and re-centered themselves on-stage, taking back this space where they sometimes have felt used or irrelevant, just means to an end. With all lights on them and a microphone to project their voices—one of them even singing—these actresses seemed empowered just by going through this exercise of acknowledging their identity besides the multiple roles they usually play on this stage. Once again, not the staging in itself was impressive—even if the new technologies made the production look very up-to-date for the digital generations (photo and video montage by Cristina Baciu and Ovidiu Zimcea, dramaturgy by Andrea Wolfer)—but the content delivered by its female creators.

A possible conclusion of the production would be that the unsettled Romanian society—a dysfunctional society born out of dysfunctional families, as one actress says—would benefit from various forms of therapy, and theatre could be one of them. As long as it incorporates a set of more transparent rules to advance a gender equality work ethic.

Carmen Lidia Vidu’s multimedia theatre concept, A Diary of a Country, consists until now of four productions staged in different cities in Romania (Sf. Gheorghe, Constanța, Bacău, Timișoara), and it creates a relevant, live document addressing the entanglements of social and aesthetic issues in a society troubled by recent complex changes, still recovering after more than 45 years of socialist experiment and looking fearful to the future. Creating space through this project for the audience to hear the voices of German-speaking actresses from the German community of Timișoara, the city where the Romanian Revolution started in December 1989, the director mediates not only between minority and majority, regional and central, past and present, but also between fiction and lived reality, selecting personal stories and transforming them into relevant stage material, thus renegotiating the theatrical canon of a traditionally directorial approach and aesthetically driven type of theatre, so popular in this part of the world. But the most important result in terms of renegotiating the canon is the bold decision to bring the usually peripheral—the women, the German minority—to the center of the stage and completely change the angle for an audience used to mostly treat theatre as an escape from reality. The deliberated decisions to have an all-female cast, to abandon the dramatic text and the characters and to challenge the status quo of the patriarchal hierarchies on stage combined into an empowering manifesto very well received by audiences in Romania and German-speaking countries,[7] contributing to a too long delayed reconnection.

An essentially ethical attempt, consisting of giving voice to the citizens of a city and, more than that, giving voice to the female citizens of a still patriarchal country, evolves into an aesthetical achievement in this powerful, unforgettable production proving again that personal is political.

Scan to see a video interview with Ida Jarcsek-Gaza


[1] Census quoted by Radu Nica (2013); my translation from Romanian to English.

[2] Dates recorded for the most recent census in 2011. A new census has just been closed in Romania; the numbers are yet to be processed.

[3] Ildiko Jarcsek Zamfirescu was born in 1944 and died in 2019. See her profile in Multimedia Dictionary of Romanian Theatre.

[4] More about the “death night” in Stammheim Prison and its impact on artistic imagination of the 1980s generation in Marina Abramovic by Mary Richards (2009).

[5] Professors Maria Bucur and Mihaela Miroiu make this case at length in their book Nașterea cetățeniei democratice. Femeile si puterea în România modernă (Birth of Democratic Citizenship. Women and Power in Modern Romania), Humanitas publishing house, 2019.

[6] The title was won for Timișoara to be the European Capital in 2021, as mentioned in the production, but due to the pandemy the process was postponed for 2023.

[7] The production was presented in Germany and Austria.


Bukur, Maria, and Mihaela Miroiu. Nașterea cetățeniei democratice. Femeile si puterea în România modernă. Humanitas, 2019.

Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. 2nd ed., The U of Michigan P, 2012.

Jarcsek Gaza, Ida. “Interviu Teatrul ca rezistență – Teatrul German din Timișoara (English Subtitles).” YouTube, uploaded by Teatrul ca rezistenta, 2 Dec. 2020. Accessed 12 Oct. 2022.

Modreanu, Cristina, editor. Teatrul ca Rezistență. Oameni de teatru în arhivele securității. Polirom, 2022.

Nica, Radu Alexandru, editor. Nostalgia Mitteleuropei: O istorie a teatrului german din Sibiu. Eikon, 2013.

Richards, Mary. Marina Abramovic. Routledge, 2009.

Vintilă, Simona, editor. Teatrul German de Stat Timișoara de la teatru minoritar la teatru de performanță. U de Vest, Timișoara, 2022. 

*Cristina Modreanu is a theatre critic and researcher based in Bucharest, Romania. She is the author of A History of Romanian Theatre from Communism to Capitalism: Children of a Restless Time (Routledge 2020). A Fulbright Alumna and a Visiting Scholar at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Performance Studies Department (2011–12), Modreanu is currently a theatre researcher at Janovics Center for Screen and Performing Arts, Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, and a member of the Editorial Board of European Journal of Theatre and Performance.

Copyright © 2023 Cristina Modreanu
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

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