Of the German Shakespeare, his Mary Stuart, and more...
by Matthew Gurewitsch • May 15, 2009 at 3:20 am
Passing the Naumburg Bandshell on a run through Central Park not long ago, Phyllida Lloyd was struck by a bust of Friedrich Schiller, which seemed a fine omen. A global superstar since directing the stage and movie versions of "Mamma Mia!," the versatile Ms. Lloyd had returned to New York to recreate her London production of Schiller's crackling costume drama "Mary Stuart." An otherwise new American cast is headed by the original stars: Janet McTeer as the (Catholic) Mary Stuart, spinning plots from prison, and Harriet Walter as Mary's (Anglican) cousin Elizabeth I, agonizing on the throne over ways to neutralize her. The show opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on April 19, to ecstatic reviews.
"I've discovered that Schiller has had an extraordinary place in America that I was completely ignorant of," Ms. Lloyd said while still in rehearsal. "Here I thought we were pioneers. In the meantime, we've discovered that Schiller was performed in the United States as early as the 18th century. There are statues to him everywhere."
Reviewing the incendiary premiere of "The Robbers," one German critic hailed Schiller as "the German Shakespeare." Reading the play in England, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was thunderstruck. "Who is this Schiller?" he asked. "This convulser of the heart?"
There were other candidates for the title of the German Shakespeare, but with Schiller the label stuck, confirmed by mature masterpieces like "Don Carlos," the marathon "Wallenstein" trilogy, and "William Tell." But much as he learned and assimilated from Shakespeare, he was a very different animal, in a different jungle. Unlike Shakespeare, whose element is metaphor, Schiller's métier was philosophical debate. And while Shakespeare dramatized Tudor myth as it came down to him, Schiller—a professional historian in his own right—rewrote history knowingly to suit his dramatic or intellectual purposes.
"Mary Stuart," which culminates in a confrontation between two queens who never met in life, is emphatically a case in point. A bristling Elizabeth harps on Mary's scarlet history of sex and murder. Provoked beyond endurance, Mary drops her mask of humility and goes on the attack, leaving her mighty rival momentarily speechless. (She gets her revenge with a stroke of the pen: her signature on Mary's death warrant.)
Before rehearsal one morning, Ms. Walter remarked, "It's the most famous scene in the play, and it never happened." If Shakespeare had written such a scene, Ms McTeer noted, he would have given it to men. "There's no Lear for a girl," she said. "There's no Hamlet for a girl," adding that her favorite role in Shakespeare had been Petruchio in an all-female "Taming of the Shrew" directed by Ms. Lloyd.
As every German schoolchild used to know, Schiller was trained as a physician against his will and then conscripted into the army of Württemberg, his native principality. At 23, he went AWOL for the premiere of "The Robbers" and never looked back, producing important philosophical essays, historical studies consulted by scholars to this day, translations of Euripides, Shakespeare and Racine, and some of the most distinguished poems in the German language, among them the "Ode to Joy," set to music in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. (Tellingly, Beethoven, too, is memorialized by a bust facing the Naumburg Bandshell.)
Schiller died in 1805 at age 45, but remained a beacon to revolutionaries, libertarians, and idealistis everywhere. "During the Civil War," Ms. Lloyd said, "and this was complete news to me, a quarter of a million German-born soldiers were fighting for Lincoln. Many of them were carrying Schiller in their knapsacks."
Though never absent from German stages, Schiller has lately been enjoying a renaissance there. In 2007, the director Peter Stein teamed up with the Berliner Ensemble for a rare production of "Wallenstein," all ten hours of it, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer as the treacherous commander-in-chief of the Holy Roman Empire. Spare yet epic, Mr. Stein's staging caused a sensation. At the Salzburg Festival last summer, Nicolas Stemann's experimental multimedia adaptation of "The Robbers" proved a more controversial landmark.
English audiences today tend to think of Schiller principally the sources for operas by Donizetti, Rossini, Tchaikovsky and especially Verdi. But the tide may be turning. "Don Carlos," directed by Michael Grandage and starring Derek Jacobi as the icy Philip II of Spain, wowed London in 2005. The following year, Ms. Lloyd followed up with "Mary Stuart." And in December, Becca Wolff, an MFA candidate at the Yale School of Drama, assayed "The Robbers," casting her fellow student Erica Sullivan as the brothers Karl and Franz Moor, Schiller's answer to Shakespeare's Edgar and Edmund, in "King Lear."
"Schiller sees opposites within one being as the human condition," Ms. Wolff said recently from New Haven. "We're neither animal nor divine. Being human is to experience the pull between the poles of opposites. That's why I wanted to cast both brothers in one body." Ms. Sullivan rose to the challenge with huge panache.
In New York, Ms. Walter noted similar tensions in "Mary Stuart." "We're rivals," she said of Mary and Elizabeth, "but we're products of the same political forces. It's not that one character is good and one is bad. And in the end, the most powerful character has the least power."
Peter Oswald, the translator of Mr. Lloyd's production, agrees. "Everyone talks about the scene with the two queens," he said. "But I think my favorite moment is Elizabeth's soliloquy, after an attack on her life, when she's under pressure from her councilors to sign Mary's death warrant. She wrestles with the loneliness of her position. But is she really just trying to justify a vicious action? I love the ambiguities."