Bring me the Heads of Jesus, Poseidon, Mohammed, and Buddha

Defending the German city of Bielefeld from charges of stuffiness, Max Goldt once remarked: "You can buy T-shirts there with the slogan gloriously disrespectful on them everywhere, and somewhere in the back there’s also an outrageous city theater, where masturbating and defecating actors throw warm intestines onto burning American flags; that’s what I call an exciting intellectual atmosphere!"

Lest anyone think this is merely a satirical aside, I give you this news story (G) from the FAZ (my translation):

The suspension of performances of the Mozart Opera "Idomeneo" in Berlin out of concern over possible Islamic protests is meeting with criticism, especially from [conservative] CDU politicians. Interior Minister [Wolfgang] Schäuble described this step as "ludicrous and inacceptable."

[Stage Director] Hans Neuenfels, who is known for his tendency to provocation, calls for King Idomeneo to present the hacked-off heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed to the audience. This scene also triggered strong protests from the audience during the the staging’s premiere in December 2003.

One Muslim leader in Germany praised the suspension of performances, but Kenan Kolat, Federal President of the Turkish Community of Germany, defended the performance: "Art must be free."

I confess I’ve never understood the German tendency to stuff perfectly ordinary Mozart operas full of hacked-off Mohammed heads, bodily fluids, or elderly female dwarves making the Hitler salute. It’s gone far beyond self-parody here — I doubt there is any variation on shit, sex, and swastikas that hasn’t yet been tried.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as open as anyone to innovative stagings and have no problem with nudity. But where does the specifically German obsession with bodily fluids on stage come from? If it’s necessary to shock the bourgeois audience, well, you can ruin their evening, but do you seriously think you’ll change their mind? Has a Siemens executive ever retired and joined Attac after seeing a Verdi staging in which a well-dressed German businessman urinates on naked, writhing slaves while negotiating a merger on an expensive cellphone?

Also, I’ve always wondered about the practical aspect. Do actors learn how to regulate their fluid intake before the play, in order to have enough urine to extinguish the burning American flag? Don’t the cleaning staff ever protest at having to mop up after the performances? When the directors instruct the actors on the sequence in which they’re supposed to masturbate or copulate, don’t the actors ever raise their hand and say, "Geez, I don’t mean to sound like a philistine here, but what does me screwing Ted in front of 2500 strangers have to do with the plot of Lohengrin?"

Any thoughts?

13 thoughts on “Bring me the Heads of Jesus, Poseidon, Mohammed, and Buddha

  1. Maybe we are obsessed with bodily fluids because our languge is as well. All the swearwords are very closely connected to any bathroom activities and their corresponding body parts. Or we need to act out after being so neat and clean and industrious. Thats just my little theory.

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  2. Wow. It seems that Neuenfels has stepped away from the routine (and banal) depictions of Bush having relations with diseased sheep (whilst wearing beswastika’ed cowboy boots and making the Hitler salute) and into the – suicidal?

    “T-shirts there with the slogan gloriously disrespectful on them everywhere, and somewhere in the back there’s also an outrageous city theater, where masturbating and defecating actors throw warm intestines onto burning American flags; that’s what I call an exciting intellectual atmosphere”

    Kali (from the “A Nation Run by Grown-Ups” thread): “I think the Germans are far more sophisticated and reasonable than we are.”

    I’m beginning to see what Kali means here. One can certainly view interesting behavior on the US stage (“The Vagina Monologues” come to mind). But that is rather restrained (the actress uses chocolate as a metaphor for excrement) and unusual. Only when one’s thespians use the real thing nightly and utilise their own fluids can true national ‘maturity’ be discerned. The maturity level of all other nations pales when compared with these transports of artistic triumph. Even the French cannot equal it!

    The fact that one can see similar (if less inventive) behavior at the monkey house at any zoo is completely irrelevant to this discussion, and I caution my fellow fasc – er Americans from making this point in any way!

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  3. “But where does the specifically German obsession with bodily fluids on stage come from?”

    There’s so much shit inside ourselves that we just need to get it out, no matter where. Our entire lives are practically one big sadistic-anal phase.

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  4. May I point out that if you are interested in seeing a perfectly conservative, traditional staging of an opera or play you will have no trouble finding one in any Germany city, either. Not all plays features body fluids. I certainly don’t like to see that kind of thing on stage, so I stay away. It doesn’t bother me that it exists, though. All this stuff has been around for almost a century now, and the Jacobean plays were also not known for their restraint. Maybe watching that stuff is cathartic for some, who knows. But really, who cares? No one’s getting hurt.

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  5. And look, it’s not all bad. Don is happy since he can point out that that kind of thing doesn’t happen on US stages which in turn means that the US is a more civilized place.

    One explanation for the more extreme theater that can be found in Germany is probably funding for the arts. Theaters are beginning to feel some economic pressure, but they are still operating under very different circumstances. They certainly don’t depend as much on audience numbers. On the other hand, there are some 80 opera houses with 52 week seasons in Germany (http://www.osborne-conant.org/operahouses.htm), so one way to get attention is to cause some type of scandal.

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  6. Sorry for monopolizing, but just one more thing: the number one movie in the US, which grossed 29 million dollars in one weekend, is Jackass 2. More body fluids in that one than on any German stage.

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  7. “And look, it’s not all bad. Don is happy since he can point out that that kind of thing doesn’t happen on US stages which in turn means that the US is a more civilized place.”

    Thank you for pointing out that I am enjoying myself. Quite true. But you got the reason I’m enjoying myself completely wrong I’m afraid. I made no claim that the US is a more civilised place than Germany. Quite the opposite in fact – waxed poetic about the benefits of German civilisation and noted that such benefits were not to be found even in France!

    Nor have I noted such a degree of civilisation in the UK. We do have political theatre, but it tends to be either very very worthy or bitingly satirical. There is a marked shortage of the true hallmarks of civiisation such as: “defecating actors throw warm intestines onto burning American flags; that’s what I call an exciting intellectual atmosphere”.

    Indeed. I agree. I celebrate the quintessant creativity of this form of human expression, as does And these hallmarks seem t0o be widely available in German cities
    – if Herr Golt is to be believed!

    Yes. Paris has Moliere and Offenbach, London has Shakespeare as well as superb stagings of plays from all over Europe and the US (suitably translated at need). Germany does not neglect the higher arts – as this piece clearly shows.

    I take pleasure in that knowledge.

    A few ironies abound here. After my little crack about ‘subsidised’ theatrical events I must disclose I attended a play tonight, ‘The Voysey Inheritance’, written by a Fabian socialist in 1904. And staged at the English National Theatre in Southwark. Which means it was (get this) publically funded. Superb – and I walked away with some insights into my own life. I’m very happy I went.

    The ironies are in the fire tonight, are they not? 😉

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  8. I might be a little dense, but I can’t figure out how Idomeneo, which is set at the time of the Trojan War (c. 1200 BC), has anything to do with Jesus (born c. 2 BC), Buddha (born c. 563 BC) or Muhummad (born c. 570 AD). Reading the synopsis, I can’t figure out where severed heads would fit into the plot either.

    James W. is correct when he points out that this staging probably has a lot to do with public funding of the arts. The more “out there” you are, the more likely you going to get your grant request approved. Typically, these are reviewed by panels of other artists. Logrolling (you approve my grant, I’ll approve yours) is not entirely unkown.

    This situation is not unique to Germany. A parallel (on many levels) was the Piss Christ controversy in the 1980’s. (See, there are also Americans who are obsessed with bodily fluids. So that proves that the US is on a cultural par with Germany). The difference was that nobody was worried about Catholics bombing museums or beheading Andres Serrano.

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  9. “This situation is not unique to Germany. A parallel (on many levels) was the Piss Christ controversy in the 1980’s. (See, there are also Americans who are obsessed with bodily fluids.”

    Andres Serrano was derivative. The original idea (as far as I can tell was “Merda d’Artista”. In 1961 the Italian artist Piero Manzoni canned 90 cans of his own shit – and sold them for the price of gold!

    Not only was this an exceedingly witty joke about the state of the art market – but the joke gets better with time! Fwer than half the cans still exist despite the considerable care devoted to their presentation. They er… explode. Presumably coating everything in the vicinity….
    —–
    PING:
    TITLE: Bashing on an Intendante
    URL: http://www.orkpiraten.de/blog/archives/207-Bashing-on-an-Intendante.html
    IP: 85.13.129.133
    BLOG NAME: Orkpiraten
    DATE: 09/27/2006 12:01:30 PM
    Over the last days, the public got wind of the fact that the opera Idomeneo got cancelled, because there was the fear that radical islamists might take offence and thus do something stupid, like, bombing the place.Disregarding the question if

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