Renegotiating the Canon: Scenes of German/ic Theatre(s) – Editors’ Note

Azadeh Sharifi* and Ulf Otto**

Don’t pick up on the good old, pick up on the bad news.

Walter Benjamin citing Bertolt Brecht, Versuche über Brecht 1966

German Theatre is both a successful brand and an institution in crisis – often praised for its unique and diverse landscape, at least when it comes to the state, city, national, private, independent and community theatres that have flourished in the 20th and 21st centuries, thanks to extensive state subsidies. And even though it has, especially since the 1970s and 1990s, become infamous for its disrespectful stagings of the canonic texts, it is nonetheless decidedly marked by processes of canonization: directors, houses and formats are constantly evaluated, negotiated, celebrated, producing a changing but powerful hierarchy between the centres and the peripheries of what counts and is paid for as theatre: an institution that despite its declining audiences still occupies a central place in the imagination of national identities within German-speaking countries.

The project of the German nation has been imagined on theatre stages long before Germany existed. The German nation, as a unified body of the German people, existed solely within the province of imagination. And historically, German/ic Theatre(s) have been entangled with the politics of nation-building and the German imperial appetite for expansion. Elizabeth Coen argues that German theatre served as a space to rehearse the political unification of Germany even as real political circumstances were missing (2016).

Although, as Erika Fischer-Lichte suggests, a bourgeois conception of German national theatre “degenerated into provincial ‘court and national theatre’” (2004), a unifying idea of national identity has formed the German theatre landscape and was being formed by it. Despite ruptures and interventions through several avant-garde movements in the 20th century (Warstatt 2005), we argue that the continuity of these premises still shapes the German/ic theatre canon and repertoire, i.e. the textual corpus, embodied practices and organizational structures. All these traditions are not only clashing with the transnational and transdisciplinary reality of contemporary theatre practice, but they are also deliberately challenged since it’s not only the case for German theatre but the German nation as well. Necati Öziris, a contemporary German playwright and dramaturg, challenges, for example, the notion of the Germanic canon as a grand narrative in his objections το (Widerspruch) and his re-writing of German canonic plays and texts. He aims for a postcolonial reinvigoration of the idea of theatre as an empathic institution (Theater als emphatische Anstalt inspired by Schiller’s Theater als moralische Anstalt (theatre considered as a moral institute). Through his approach of re-writing a canonic text, he enables two black female figures to become the centre of a German play (Sharifi 2022).

These kinds of interventions are currently shaping the discourses on German/ic theatre(s). We think there is an urgency to rethink radically the canon itself and to re-conceptualize the relations from which it has risen. In this special issue, we aim to complicate the narrative and discourse of German/ic theatre(s) by moving away from masterpieces and celebrated artists, and asking instead for (re-)negotiations of canons and repertoires, (re-)constructions and (de)construction of Germanic theatre(s). We were looking for contributions which focused on the entanglements of social and aesthetic issues represented by the polysemy of the term scene, both as an aesthetic and a social concept, but also as an expression of affect, as in the making of a scene.

We are pleased with the outcome of our call and the contributions that engage in a diverse, timely and multifaceted discourse which spans from historical, political and social topics to aesthetic and artistic.

Anselm Heinrich and Olivia Landry & Ela Gezen’s contributions centre historic perspectives on Germany and German Theatre. Anselm Heinrich’s articlefocuses on Nazi Germany’s attempts to control and shape the cultural sector across occupied Europe and discusses the role of theatre in the regime’s social and political goals. Ela Gezen and Olivia Landry’s essay An Archive of Migration: The Ballhaus Naunynstraße in the 1980s engages with a small box (found at Kunstraum Bethanien, Kreuzberg Berlin) full of material about Ballhaus Naunynstrasse’s past which enables a rich and diverse theatre history.

Cristina Modreanu and Jan Creutzenberg’s contributions look closer at Germanic Theatre from outside of the German-speaking realm. Cristina Modreanu engages with the play Desdemona – if you had only spoken. Eleven uncensored speeches of eleven incensed women by Christine Brückner interrogate the history of the German State Theatre in Timișoara, Romania and feminist theatre productions. Jan Creutzenbergs article The Brecht-brand and German Theatre in South Korea draws from Korean-German theatre relations to question the Brecht reception in South Korea.

Alexandra Portmann’s study interrogates the criteria for exclusion of the “Freie Szene” in Switzerland through the performance zwei zu zwei at Kaserne Basel. Hans Roth and Corentin Jan’s works focus on Berlin’s Theatre scene. Hans Roth argues in his article Socialist Past, Postmigrant Present: Renegotiating the Canon at the Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin that Maxim Gorki’s present and its institutional past are much more intertwined than has been recognized so far. He postulates that aesthetic and political conflicts of the socialist past are neither reproduced nor discarded, but subversively appropriated for Gorki’s attempt to criticize and renegotiate the canon of German theatre. Corentin Jan contribution Le Theatertreffen aujourd’hui, entre consécration du canon théâtral, vitrine internationale et stratégies de remise en question institutionnelle interrogates Berliner Theatertreffen, an annual presentation of the ten most “outstanding” productions created in German-speaking Europe. The article shows how the Theatertreffen case sheds light on certain hierarchical processes at work within the German-speaking theatrical field.

Priscilla Layne and Greta Gerhard in their own work  emphasize a feminist approach to engaging with plays. Priscilla Layne’s article applies a feminist, postcolonial reading to Necati Öziri’s play, to explore the ways he is writing back against Kleist. Greta Gebhard’s article interrogates critically the cult of domesticity and the ideologies that women used to build imagined communities and maintain aspects of cultural power in the national discourse.

Last but not least, Ivan Medenica’s conversation with three dramaturgs of the younger generation (Tina Milz, Tobias Herzberg, and Martin Valdés-Stauber) from three different German-speaking countries  brings into sharp focus issues directly related to the main concerns of this special issue (i.e. immersiveness, diversity, openness, social responsibility of public theatres, among others).

All the contributions offer a different, but assembling insight into German/ic Theatre(s). We believe that theatre offers more than just a representation of the world. By intervening it can provide insights into our (disappearing) reality. The potential of theatre does not lie in its performativity, but rather in its ability to articulate (Otto 2021). We, therefore, believe that this special issue can contribute to the perception of how Germany, German theatre and its artistic and aesthetic discourses have changed.

Cover photo: Tobias Herzberg, Muttermale Fenster blau, by Sasha Marianna Salzmann. Schauspielhaus, Zurich. Photo: Raphael Hadad.


Benjamin, Walther. Versuche über Brecht. Suhrkamp Verlag, 1966.

Coen, Elizabeth. Staging Theater to Realize a Nation: The Development of German National Theater in the 18th Century.  Diss. U of Washington, 2016.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. “Some Critical Remarks on Theatre Historiography.” Writing and Rewriting National Theatre Histories, edited by Steve Wilmer. U of Iowa P. 2004, pp.1-16.

Otto, Ulf. “Die Kunst der Umsetzung. Intervention als Artikulation in Mittelreich” (2017). Ästhetiken der Intervention. Ein- und Übergriffe im Regime des Theaters, edited by Ulf Otto and Johanna Zorn. Theater der Zeit. 2022, pp. 202-25.

Sharifi, Azadeh. “Widerspruch formulieren und performen. Kanon und Kritik im deutschsprachigen Theater.” In Jahrbuch der deutschen Schillergesellschaft. Wallstein Verlag, 2022, pp. 447-52.

Warstatt, Mathias. Theatrale Gemeinschaften. Zur Festkultur der Arbeiterbewegung 1918-33. A. Francke, 2005. 

*Azadeh Sharifi is a Visiting (DAAD) Assistant Professor at the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of Toronto. Her work engages with (post)colonial and (post)migrant Theatre history, performances by artists of color and the intersections of race, class and gender in contemporary European performances. She is currently working on the project “Post-migrant German theatre history”). Previously, she was a Visiting Professor at the University of Fine Arts (UdK) Berlin, Postdoc at the Department of Theatre Studies at LMU Munich and fellow at the International Research Center Interweaving Performance Cultures at FU Berlin. She is a Board Member of Performance Studies international (PSi).

**Ulf Otto, Dr. phil., is Professor of Theatre Studies and Intermediality at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich. His research focuses on the interdependencies of theatricality and technology in industrial as well as post-industrial cultures. He studied theatre and computer science in Berlin, Toronto, and Paris, earned his doctorate with a thesis on early Internet culture at Hildesheim and was granted a Dilthey-Fellowship for his habilitation on the history of electricity in theatre. Other work has addressed gestures of reenactment (Transcript, 2012), algorithms of theatre (Alexander Verlage, 2020), and aesthetics of intervention (Theater der Zeit, 2022), and has appeared in Theater JournalTheater Research International, and The Drama Review and Centaurus. Recent publications include the monograph The Theatre of Electricity. Technology and Spectacle in the Late 19th Century (Metzler 2020); the essay “Performing the Glitch: AI Animatronics, Android Scenarios, and the Human Bias” (Theatre Journal 2021); and the anthology Aesthetics of Intervention. Interventions and Encroachments in the Regime of Theatre  (2022). 

Copyright © 2023 Azadeh Sharifi and Ulf Otto
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

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