Marta Górnicka in conversation with Katrin Breschke
Marta Górnicka in conversation with Katrin Breschke about the chorus theatre and the performance of M(OTHER) COURAGE. (the text is part of catalogue of the performance)
Your work with choruses is very powerful. What interests you about working with choruses? Is it something about power, expressivity and aggressiveness that you find in the work with choruses?
To me, the CHORUS is a social body and, at the same time, a tool that allows you to talk about the most pressing contemporary problems. It is a particularly strong tool as, regardless of the subject, the very form of the CHORUS opens essential contemporary issues, connected with the human collective, community, the common voice and the conditions on which it can come into existence. The CHORUS’s strength is always associated with the words it utters and the discourses it activates, while revealing their ideological framework. It is always a direct reaction to a specific socio-political reality. The idea is to ask the most difficult questions. This time they concern the understandable anxiety and irrational fear, the Strangers, refugees in Germany and in Europe. A reality full of violence and absurdity. A violent clash of human attitudes throughout Europe. And the CHORUS must respond to this brute force with equal strength.
In MOTHER COURAGE, we establish an obscene public CHORUS. It is obscene as it provides voice to those who should be mute: mothers, immigrants and children. And it is going to be the voice of the generation of conflict in GERMANY and EUROPE. A EUROPE of the madness of neo-nationalist language, conflict, prejudice, fear and violence.
I believe that a certain kind of tragedy, which can no longer be found in contemporary theatre, may be born when the CHORUS is on stage. That, through its radical political nature and strength, the CHORUS has both the political and the cathartic power. And I believe voice has revolutionary power.
When and why did you start to work with choruses?
I started to work at the beginning of 2010 in the Theatre Institute in Warsaw, in an experimental mode. I wanted to create a radically contemporary form of CHORAL theatre. To refresh this old theatre idea and find a new shape for it. To find for the CHORUS a new stage language, a new actor, a new kind of theatrical text, as well as a new type of training – working with the body and voice. I got a possibility to work and search for the alphabet for the CHORUS in very favourable conditions. We announced a public casting, I chose a group of 30 women of different age and we put our best foot forward. After 6 months, the first public presentation became a première. In the following years, we intensively toured the production around the world. My goal was to regain the CHORUS for theatre and to regain women for the CHORUS, and this work was successful.
You have said in another interview that you like to treat words like music. Is this a quality and potential of a chorus? What is the relationship between music and language in your work?
The CHORUS does not take language literally, but rather plays with it with the help of music. Neither is it about illustrating the words with music, but about playing them.
Language is always an instrument of a certain ideology, which defines the conditions of each statement: who may be the subject and what their position is, on what conditions they can be heard, which words they can use to speak. The idea is to expose the ideological framework. And to do it in a contrarious way, according to the rules of a game, even if it is deadly serious. The CHORUS always pokes out its tongue at language. It tries to disarm it and exceed it at the same time. And sometimes, when necessary, it tortures language, until the latter finally tells the truth. It squeaks, creaks, wheezes, sometimes it becomes too weak to speak and just breathes instead. It utters sentences like a computer, in a fast, portato manner, as if playing them from a tape. It emits sounds like a punk music record, like a computer war game or a porn film. It transforms, exposes, mocks and neutralises language. It compiles films and quotations, piles them up and brings them to absurdity. The very moment of utterance is important as far as it demonstrates language in action – in its madness and lies, in its weakness and strength.
During rehearsals you often look for contrasts, opposites or exaggerations. Sometimes the sound of a sentence is completely different to the version I would expect by silent reading for myself. Is this a special chance of working with choruses – looking for or provoke contrasts and exaggerations? Simply because it is not a silent reading or a monologue it is a chorus speaking!
This is precisely what I was talking about. To me, the CHORUS is a critical tool; therefore it never treats language as a transparent medium. A very important dimension of my work on the language of the CHORUS is the montage work. What is important is the proximity of sentences or scenes rather than the words themselves. What happens in between. Between the text of an advertisement from Die Zeit and a quote from neo-nationalist hate speech, between the words of a song by Schubert and the sound uttered by the CHORUS in a computer-like way or like a text from a medicine leaflet. It is precisely between the words that I search for a new language.
The CHORUS also works on myths. It dams them up and brings them to a theatrical explosion. The romantic myth of the war is still alive! It goes on and on, without restraint. We show that in one scene of the production – THE CHORUS OF JIHAD GIRLS – in relation to ISIS and their “warriors”. In Germany and France, many teenagers join the ISIS “warriors” and leave their families. This happens precisely because this myth is ever rife in mass culture. The myth-making power of the warrior and the war is constantly maintained!
Young girls send out into the world photos of weapons and flags, with hearts and smiles next to them… To them, warriors are like pop heroes, rappers – Deso Dog or singers. In front of their computers, in their childlike rooms, they hang the black jihad flag. Death becomes unreal, it turns into an adventure. Phantasm ousts reality. But it is also used in defence against it… What is imagined ousts what is real.
Wars have taught us nothing… Historical knowledge serves for nothing here.
The CHORUS tries to exaggerate, puff out and blow up these heroic and – in other scenes – nationalist clichés. A headline in one of the German newspapers read: “And they take milk bottles for the road.” Young women will are going to give birth to more warriors…
The CHORUS shows reality in a distorting mirror. It is ironic. And this is what I would call the CHORUS’s tragic irony. It means we show the divergence, discrepancy between intentions or ideas and what is actually born out of them, their fulfilment. What can love for the Mother-homeland be? Where can it lead to? LOVE is the motto behind it all…
In ancient theatre, the chorus represents the voice of the people, the nation, like an institution to express a political or social comment. Do you treat the chorus in the same way? Is your chorus representing one voice of a nation, or maybe a few?
The CHORUS has always had a social dimension. Today, just like before, it can carry pressing, socially important issues onto the stage. In this sense, today, the CHORUS is for me the most important and perhaps the only tool in theatre which may still have such strength. The CHORUS speaks with multiple voices, in many languages and discourses; it uses the language of the street and texts from the field of high culture, a hoarse heavy metal voice and the voice of the most beautiful Schubert’s songs, but also one common human voice from the stage. It is a human orchestra of throats and bodies.
In this dimension, the CHORUS is paradoxical. It is established to indicate the threat of adoration of a community which can no longer see anything beyond itself and, at the same time, the need of the community in a crowd of individuals who can no longer see anything beyond themselves.
In ancient theatre the chorus was mostly in dialogue with a single person, the chorus had an opposite. You only work with the group, but there are solos even there. You do not treat them like a mass, more like individuals in a group. What is the relation between an individual and group in your work?
I have always seen the CHORUS as a gathering of individuals. And I created it in a critical discussion with contemporary theatre which perceives the CHORUS as mass. It is a group of personalities on stage. On stage in Mother Courage, there are girls – Julia, Brigitte, Sandra, 20 years old, acting school graduates and Ingeborg Wender, who is nearly 80, remembers bombs falling during the war in Germany and is very involved in this project in socio-political terms. The CHORUS we have managed to create in Brunswick is a unique group. Its members are women who live and work here: Undine, Ulla, Jutta, Waltraut, Magdalena, and Ingeborge, who introduce with their presence an additional, unique dimension. They all work tirelessly, like professional actresses, and treat this project also as a political project into which they put their own emotions, personality and commitment. They bring press clippings, caricatures and critical texts to the rehearsals; we speak for a common cause. It is very important.
In your work a literally text often marks the beginning and is used as a starting point or a foundation to your work. Why did you choose “Mother Courage” by Brecht? What interests you about the text, the figure and the author?
Yes, a historical text for theatre is always very important for me and it becomes a reference point in the sea of other texts. Until now, it was most frequently an ancient text, in the case of the first projects – Sophocles’ Antigone or Euripides’ The Bacchae. Now, it is Mother Courage.
Brecht wrote his “Mother” being already an exile, a Stranger, and it is significant for this text. The figure of Mother is ambivalent, ambiguous and extremely modern in it. She is a Mother who often wonders what attitude she should take towards the war, one who bends under its weight, while fanning its flame at the same time, who makes her living from it, makes money on it. As studies show, when conflicts grow, precisely the mothers are those who take over the reins.
The Brechtian character of Mutter is my vehicle and I ask her my own questions. Who is MOTHER COURAGE today? A myth? A dramatic performative figure? Who is in her cart? The STRANGERS? The excluded? Or perhaps her children are Strangers?
To me, MOTHER is the whole constellation of different options which I activate on stage: a woman, a man, a voice from the computer, Germany, Europe, Merkel. And finally the Mother or M (other).
Today, her children are dogs, Jews, Arabs, immigrants, homosexuals, mute Catherines. All those who are excluded. All those who are trying to be Courage. And those who no longer have the strength to bear reality. Those who do not pay off. For no one. But who cry MOTHER! But these are also “wicked” children, nationalists, violent hooligans. Is it possible to find room in Mother’s cart (planfwagen) for these millions of children today?
“MOTHER COURAGE” is a monument of European civilisation, but also a nurse, a sponsor, a businesswoman, a soldier and a politician. A MOTHER – weeping over her child – the nation – who is making mistakes again, it is never perfect. But, again, she gives birth to another son, another daughter, whom she sends to the war…
For me, MUTTER is a vehicle through which I try to talk about the brutality of today’s world, about how inhuman a human can be, how history comes full circle.
And finally… GERMANY as a mother. A NATION in the middle of EUROPE. A big body lying in the middle of Europe. A replicating body – a NATION. A mother who declares: I am ready to accept everyone, but to spit them out as well.
What does your work on the libretto look like? How do you collect the material and write?
I collect a lot of material. I pour language all over myself. I particularly like quotations from pop culture, from the newspapers, but I always use the language of cultural anthropology and sociology as well. I quote my favourite thinkers. I compare philosophical texts with advertising ones. I am led by the topic, around which I create a trash mixture. Sometimes I use scraps of language, pieces of mythological texts, which work under the skin.
In Israel and here in Germany, I was struck by children’s counting-out rhymes, there is a whole layer of history, trauma, affects hidden behind the language. The language is apparently neutral.
The Brechtian „Mother Courage” is a wartime story. Are you also telling something about war time? Which themes did you collect, use or assimilate in your libretto?
There is no history beyond war – said Brecht. Wars are indistinguishable. We live in a time of great tension. Contemporary EUROPE and Germany (the fat mother) are coming back very strongly to nationalist sentiments and hatred aimed at everything which is foreign; attitudes are becoming polarised. The fear of the “incompleteness of collective being” evokes the monster of purification and strengthening – as Heinz Bude and Jurgen Habermas write. Is it fear of an imagined or a real thing? And where is the TRUTH!? The political reality of today’s Europe is becoming increasingly phantasmatic, Matrix-like. What is real, and what is imagined in it? If we have not identified the real problems, we cannot solve them either. Is the Nation in the middle of Europe still afraid to confront with its traumas, afraid to live in REALITY?
We are eating one another, building walls for ourselves, wage wars against one another.
Here, in Germany, the CHORUS is established in order to point out the ambivalence of adoration for the community which can no longer see anything beyond itself, and the need of community in a crowd of individuals who can no longer see anything beyond themselves.
Yet, I would say that we live in a time of FEAR, not war. This fear is constantly fuelled. Pegida makes the discourse more radical, referring to the language of war, saying: “There is a war of cultures, and we are stuck in the very middle of it”. We are “fighting” in “defence” of the country. These messages antagonise people. Divisions emerge in language: you are an “enemy”, and you are a “friend.” The CHORUS is intended to point out this danger hidden in language! This is a task for it. A lot of work.
Although Brecht’s Mother Courage would have an ironic response to it. To paraphrase, she would say: Whoever wins, baby, the winner is always: THE WAR! ☺
When we started to talk about the project, the newspapers – not only in Germany – where full of reports concerning the NSU process, after that the Pegida demonstration in Dresden and other cities started. Are you as a Polish director looking from outside to German phenomena and happenings or do you see European phenomena, which you also know or find in Poland?
Yes. A few weeks after I began to plan the work on the libretto, PEGIDA demonstrations broke out in Dresden. There were also Je suis Charlie demonstrations in Paris, in which Merkel, Tusk and Netanyahu took part. All the politicians lined up in a common photo which Žižek described later in his essay. The picture was cooked up; the politicians did not participate in the huge manifestation along with thousands of protesters. They took one another’s hands and posed for a photo in one of the side streets.
Fear of strangers or hatred of strangers is eating up the whole Europe, germinating in the stomachs.
“You’re a guest in this country, so you have to adapt”, “It’s not about gassing them. Our goal is to deport all of them out of Germany”. That filthy language is spreading all over Europe, not just in Germany. It is also present in Poland, in Hungary and in other countries. And “I call us people”, a member of Pegida says. In this way, a language of confrontation, division into people and non-people (and so forth) is created. While “they” only “love this country”…
The sentence: “We are the Nation” has crime encoded within, even if it is only a potential one for the time being. The name Patriotic EUROPEANS (Pegida) bears a tragic irony. A divergence between intentions and their fulfilment. Language is being taken over. It is no longer known who is who. Who is a patriot? Germany, Europe begin to live in the Matrix. Germany, the nation, wants TRUTH. It has not liked it for many years. And now it does not have it… Social life is turning into a big show!
The son of a German mother wants to eliminate someone again? The German mother knows a lot about that… The fact that the CHORUS is being created in GERMANY is very important.
What is your vision for Europe?
(Mother Europe stands speechless. She does not know what to say…)
Can you hear it? The walls of Pergamum are collapsing with rumble – says the CHORUS in The Trojan Women.
Despite its ideals, EUROPE is today terribly afraid of otherness. It is paralysed with fear. In the play, Mother Courage says: there is a place for everyone in my stall. But, at the same time, she cries that she has to maintain millions of children… And she runs her enterprise according to all the rules of gaining the customer, she calculates like a businesswoman.
People come to Europe, to that great myth, in the truth of which Europe itself does not seem to believe any longer. It is a construct in which TRUTH, GOOD AND BEAUTY are mere slogans.
EUROPE is just another great myth. EUROPE! – You do not EXIIIIIIIST! >>> And I say this with horror!
I mentioned the headlines which accompany the start of our work. During summer, when the rehearsals paused, there were new headlines about more and more refugees and less answers of European politicians how to deal with it. And again there were aggressive attacks to refugee camps. Did this influence your work or change your point of view concerning your work?
Yes, what is happening around us today, affects us personally and artistically. The last scene of the play, the one about the pictures circulating in Europe, was written in March, long before the holidays. Today, it has become terribly contemporary. Photos of stranded children of immigrants have flooded the Internet. It is horrifying how quickly borders ceased to exist for images, for what is being published, replicated, shown. EUROPE, the fat mother surrounded with water, one who does not want to accept their children, spits them ashore. We talked about it with the actors, they were shocked.
Millions of people want to make their way to MOTHER EUROPE. To this great Myth. They are all very COURAGE, because regardless of the risk and knowledge about what might happen, they get on the boats… Europe will send a few boats to meet them, build some houses for asylum seekers.
In response to the events of the last days I hear how the CHORUS is losing its voice, becoming a CHORUS of mute Catherines. Yes, the CHORUS stands speechless in the face of what is happening.
I think the audience is not so much used to watching a performance with a chorus outside of opera performances. What would you like to tell the audience as to how to look or how to behave? What would your ideal spectator be like?
The CHORUS always stands opposite another CHORUS: the audience. The CHORUS can act very physically, sensually. It can act cathartically. You cannot get prepared for this. Such experience is always something new for the audience, whether in Brunswick, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kiev, Paris or Tokyo.
You work with a mixed chorus of professionals, non-professionals and students. Why did you choose your chorus the way you did? Is it important or a condition of your work to mix people with different backgrounds?
I have an excellent team of 6 theatre actors! They are true individualities. Each of them is unique. Yet, despite that, the community’s voice is created with the participation of the social voice. One of the so-called ordinary people. The idea is to give voice to those who are silent, to non-actors, to people who pass by the theatre down the street. Of course it is sometimes backbreaking and difficult artistically. But it is always worth taking the effort.
What are you doing next? What projects are awaiting you? Are you going to continue to work with choruses?
Mother Courage and Her Dogs is part of the global triptych I have been working on for quite a long time. The first production MOTHER COURAGE WON’T REMAIN SILENT. A CHORUS FOR WAR TIME was opened at the Museum of Modern Art in TEL AVIV in December 2014. It was a giant undertaking, a CHORUS of fifty Arab and Jewish women, Arab children and Israeli dancers – soldiers. In Israel, my work with the CHORUS entered into another dimension. The idea was to make conflicted nations speak with one voice. The CHORUS which came into existence in the course of this work made it possible for people divided by irreducible differences in their everyday life, for people defined by politics as “enemies” to stand next to each other. The second show is being produced right now here in Germany, at the Staatstheater in Brunswick. And the whole huge project will be closed by the première of MOTHER in Paris. In Warsaw, I am awaited by my company with whom I would like to focus on research work.