The Prince Of Homburg / Pygmalion / Danton's Death
Various venues
July, 2010
We often have cause to remark upon differences between British theatre culture and others, usually continental European ones.  One regular topic is how far a staging interpretation can legitimately diverge from a text.  My predecessor on the Financial Times, Alastair Macaulay, regularly fulminated against “director’s theatre”, especially at this time of year (I am writing this column in Edinburgh, with the Fringe in full swing and the International Festival about to begin).  In contrast, Europeans may chuckle indulgently (and sometimes a little condescendingly) at what they see as a British prejudice in favour of stage naturalism and slavish adherence to texts.


There has been some comment along these lines in online discussions of Dennis Kelly’s version of Kleist’s The Prince Of Homburg, as staged at the Donmar Warehouse.  Several reviewers (myself included) strongly criticised Kelly for changing the ending of the play.  Some of the responses seemed to assume prejudice because we were English (I’m not), or because we were old (I hope I’m not) or, in some instances, simply because we were Michael Billington, who continues to be portrayed by many as the personification of all ancien régime critical stuffiness... all of these responses being made with a prejudice far greater than any which Michael himself might occasionally display.  It has to be said, too, that of the online comments I saw from people who had no problems with the changes, not one of them had seen the production nor even significantly engaged with the nature and extent of the changes at all; they all seemed simply to be pronouncing on principle.

And yes, in principle any act of translation is an act of interpretation; a translator will take decisions regarding emphasis of moods and themes, and regarding “playabaility” in the new language.  This is absolutely not such a case.  Kleist ends his play with the Prince being reprieved from a death sentence and rallying with the rest of the army behind his ruler, the Elector of Brandenburg; Kelly ends it with the execution being carried out and the Elector facing a mutiny from his entire officer corps.  This is not a matter of interpretation.  Black is not a version of white.


I can understand Kelly’s rationale.  He knew that the play was one of which Hitler was reportedly fond, for its argument about subordinating personal initiative, personal principles and even one’s life to state policy, and he wanted to follow this line of thinking to a conclusion.  However, the point of the play is that there is an argument; in Kelly’s version, the Elector must become ever more unbending, which is not the case in the original.  For Kleist was dramatising his own inner contradictions, between his keen sense of individual liberty (well, he was an early-19th-century German Romantic) and his sense of patriotism at what was a critical moment as Prussia was threatened by Napoleon’s expansionism.

Kleist found an ending which synthesized his conflicting impulses: one which acknowledged mercy and individual impulse, yet ultimately rowed in behind patriotic duty.  However, it is an ending with shadows of its own.  When the Prince asks whether his reprieve is a dream, the reply comes, “A dream. What else?”  Since the play begins with a dream, the possibility is that the ending is also unreal in this way, and that the Prince is after all executed.  But that is simply a possibility, no more.  To steamroller the delicate, thoughtful ambiguities of the play, and to pretend that it unequivocally says the precise opposite of what it in fact portrays (albeit rather less categorically), is to do a disservice to the play, to distort it beyond the point where I think it can reasonably be called a version of that play.  If Kelly wanted to consider the story in this light, he could easily have taken the situation and the characters and written versions of them of his own... as he did with The Gods Weep, seen not so long ago.


The argument has been made that, in translation as in staging, no permanent damage is done to the original play; it remains intact to be read/translated/staged more literally next time.  To me, that is like arguing that perjury does not damage the truth, which remains intact to be told properly next time.  Most people who are tried, are tried only once; most people who see a particular play (not just a particular production) see it only once.  The present account of it is the only one they will see and hear.  To claim that what is being presented here is the original work, or even a ”version” of it, is perjury, and is lying without any regard for the truth.

Contrast that case with Philip Prowse’s ending of Pygmalion in his Chichester production, also reviewed in this issue.  Prowse goes so far as to stage Eliza’s wedding to Freddy and to show Higgins seething as he witnesses it.  Prowse’s change, like Kelly’s, flattens ambiguities in the ending as it was originally written.  He, like Kelly, is taking account of subsequent reception of the play; yet, in my opinion at least, he is just as wrong-headed in his choice.  But this shift requires no textual changes in order to make its point; nothing is excised from the script, nothing added (with the exception of the single word “Freddy!”, growled by Higgins, which is hardly a major departure).  For me, that comes well within what we might call “European” limits of interpretative staging.  Interestingly, a number of reviewers of the Kleist also thought that Kelly took liberties with Kleist’s text by inserting the word “fatherland” repeatedly to emphasise the totalitarian atmosphere.  In fact, the German word Vaterland occurs several times in Kleist’s original.


If only we could travel in time, we could ask Kleist himself about this…  But wait!  We can!  The secret of time travel has been discovered, and its discovery is announced in this very issue!  When Tim Walker declares in his review of Danton’s Death that he will write the first review of Toby Stephens not to mention either of his parents, Tim can only mean that he intends to travel back several years in his Tardis in order to pre-empt the majority of reviews Stephens has received this century, which have been entirely lineage-free.  After all, the alternative would be that Tim is simply being ignorant and self-aggrandising, and that couldn’t possibly be the case, could it?

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2010

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage