The Funniest German You've Probably Never Heard Of: The Extravagant Work of Herbert Fritsch Plunders Classic Come Music-Theatre and His Country's Surreal History

By Savran, David | American Theatre, October 2014 | Go to article overview

The Funniest German You've Probably Never Heard Of: The Extravagant Work of Herbert Fritsch Plunders Classic Come Music-Theatre and His Country's Surreal History


Savran, David, American Theatre


CONVENTIONAL WISDOM HAS IT THAT GERMANS are not funny. Brooding, melancholy, tragic, yes; but comic? Which makes it all the more remarkable that the greatest living director of farce is German.

Herbert Fritsch became one of the hottest directors in the German-speaking world in 2011 at the age of 60, after a long career as an actor at the Volksbuhne Berlin, under the directorship of Frank Castorf. In that year, two of Fritsch's productions, Ibsen's A Doll's House and Hauptmann's The Beaver Coat, were selected to appear in Germany's most prestigious theatre festival, the Berliner Theatertreffen. The following year, his production of a 1913 farce, Die (s)panische Fliege (The Spanish Fly), by the German comedy team Franz Arnold and Ernst Bach, was a big hit at the Volksbuhne and was also selected for the Theatertreffen; it has since toured Europe and Japan (but not, alas, the United States).

Die (s)panische Fliege is about a rich mustard tycoon, his puritanical wife and his panic at the likelihood that a Spanish dancer (the title character), with whom years before he had a one-night stand, will show up on his doorstep. (Like Godot, she never appears.) Fritsch staged an otherwise throwaway boulevard comedy on a gigantic, undulating Persian carpet that covered the Volksbuhne's huge stage, with a trampoline hidden among its upstage folds, so that when characters entered they would jump from the crest of the rug onto the trampoline, bouncing headlong onto the stage. In Fritsch's hands, a comedy about people sweeping things under the rug became literally about people, well, sweeping things under the rug. But what was most remarkable about the production is the knockabout farce, gravity-defying pratfalls, frenzied mugging, over-the-top costumes, gargantuan wigs--the utterly theatrical brilliance of it all.

The intense, insane, highly formalized theatricality of Fritsch's work makes it about as far from American realism as one can imagine--except that it plunders American comedy, from the Marx Brothers to Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton to Jerry Lewis, leavened with a pinch of Jacques Tati, Peter Sellers and Monty Python.

Designing his own sets and virtually eliminating furniture and props, Fritsch puts the spotlight on actors, all of whom seem to be working overtime at the Ministry of Silly Walks. He has been called a neo-Dadaist and he does not shy away from the aggression and cruelty that underlie so much classic comedy and avant-gardist performance alike. This unsettling subtext makes his work virtually a portable advertisement for the ridiculousness of the world. Thus, the structural similarity between Die (s)panische Fliege and Waiting for Godot is no accident. Just as Beckett turned to an old vaudevillian, Buster Keaton, to star in his one and only Film, so Fritsch revisits outmoded comic conventions to mine them for their disorienting absurdity.

Fritsch has directed a range of classic plays, from Moiiere to Durrenmatt, as well as opera and operetta, and maintains that the very category of music-theatre is a redundancy. In his own productions, music is everywhere. Most require a pit band or onstage musicians, a flawlessly choreographed ensemble, and musical set pieces, as well as virtuosic comic routines that are really arias and duets of wild gesticulation.

And although he dismisses the efficacy of self-proclaimed political theatre in Germany in 2014, his productions dramatize the exuberant de-repression of everything that bourgeois society has stifled. This emancipatory joy is nowhere more visible than in his elaborately staged curtain calls that are sometimes even more bizarre than the productions they follow, and that seem to announce the contemporaneity, urgency and indispensability of theatre in a world that has declared it irrelevant.

I spoke with Herbert Fritsch in his Berlin apartment on July 31, 2014.

DAVID SAVRAN: How did you get your start in theatre? …

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