On German stages there has recently been a surge of adaptions of novels which deal with resistance to some totalitarian society. Stage adaptions of Hans Fallada’s „Nightmare in Berlin“ („Jeder stirbt für sich allein“), Anna Seghers’ „The Seventh Cross“ , Christoph Hein’s „Trutz“, George Orwell’s „1984“ can bee seen in many theatres between Hamburg, Stuttgart and Vienna. In the centre, there is always a character who resists the society in which he lives, who holds on to his beliefs, his view of life, and his view of living together in a society, in adverse conditions, even under cruel torture.
It is not surprising that the bases of these productions always are novels. The form of the novel is well suited for the presentation of a central character, who changes under varying circumstances over a longer period of time or holds on to his fundamental convictions in spite of threatening social conditions. And the latter type of novel ist particularly well suited to be adapted for the stage. On stage, the conflict between a static character and changeable surroundings can be condensed more easily than the gradual unfolding of a character. These successfully adapted novels are no novels of development but novels of perseverance
Flexibility or stability?
This trend can be criticised as escapism, because all these plays are set in the past (except Orwell, whose novel is set in a future which now is past). It can be deplored as a relapse to narrative theatre which sedates a complacent audience with sentimental stories. But if the need of theatre-makers and audiences for stories like these is taken seriously, a different conclusion will be arrived at. Apart from the contemporary relevance of the political systems in which these novels are set (Nazism, Stalinism, surveillance state), another theme seems to be relevant: flexibility or stability of character, dissociation or constitution of self. This theme is what people think about because society forces it upon them.
Even if the belief that a human being remains the same person throughout his or her whole life is indispensable in everyday life and even though this concept of personal identity is of practical necessity, this idea has nevertheless always been questioned, even in law. Although the accountability of past actions to an identical agent is one of the basic premises of law, even there relaxations of this concept can be found with gradations of accountability and statutory limitation.
Doubts about personal identity
One of the oldest documents of doubts about personal identity comes from Epicharmos, a Sicilian writer of comedies in the 5th century b.C.:
„You and me, we are different pople yesterday and different today and will be different tomorrow, never being identical according to the same law.“
Two thousand years later, Montaigne takes up this skepticism. But Montaigne does not only state that we all consist of „motley rags“, but also acknowledges the task to construct some kind of personal identity.
„Someone who ist not able to direct his life as a whole to one definite aim is not able to act reasonably in his individual actions. (…) It should be considered a truly great achievement if someone always presents himself as one and the same.“
David Hume is considered to be the principal culprit for the destruction of the idea of personal identity. In his chapter „On personal identity“ in his „Treatise of human nature“ (1738), which he did not include into the later versions of his philosophy, he dissects this idea:
„[We are] are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement.“
Often it is neglected that this good-humoured bashing of self-identity is derived from Humes skeptical empiricist basic assumptions. Hume makes his statement – as did Kant in his answer to Hume, his transcendental deduction of the pure concepts of reason – in the context of theory of knowledge, not in that of psychology.
In theatre, this discussion can be traced to Henrik Ibsen. His Peer Gynt cannot discover any nucleus of his person, only peel after peel, layer on layer, as in an onion. At the end of his life he asks himself wherein his distinctive identity consists. He does not find any answer himself, only his beloved Solveig can comfort him: His uniqueness lies in her faithfulness, her hope, her love. There is no nucleus of personality, there is only – if we are lucky – the attribution of identity from others.
Accordingly, Julian Pörksen, dramaturg of Stefan Bachmann’s production of „Peer Gynt“ in Cologne in 2017, argues against the „essentialist model“ of personal identity in an essay in the programme of this production referring to recent philosophy of mind:
„A self, a soul does not exist.“
For Thomas Metzinger, a German philosopher, the „self-model“ is fiction. In his argument, Pörksen, however, mixes up the question of the existence of a soul with the question of how stable our image of ourselves can be. To refute Plato`s proof of the existence of the soul is an easy task after 2,500 years of philosophical history. To answer Peer’s question how he can find unity in his life after all these changeful actions, events and roles he has played is much more difficult. Thomas Metzinger in fact holds the homogeneity of consciousness to be an illusion, but he also acknowledges that the stability of our (illusionary) self-model is a precondition for self-consciousness.
Characters with a straightforward biography are rare on stage. Fractured characters are more interesting. One of the many followers of Peer Gynt on stage is e.g. Mary Page Marlowe, the protagonist of Tracy Letts’ play which beares her name and who the author has modeled according the example of his own mother. The story of her life is stirred up and narrated with wild jumps in chronology. She also comes to the conclusion that she is not herself, that she does not know wherein the nucleus of her personality consists.
„I am not the person I am.“
At the end of the play there is a symbol: no onion this time but a family quilt, a rag rug with embroidered images, complemented by every generation of the family. That is how this woman understands her life: “it’s pretty fragile“, (nearly) „disintegrating“, „threadbare“, has „different panels“ and „brown stains“, but still „intact“, „not falling apart“. It is a precarious unity.
The German band Tocotronic found an apt formula for this modern self-image:
„We are many /each of us – who says ‚me‘ hasn’t said anything … nothing but bla and proliferation / in us and around us / we are the world which comes into existence without understanding / the wind that constantly changes direction.“
Stability of self-model
The contrary side, the defenders of stability of self, have a much more difficult task, in philosophy as in the theatre. It was Ibsen again, who brought the drama of the dogmatist to the stage with his play „Brand“ written in 1865 even before „Peer Gynt“. This early Ibsen play is rarely performed. A life-story whose movement is a retreat into the dark cold of northern Norway is much less impressive on stage than Peer Gynt’s extensive tour which encompasses all the colourful tourist attractions of the world. Brand is a Norwegian pastor who leads an uncompromising fight against the tepidity and inconsequence of his christian community. Ibsen, in fact, shows him being saved in the end by God’s clemency. But the only German production in the last decades (Frank-Patrick Steckel in Bochum, 1993) sent the unteachable, pigheaded fellow to hell straightaway.
In ancient ethics of virtue, the ability to hold on to oneself, to keep up the unity of one’s self-image, plays only a minor role. The main aim of epicurean and stoic ethics is the ability to endure blows of fate (existential intractabilities), ataraxia, the state of inturbability. In the renaissance, this same ability is discussed under the Latin title of „constantia“. Stability against destructive uncontrollable intrusions into one’s life from outside is different from the ability to hold on to one’s convictions in spite of pressures or seductions to adapt. Only if the concept of an autonomous individual has become the social norm this problem arises. Only if aggressions from outside are minimised, only if lack of orientation and incentives to assimilate to others question one’s identity, faithfulness to oneself becomes the emphatically pronounced basis of existentialism: „an identification of being with itself.“
Recent attempts to reanimate the ethics of virtue, however, propagate the virtue of faithfulness to oneself only with restraint. It is always connected with a warning against unteachability, stubbornness and spiritual inertness. Flexibility, openness, mobility and creativity are the qualities which are demanded from modern self today, not constancy.
Against this background, the end of Anna Seghers’ novel „The seventh cross“ seems to be a relic from the time of existentialist emphasis on faithfulness to oneself:
„We all felt how deeply and horribly the powers from outside can intervene into men, deep into their very core, but we also felt that in the innermost there was something which was unassailable and invulnerable.“
Anna Seghers again and again has formulated this belief, even in one of her last novellas:
„In the interior of human beings there must be an indestructible core, sometimes hidden by dust, even by mud, but then gleaming in its original brightness. It must be there.“
Her life exemplifies this conviction and shows its dangers. Even when some of her closest friends (Walter Janka, Franz Dahlem) were convicted in the final period of Stalinism with absurd accusations, she did not relent from her solidarity with the communist party (resp. SED).
Christoph Hein, on the contrary, having experience in the opposition to the regime of the SED in the GDR, endows the hero of his novel „Trutz“ with an overdose of the ability which is decisive for a stable self-model: memory. Faithfulness to oneself presupposes ability to retrospection. Maykl Trutz, the artist of memory and archivist, remains an outsider in an oblivious society.
Stability, flexibility and narrativity
That such characters, who know exactly who they are and who cannot be dissuaded from their self-image, so often find their way onto stage these days probably is due to a subliminal need of audiences and theatre-makers for such stability of self-image, precisely because society demands flexibility.
Richard Sennet was one of the first who analysed this contradiction between the needs of people for stability and the demand of society for flexibility:
„Instability is meant to be normal.“
„How do we decide what is lasting value in ourselves in a society which is impatient, which focuses on the immediate moment?“
But Sennet also hints at how this contradiction can be solved for the individual:
„What is missing between the polar opposites of drifting experience and static assertion is a narrative which could organise his conduct.“
The ability to narrate oneself, to find or construct connections between the actions and phases in one’s life which have become disconnected, divers and arbitrary, is the prerequisite for the reconciliation of requirements of flexibility and needs of stability.
Matthew B. Crawford has shown that this ability of finding autobiographical connections depends on how far one is able to detract attention from influences of the surroundings . The commercial competition for the appropriation of our attention by media, adverting, channels of communication etc. endangers this ability.
The success of these novels of perseverance and resistance on German stages could be explained by this need: construction of a stable self-image in a flexible society with the help of narrativity. Or in Andreas Reckwitz’ terms: These heroes of resistance are authentic subjects, but not interested in „performative self-realization“ which is required for the new middle-class. They do not lead a „curated life“. They are no curated selves, they are narrative selves.
On stage, stories are told for us of how you can remain faithful to yourself. And that is possible only with stories, not with fragments, or only with fragments which can be assembled to stories. As our lives can.