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Posts from the ‘Sebald & Theater’ Category

The Deconstructive Theatre Project’s “Searching for Sebald”

Searching for Sebald play

Based in Brooklyn, The Deconstructive Theatre Project has announced that its upcoming project is Searching for Sebald. Here’s the description of the project from their website:

Suggested by the life and writings of “memory’s Einstein” W.G. “Max” Sebald, The Deconstructive Theatre Project’s newest hybrid media experience, Searching for Sebald, is a fractured ghost story that excavates the hidden spaces lurking between geography and time, the imagined and the real, and the language in a book and the cinema in your mind. An innovative and striking collision of live movie making, analogue film reels, live Foley soundscapes, and animation, Searching for Sebald is the second in the company’s series of projects exploring the neuroscience of creativity through the construction of vivid and emotional theatrical events.

The group describes itself as an “ensemble creative laboratory that exists to devise and premiere new multidisciplinary work… at the intersection of live performance, neuroscience, and interactive technology.” Two preview performances showing Searching for Sebald as a work in progress are scheduled for October 21 & 22, 2015, with the world premiere scheduled for the spring of 2016. The previews will be held at The Green Building 452 Union St Brooklyn, NY, 11231. More details here. They have posted a very brief trailer on Vimeo.

Sebald’s Screenplay on Kant Heads to Radio

Kant Stamp

In her book Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald, Philippa Comber wrote intriguingly of a screenplay that Sebald had written on Immanuel Kant, but which was never produced. Now, as a result of the efforts of Uwe Schütte, the script will be produced for radio by the German station WDR3 for airing on July 11. Jetzund kömpt die Nacht herbey: Ansichten aus dem Leben und Sterben des Immanuel Kant is the only extensive screenplay Sebald ever wrote and drafts of it remain in his archive in Marbach. The title of the screenplay, by the way, comes from the first line of a poem by Martin Opitz (1597-1639), which was set to music as a lovely song by Johann Nauwach around the same time.

Here’s the text of the press release from WDR3: Read more

Listen to “Sebald’s Apocalyptic Vision”

As I recently wrote, on June 8 BBC broadcast a short program on Katie Mitchell’s theater production of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn called “Sebald’s Apocalyptic Vision.”  Until June 15 (9:32 to be precise), you can listen to the program in the BBC iPlayer.  The segment available on iPlayer is 46 minutes long, but the Sebald portion ends about 31 minutes into the recording.  Here is a excerpt from the program information:

Last year, the acclaimed theatre director Katie Mitchell put The Rings of Saturn or Die Ringe des Saturn on stage – not in England but in Cologne, Germany.This programme follows her as she takes her German actors to East Anglia to experience at first-hand the landscape in which Sebald was writing and walking. They explore a coastline, which – as Sebald was acutely aware – looks out towards Germany, across what used to be known until the late 19th century as “the German Ocean”.

The trip along the coast precipitates the actors’ personal reflections and memories of their grandparents’ generation during the Second World War and the way the history of that time has been handed down to them.

The programme introduces The Rings of Saturn through beautiful readings by the actor Stephen Dillane, interspersed with music by composer Paul Clark, and sounds recorded on the Suffolk coastline; but it also shows Sebald’s contemporary importance in a world in which the significance of history, time and place can so easily be dismissed.

The program is well-done.  Sebald devotees won’t learn much, but there are a few points of interest.  Stephen Dillane (from Game of Thrones) turns out to be a very nice reader of Sebald’s prose.  The radio piece also includes the unannounced appearance of Sebald’s friend Rüdiger Gorner, editor of The Anatomist of Melancholy: Essays in Memory of W.G. Sebald (which I wrote about previously).

Sebald’s Apocalyptic Vision

Katie Mitchell

Two years ago I wrote about British theater director Katie Mitchell’s plans to stage Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn in Cologne’s Schauspiel Haus in 2012.  I never gave that production a second thought until this week when several readers alerted me to an upcoming radio broadcast on BBC 3 called “Sebald’s Apocalyptic Vision,” Saturday June 8 from 9.00-9.30 PM (21:00).  Here’s the basic information from the BBC website:

Between The Ears offers an insight into one of the strangest and most original writers of the 20th Century: WG Sebald. Polymathic and profound, the intricacies of Sebald’s writing cannot be summarised or explained; but this programme explores a few of the themes that most preoccupied Sebald in his life and writing – in particular, exile and the memory of war. A voluntary emigrant from Germany to England, Sebald settled in East Anglia in 1970. The Rings Of Saturn, a book first published in German in 1995, recounts a long walk down the coast, from Somerleyton to Orford. This programme introduces The Rings Of Saturn through readings, interspersed with music and sound, archive and interviews; but it also shows Sebald’s contemporary importance in a world in which the significance of history, time and place can so easily be pushed aside and replaced by a virtual sense of time and space on screen.

Directed by Katie Mitchell.
Producer/ Isabel Sutton for the BBC Read more

Vertiginous Links for the New Year

Five Dials #26 is focused on German writing, with a number of new short stories by young German writers, plus three essays on W.G. Sebald: Uwe Schutte’s “Teaching by Example,” Amanda Hopkinson’s “A History of Memory or a Memory of History?,” and Anthea Bell’s “A Translator’s View.”  These essays are three of the five originally commissioned and aired by BBC radio one year ago.  (The two essays not reprinted here are those of Christopher Bigsby and Georges Szirtes.)

Helen Finch has added her thoughts to the discussion about the recent BBC radio dramatization of Austerlitz in a blog post wonderfully called “Sebald was more interesting than the husband: Austerlitz and l’effet du réel.”   Finch makes the case that we should be judging the radio drama on whether or not it contains “the emotional truth” of the original book.

If Michael Butt tried to present the emotional truth of Austerlitz, as he felt it, in his radio drama, who is to say that his classic BBC drama version, complete with slamming doors and tearjerking music, does not represent that important affective aspect of Sebald’s work which might otherwise be lost behind his complex irony and academic erudition? Or is it the case that if we allow ourselves to be bewitched by Sebald’s artistry into thinking that his work is just a reproduction of the real, nothing more and nothing less, we have consigned ourselves to the realm of kitsch that is the death of art?

Over at The White Review is a nice piece by Will Stone called “Oradour-sur-Glane: Reflections on the Culture of Memorial in Europe” that speaks to some of Sebald’s preoccupations in Austerlitz with Holocaust sites, architecture, and memorials.

Entering Oradour and obeying bold signs to the memorial ruins, I was surprised to find myself in a vast car park, a limitless expanse of tarmac, more suited one would think to a sports complex or shopping mall. There on the sleek asphalt of the car park I observed luxury coaches with their tinted glass and climate controlled interiors spill their chattering cargoes, just as they will now in the newly constructed ‘reception area’ at Auschwitz I in Poland. Cars of suntanned visitors parked obediently between the freshly painted lines, disembarked and moved off all in the same direction, as if drawn by some unspecified magnetic source towards the giant modern bunker of a building that sat in a kind of man-made hollow. I realised as I followed them down the smart new concrete steps to the lower level that this was a relatively new visitors centre, inaugurated in 1999 by President Chirac, a largely superfluous building, the new scourge of every memorial site in Europe, whether merely ruins or formal cemetery. For today it is considered not quite enough to have solely the memorial itself before which to contemplate man’s destructive capability, the intricacies of murderous folly and the resulting nerve straining conclusion. Again and again some shadowy authority slips in between the individual and their private purpose and imposes an artificial construction in their path, which they have to wade through, straddle or circumnavigate before they can get back to the path they thought they were on.

Did Teju Cole deliberately write twelve essays in twenty twelve?  I wouldn’t put it past him.  Here are links to each and every one.

I’m sure of nothing, and writing essays is one of the ways I sort through my doubts.

Place in the Country

And finally, among the books we can look forward to in 2013 is Jo Catling’s translation of Sebald’s important book A Place in the Country (originally Logis in einem Landhaus, by WG Sebald.  According to The Guardian, the book is due to be released in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin May 2, but Amazon doesn’t have the US edition coming out from Random House until January 2014.  It looks as if Random House is going to use the same cover as the German edition, which is a beautiful watercolor by the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller, who is the subject of one of the biographic essays in this.  The only place I can currently find an image of a possible Hamish Hamilton cover is over at the New Books in German website, which shows something entirely different for the UK edition.

Happy 2013!

Dramatizing Austerlitz


When the BBC recently announced that it was going to air a radio “dramatisation” of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, I am afraid I shuddered.  Dramatizations (I’m stubbornly sticking with the American spelling) almost always go badly and if any author’s works seemed wrong for dramatization, those of Sebald seem seemed extremely wrong.  In his prose fictions, Sebald filtered everything and every person through the singular voice of his narrator.  Austerlitz, which actually has a plot of sorts and a handful of characters, is nevertheless told exclusively through one voice.

The BBC dramatization, which is credited to Michael Butt and was directed by John Taylor, has a cast of twelve that includes three different voices playing Austerlitz at different ages.  There is background music to set the mood and there are plenty of sound effects to underscore the text.  Sebald’s book has been taken apart, abbreviated,  and remolded into a 90-minute radio play that at times is indistinguishable from a soap opera.  The narrator is positioned as writer looking for a new project before his eyesight gives out and when he meets Austerlitz he realizes he’s found his ideal subject.  And Austerlitz…well, there’s the rub.  Much of the commentary that have been made by those that have listened to the play have focused on poor radio-Austerlitz who, I dare say, Sebald would not recognize.  Here, Austerlitz is played as an extremely tentative, over-anxious, insecure worrier.

I happen to be a big fan of well-narrated audio books.  Listening to a narrator who reads well and who does not try to act can often be just as good as reading the book silently to one’s self.  (John le Carré, for example, is one reader I enjoy.)  Sebald himself recorded the “Max Ferber” section of The Emigrants in a German-language audio CD in 2000, using a voice that scarcely moves beyond a clearly-enunciated monotone.  It’s almost hypnotic to listen to him.  Dramatizations, on the other had, almost always seem to be for lazy readers who need to hear cell doors slamming to know we’re now in a prison or who need to hear sobbing when someone dies.  I’m sure there are some who might make the argument that a dramatization is a way of making fiction more accessible and thus opening it up to new audiences.  Perhaps many people will have heard about Sebald and Austerlitz for the first time through this BBC radio broadcast.  My problem with the BBC dramatization of Austerlitz is that it could have been done in a way that remained true to the intent of Sebald’s complex exploration of memory and identity.  This is a dramatization that belies Sebald’s original from start to finish by drowning out the text in a miasma of ambiance, never permitting Sebald to try to win over readers on his own terms.  The radio play conceived by Butt and Taylor is mainstream, unimaginative theater that doesn’t attempt to capture Sebald’s idiosyncratic form of narrative.  They would have been much better off to let the narrator (well-played by Stephen Greif) to carry the entire production single-handedly.  Instead, Sebald’s text was sacrificed so that the BBC’s audience wouldn’t have to.

Follow this link for more information at the BBC website.

New Austerlitz Radio Dramatization

Fiction Factory Austerlitz

On Sunday December 16, 2012, BBC Radio 3 will broadcast a new radio dramatization (or dramatisation, for those in the UK) of W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz.  The 90-minute broadcast will begin at 20:30 GMT.  Here are the details, according to the BBC website:

Duration:1 hour, 30 minutes. First broadcast:Sunday 16 December 2012
W G Sebald’s masterpiece novel about remembering the Holocaust, in a new dramatisation for radio by Michael Butt. The narrator meets a quiet stranger in the Antwerp station cafe and he begins to confide an unsettling story of vanished identity – which travels through 1930s Czechosolovakia, the Kindertransport of Jewish children to Britain and adoption in Wales.

Sebald came to prominence in the 1990s as an acclaimed German writer, living in Britain, whose novels tackled many aspects of Germany’s confrontation with its traumatic wartime past. He died in 2001 at the height of his critical appreciation.

Austerlitz ….. James Fleet
Narrator ….. Stephen Greif
Elias ….. David Sibley
Margaret ….. Poppy Miller
Evan ….. Michael Elwyn
Agata ….. Morven Christie
Maximilian ….. Timothy Watson
Marie ….. Amanda Drew
Vera ….. Deborah Findlay
Young Vera ….. Emma Powell
Young Austerlitz ….. Dyfan Dwyvor
Child Austerlitz ….. Kalum Guest

Directed by John Taylor
A Fiction Factory Production.


“Beautifully organised displays of despair”: Cate Blanchett in the Botho Strauss play “Big and Small”

As luck would have it, I was in Paris last week for the European premiere of the Sydney Theatre Company’s new production of Big and Small by Botho Strauss, starring Cate Blanchett.  This version used a newly-commissioned English translation from by the British playwright Martin Crimp.  Big and Small (the allusion is first and foremost to Alice in Wonderland) is an episodic play of a dozen scenes in which we follow Lotte Kotte (Blanchett) on a road trip, struggling to make sense of her life after separating from her husband.

Gross und Klein (as it’s called in German) was first staged in 1978 and its themes are redolent of that era: alienation, the inability to communicate, and utter disdain for bourgeois life.  Scenes are full of conversations overheard and half-heard and communications devices – telephones, intercoms, and a tiny portable television set – which serve only to limit Lotte’s ability to communicate.  Lotte suffers from moments of inarticulation that Blanchett pulls off with stunning eloquence as she suddenly erupts into stammering, wordless speech or spasmodic, liberating dance steps.

Strauss was the subject of an essay in A Radical Stage: Theatre in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, edited by W.G. Sebald: “Myth and Mythology in the Drama of Botho Strauss” by Irmela Schneider.  Although she doesn’t discuss Gross und Klein, Schneider’s commentary on several other plays by Strauss contain references that seem equally applicable to this play, including Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas and the writing of Peter Handke, especially The Left-Handed Woman.  “What characterises” Strauss’ plays, she writes, is “the insistence that while the search may be something meaningful in itself, it can no longer produce any meaning.”

In his own Introductory Remarks to this volume, Sebald offered a fairly cool response to Strauss’ work:

Strauss may not have remained sufficiently resistant to the temptations of beautifully organised displays of despair, which can be as insincere as they are ostentatious.  On the other hand it is true to say that Strauss does attempt to reflect the process which gave rise to the discontinuity in his dramatic inventions.  His plays mark a phase of societal evolution where the dynamics of social intercourse have become almost entirely opaque and where conflict – the stuff of drama – can only be represented, figuratively, in terms of battles fought and lost many times before.

A play like Big and Small is a very gutsy undertaking for someone like Blanchett, but it’s clear why Lotte is so appealing as a character (Blanchett calls her “a female Candide”).  Lotte is on stage nearly every minute of the more than two hour-long play and her mercurial emotions provide an extraordinary canvas on which to work.  Lotte is a physically and emotionally demanding role as she teeters precariously between optimism and despair within the space of a single sentence.

Big and Small is in Paris until April 8, then moves to the Barbican in London from April 13-29, followed by stops in Austria and Germany.

Sebald Events November – December 2011

The long-awaited 240-page volume of W.G. Sebald’s collected poetry is going to hit stores in the UK soon.  Across the Land and the Water will apparently be available in the UK November 3.  But according to the Amazon US website, it will not be available in the US until April 3, 2012, when both hardback and Kindle versions are scheduled to be ready.  I confess that I am not an immediate fan of the cover design for the UK edition, which reeks of lost innocence and suggests nothing more strenuous than a slow row across a lake on a hazy, hot summer’s day.  Perhaps Random House will develop a new cover for the North American market.  Here’s the blurb from the Penguin/Hamish Hamilton website:

When W.G. Sebald died in 2001, he was internationally acknowledged as one of the most important German writers of our era. Now, thanks to Iain Galbraith’s vibrant translations, the full breadth of his poetry is available in English for the first time.

This volume brings together poems published during Sebald’s lifetime with an additional selection of those which were found in his literary archives in Marbach and never published while he was alive. Arranged chronologically, from work published during his student days in the 1960s to the longer narratives he produced during the 1980s, the poems touch on the themes which were closest to Sebald – nature and history; forgetting and remembering; borders, journeys and landscapes – and express in short, lyrical form the same distinctive insight and sensitivity that shaped his great works of prose fiction.

Back in February I wrote briefly about a new work of musical theater based upon W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.  The production of Austerlitz: Eine Kindheitsreise by Jérôme Combier and Pierre Nouvel is now moving on to Opera Lille for performances on November 18 and 19.  (Details here.)

Finally, there will be Max: A Celebration – Remembering W. G. Max Sebald: Readings, Music and Film, something of a mega-event that will be held at Wilton’s Music Hall in London (near Aldgate and Tower Hill) on December 14, 2011, the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death.  From the website:

In this unique event, many of Britain’s leading writers and artists celebrate Sebald’s life and writing in an evening of readings, music and film. Drawing from his remarkable oeuvre and their own reflections, on the 10th anniversary of his untimely death, they will honour a man whose profound and searching work has exerted an almost uncanny influence on our times. Writers taking part include the multi-award winning essayists, novelists and poets A.S. Byatt, Dan Gretton, Rachel Lichtenstein, Andrew Motion, Iain Sinclair, Marina Warner and Stephen Watts. One of the world’s greatest tenors, Ian Bostridge, will sing from Schubert’s iconic song cycle Winterreise. Award-winning filmmaker Grant Gee (Joy Division) will present an exclusive ‘landscape edit’ of his forthcoming feature essay film Patience (After Sebald), a multi-layered meditation on landscape, art, history, life and loss, and the first film internationally about Sebald. It is released in the UK in January 2012 by Soda Pictures with thanks to Artevents. Finally, it is a privilege to announce that Sebald’s UK publisher Christopher MacLehose and his editor Bill Swainson will attend and share their recollections.

British Director Katie Mitchell To Take on Sebald’s Rings of Saturn

Katie Mitchell. (Photo credit: Luciano Rossetti © Phocus Agency)

A good friend of Vertigo sent me links for a forthcoming theatrical work based upon W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.  Buried in the 2012 calendar of the Cologne Schauspiel is the announcement of a new work based upon W. G. Sebalds Die Ringe des Saturn, under the direction of Katie Mitchell.  The premiere performance will take place May 11, 2012 in Cologne’s Halle Kirk.  Here are the details as given on the 2011/12 season program from their website.


Auf der Suche nach der verlorenen Zeit, zu Fuß. Mehrere Tage wandert er von Ort zu Ort durch die Grafschaft Suffolk, eine spärlich besiedelte, menschenferne Gegend an der englischen Ostküste, die sich südlich der Stadt Norwich erstreckt. Auf seinem Weg, seiner Pilgerreise findet er, zwischen Heidelandschaften und abgelegenen Küstenorten, „am äußersten Rand der Erde“ die ganze Welt wieder. Mit einer unsichtbaren Wünschelrute geht er durch die leere Landschaft, wo sie ausschlägt, beginnt er zu graben. Er tut einen Fund, stellt seine Fragen. Überall stößt er auf die Spuren vergangener Herrlichkeit und vergessener Schande, kreuz und quer durch Jahrhunderte und Kontinente, durch Raum und Zeit. Fundstücke und vergessene Spuren erinnern an die Aufstände der Taiping im China des 19. Jahrhunderts, an die Sklavenwirtschaft im belgischen Kongo, an die Verheerungen des Ersten Weltkriegs und an die Bombengeschwader des Zweiten.

Der Erzähler wird zum Grenzgänger zwischen Gegenwart und Vergangenheit, Menschheits- und Naturgeschichte, Traum und Wirklichkeit. Eine Reflexion über die Vergeblichkeit, dem Schrecken des Menschseins zu entgehen. Er berichtet von Seeschlachten und Heringsschwärmen, von Magnaten und Geheimwaffen, von Aufstieg und Niedergang großer Reiche. Den geringfügigen Rest am Wegrand bringt er mit halluzinatorisch gesteigerter Wahrnehmungsfähigkeit zum Sprechen. Jeder Stein kündet von märchenhaften und unheimlichen Geschichten, un- und überwirklich zugleich.  Wo er gräbt, stößt er auf Gräber. Tod und Verfall entdeckt er, eine dem Verschwinden geweihte Welt. Andere, die vor ihm in dieser entlegenen Gegend gelebt haben, begleiten ihn wie eine Geisterschar: Thomas Browne, Chateaubriand, Swinburne und Joseph Conrad. Die englische Regisseurin Katie Mitchell, die zuletzt am Schauspiel Köln »Wunschkonzert« von Franz Xaver Kroetz und »Die Wellen« von Virginia Woolf inszeniert hat, entwickelt ihre Theatersprache in Auseinandersetzung mit Sebalds Wallfahrt weiter, diesem Buch ohne Vorbild, das zwischen Bericht und Fiktion, Autobiografie und Geschichtsschreibung eine neue, eigene Form sucht und findet.


Mitchell, whose opera and theater productions often seem to attract some controversy in Great Britain, has turned to literature before, including Chekhov, Ernst Toller, Virginia Woolf, and Dostoevsky.  Last month, she won the Europe Theater Prize.

Meanwhile, on the website of London-based composer and musician Simon Allen, is the statement that “Forthcoming is a return to Cologne Schauspiel in 2012 to develop a performance based on The Rings Of Saturn.”  Presumably, these two websites are referring to the same production, as Mitchell and Allen have worked before.  In 2009, Allen participated on prepared piano in the production of her play Pains of Youth, described here by The Guardian (where there is an excellent 5-minute video about the collaboration):

How do you make a play sound like 1920s Vienna? By taking some high-tech digital sound effects, combining them with chamber music and doing some extremely odd things to a grand piano. Composer Paul Clark, sound designer Gareth Fry and pianist Simon Allen take us deep into the soundworld of Katie Mitchell’s evocative new production at the National Theatre.

The manner in which Allen’s work is described on his website makes it clear why he might be a good match for Sebald’s book.

Together with composition for traditional instruments the core of his activity is a search for new acoustic sounds that overlap with the digital world. Using unconventional techniques and sonic resources, these materials are developed by way of both scientific approach and very informal experimentation.

This research combined with extensive work as a percussionist in new music and the experienced study of musical cultures around the world, results in the broadest sonic palette. As a desegregated approach to material, method and function, his work shares much with visual arts practices.

Recent projects have involved the modification of deconstructed pianos with found objects to create materials that deny any trace of traditional piano sound. These elements range from the purely musical to a kind of ‘noise’ aesthetic.

There are a number of short pieces by Allen available for listening over at Soundcloud.  Listen especially to the four works for theater, where bird calls and clock-like sounds become part of the instrumentation.