Obituary for René Pollesch: “We Don’t Produce Thoughtfulness.”

René Pollesch by Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
René Pollesch by Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Reading, writing, thinking together – these cultural techniques were as fundamental to the theater director René Pollesch as they were creatively transformed again and again through his practice. Theater maker and BG author Alexander Karschnia tries to capture the ephemeral nature of an artistic singularity. An obituary.


On the morning of the first day after the news of René Pollesch’s death, Walter Benjamin’s image of “secret heliotropism” came to mind: Somewhere a sun rises and all the plants align themselves with it. This “sun” is the idea of happiness, the “public happiness” that Hannah Arendt speaks of in connection with the American Revolution. It seemed to me that the diffuse feeling of happiness shared by the people in the auditorium after a Pollesch premiere came damn close to this idea of “public happiness,” which otherwise remained so alien to the old European tradition. And that’s what hurts the most, the realization that this theater will never exist again, the happiness of hearing these Pollesch sentences, this sound, this beat – what was that?

What made Pollesch’s theater such a happy experience was the fact that in his plays people actually thought together on stage. As a director, Pollesch was above all a very good listener: a kind of “equal attention” – sometimes he seemed almost asleep, but as soon as a wrong note crept in, he would start up: “You didn’t think that!”

A certain way of speaking

In fact, anyone could become a Pollesch actor. You just had to hit the right note. I was able to experience this myself in 2002, when he staged the scenic project “Stadt als Beute 2” (“City as Booty 2”) with students of theater, film, and media studies at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. Shortly before, he had become the director of the Prater in Berlin, where he had created “Stadt als Beute”. He had borrowed the title from the urban sociologists Klaus Ronneberger, Walther Jahn, and Stephan Lanz, whose book many of us had read. It was about the privatization of public space and so-called inner-city actions, a form of activism that had gained importance in the 1990s.

Pollesch had us write our own texts, which, surprisingly, suddenly sounded like Pollesch texts. However, not because he taught us a certain way of writing, but because he practiced with us a certain way of speaking, which he called “thinking.” Specifically, this meant that we had to be willing to constantly rediscover the links between sentences. The trick was to make quick connections, to cut out the pauses: “We don’t produce thoughtfulness” was the constant refrain.

And yet that sounds far too authoritarian. René was the opposite of an authoritarian director: he never shouted suggestions or objections from a distance, but always went to the front of the stage and spoke to the players in a calm, almost gentle tone. This is how I later experienced him in the rehearsals with his team (Wuttke, Peschel, Beil), when he rehearsed “Und jetzt?” (“And now?”) on the basis of the material for Gerhard Winterlich’s “Horizonte,” which was given to him by my group andcompany&Co. We had told him that Benno Besson had been so enthusiastic about the play about cybernetics and the computerization of industry that Winterlich had developed with the Arbeitertheater Schwedt that he had commissioned Heiner Müller to write a new version of the text for his ensemble.

In 1969, Besson opened his first season at the Volksbühne with this play. At that time, Heiner Müller took part in the development of a play – as he had previously done with BK Tragelehn in “Die Umsiedlerin” – so that rehearsals and writing went hand in hand. For Müller it was a sporting challenge, for Pollesch it was 40 years of work. It went so far that he could only write when he knew for whom. In Pollesch’s “discourse theater” the dialog does not take place on stage, but in the rehearsal between author and actors. The result is a “polylogue,” a word he will have heard in Giessen in the seminars of Andrzej Wirth and Hans-Thies Lehmann. Julia Kristeva used it to describe the “revolution of poetic language” in which “text” becomes “practice.”

The de-literarization of writing

Part of this “practice” (one of his favorite words) was that new texts were constantly being produced. If something wasn’t right, he took it upon himself to rewrite the text. When Fabian Hinrichs says in “Kill Your Darlings!” that the best scenes were never shown to the audience because they were far too ingenious, this was not only Pollesch’s way of interpreting Bertolt Brecht’s learning play, but it actually corresponded to reality: many grandiose texts were never heard by an audience. Pollesch’s production principle was the “darling massacre.” Texts that seemed brilliant when read at the table were mercilessly sacrificed if they didn’t work on stage. Pollesch will probably go down in the history of theater as the author whose writing has most consistently deliterarized itself.

And that makes it so damn difficult to write an obituary for him – “as if life itself had died,” as Elfriede Jelinek said after the death of Christoph Schlingensief. I couldn’t get that out of my head in the first few days. Jacques Derrida wrote this enigmatic sentence: “Representation is death.” As if René had written against death in all his plays. As if he had always tried to banish death from the stage. As if it were nothing else: to stop death through texts that refuse to become “literature.”

And now?

Now we have to think for ourselves again. And when we hear the words we are thinking coming out of the mouth of the person across from us, we will briefly remember how lucky we were to have seen people on a stage who really seemed to have mastered this: this thinking together. This practice. And how happy that made us. What was that?

Before I get sentimental, let us note that there was always a lot of laughter in the rehearsals. I’ll never forget the rehearsal when Pollesch laughed so much that we had to send him to the doctor: he actually had a laughing fit! He left the rehearsal still laughing and called out to us: “Don’t worry, guys!” That’s the image I want to keep of him. That’s how I’m going to imagine Brecht’s god of happiness in the future, this god of liberated productivity. Are you feeling well? (No answer, laughs…)

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