A man stands alone on the stage of a theater. The stage is empty. In the background, on the high brick wall, above a fireproof metal door, a sign shines: EMERGENCY EXIT. But the door is closed. Well closed. There are still decorations leaning behind the wall, on the left, it may still have been represented here yesterday Romeo and Juliet. OR Life is a Dream or any other play, maybe even one of mine, because until recently I made a living like this: with the premieres of my plays.
Over the sides, from right to left, above the stage hang countless amounts of spotlights. Numbered ropes run from right and left to the roof of the theater at the so-called loom, from which large curtains can descend: here on this stage until recently it was all possible, this space could be transformed into a wonderful heath field in Scotland for Macbeth or in Fausto’s study room or in an abstract white cube as a symbol of the world. On the stage of this theater, everything was possible, everything, everything, because the whole world is a stage – as Shakespeare said -, but now the only light that is still on is only white spotlights, the so-called working light. And in silver the dim lighting of EMERGENCY!
The man who stands alone on stage is in his 50s. He sweats slightly and trembles at the same time, his gestures are agitated, nervous, he cannot rest, he walks from one side to the other and continues to run his hands through his sweaty hair. He coughs lightly, tries to hold back the cough, but can’t stop the urge to cough, the lonely man on stage wants a drink of water, approaches the edge of the stage and turns to the auditorium, “does anyone have …? “, the man wants to say,” maybe someone has a drink of water for me? “; but then another coughing attack hits him, he tries until the last moment to put his hand in front of his mouth, but the coughing attack is too strong, the cough almost tears him, and on top of that he has to sneeze at the same time.
Coughs and sneezes alternate now, the man on stage is out of control. This could become a large comic number. Viewers in the room suppose it is a macabre and completely exaggerated game. A horror show about infection by drops, as in the famous Teatro del Gran Guignol. Isolated laughter. Loud isolated laughter from the audience. Every time the man wants to say something, he has to sneeze or cough, and now the audience laughs more and more. “What a disgusting taste, out there people die, out there people risk their lives to save ours!” Shouts a spectator from the seventh row, gets up and leaves the room slamming the door. But the rest of the audience in the theater, with the audience filled to the last seat, laughs more and more, laughs liberated, almost hysterical, some people even cry with laughter.
At least that’s how it could be. But it is not so, because there is no public there. The auditorium is deserted. Theaters are closed, in Germany and worldwide. Pandemic. But if there were or could be spectators sitting in the audience, the man in his 50s on stage would finally say: “I am afraid. I am in free fall. And I’m afraid of the impact. I am so scared that I can hardly express it in words “, and with these words in the packed theater there would be silence, in the theater where there is not really a soul. No one else laughs.” I am in free fall “, says the man who is now suddenly standing as in a stand-up comedy under the light of a single focus. We are all in free fall. “
At this point in the text, the man extends his arms as if he were falling from the sky – or perhaps the man would if this work could be released, but that is no longer possible. “Nobody knows what is coming,” says the man in the center of the stage, lit by the zeniths. “I have no income. Everything collapses. Without help, I endure this situation for more or less 90 days. And what comes next? What What will become of us? And what are we supposed to live on? “
The number of covid-19 patients and people under observation continues to grow exponentially, suggesting that theaters in Germany and worldwide will remain closed for a long time. All current functions are canceled. The curtain —or the “rag”, as we internally call the magic fabric that separates the reality of the auditorium from the magic of the stage— remains lowered. However, both for theater and circus people and for all artists in the world There is only one rule: the “rag” has to go up, “the show most go on”, even if we have fallen off the rope or have a cold. We live from acting, and none of us can afford a pause. independent theater we are not people with savings, since the income is not enough.
“The show most go onThis rule is now overridden. ALL STOPPED. NO SHOW ANYMORE. The nightmare of any theatrical creator has come true. All those independent artists, all the people who have worked independently in the world of acting, music and dance, or in the circus or vaudeville or wherever they have been, behind or on stage, without permanent employment , who lived on temporary contracts, guest artists or nightly rates, have lost their livelihood overnight and will depend very, very, very quickly, within a few weeks, on state aid. Rent, health insurance, and phone must continue to be paid, not to mention shopping for the family.
Unlike cinema or prose, there is little room in the theater for dystopias. Pandemics rarely flare up in plays, something completely different from what happens in the cinema. The cinema has always been full of idiotic zombies and global virus outbreaks. Why has this genre not reached the theater? Because the theater is not about the living dead, but the living, about us, with all our fears, hopes and longings. The theater is a place of freedom, of dialogue, of gathering. The theater, no matter where, whether in Berlin or Havana or Mexico or Tokyo or Paris or Madrid, is a place where life itself is celebrated, where people get together because other people perform for them there , because through the stage and the text society enters into a dialogue with itself, shares something, and that is, to put it briefly in one word, simply GREAT.
Theater — be it the official or the independent scene — is the opposite of isolation. This place, this ancient institution, which is a determining part of our cultural identity, we have lost for the moment and until further notice. The theater seemed almost indestructible, it needs practically nothing, it doesn’t need a roof or electricity. Unlike radio, television, film and the Internet, theater is something like an analog dinosaur and a bird of paradise at the same time, charming, abrupt, rude, vain, sometimes presumptuous and empty, sometimes also frighteningly sincere and honest and necessary, in its very basic design old school, but also decisive in the permanent reinvention of modernity.
Theater quickly loses its popularity, especially in dictatorships, because stories are told in the theater — and the stories are about change. Theater is important. It is difficult to turn a theater into a rational and lucrative business. Theater can produce money, but as a mirror of society it has to allow itself to take risks, otherwise it will break down. Theater needs protection, and theater people need protection, otherwise society will end up in the desert of entertainment, and it is exactly to that desert that the covid-19 sends us. The virus takes over the government, and the rules of that government signify the end of life that we know of in the world. The virus is sending us home. To loneliness. To quarantine. From now on it is forbidden to meet with anyone.
However, people naturally continue to search for the community, and in the process stumble onto the Internet: we follow the news every twenty minutes. We share emotional or funny or outrageous moments on Instagram and Facebook: Masks and disinfectants are stolen in hospitals, including in a childhood cancer ward. Someone wants to buy tons of toilet paper, but the cashier refuses. Someone uses the funny word “fool”, who uses that expression? Someone tried to buy 50 kilos of flour. Did he also think about yeast? From the balconies of his houses in Italy, the neighbors play music together. All of Madrid applauds the medical staff out of town simultaneously. Lots of people cry. Donald Trump wants to lure the US to a potential German vaccine maker with a lot of money. And what else? Stock market crash, the Stock Market closes. Flying foxes could have broadcast the viruses to humans or bats what are flying foxes?
Bram Stoker and H. P. Lovecraft appear to have joined forces in the afterlife. Everyone rubs their phones like crazy and everyone waits for the first signs: sore throat and fever. No more soccer. Bars and clubs closed. The curve of the infected goes up. The global virus crisis displaces all other problems. A moment ago we were talking about the climate catastrophe and the worldwide rise of the extreme right. Everyone is afraid, some more, others less, some act above the situation, superior, or ironic about the moment, while for others it is nothing less than life and death. And suddenly everyone is faced with the most intimate: What happens ifiii …? What if there is nothing left in the supermarkets, no, no, no need to worry, the supply situation is not in danger, the supply of basic foods is 100% covered, pork and potatoes are always and always They will be, if it can be, yes, but: just now the supermarket shelves were pretty empty. The only product that nobody wants to have, even in the virus crisis, is a certain type of egg noodle for soup. Interesting phenomenon in Berlin, north of Prenzlauer Berg: the more expensive supermarkets are, the empty the shelves are. Rewe: oversold. Lidl still has it all.
The fear of impoverishment is something completely normal among the creators of independent theater. Everyone makes contingency plans for when the reserves are no longer sufficient. Self-employed workers do not receive unemployment benefits. Everyone wonders: what happens when the bank account is empty?
THEATERS ARE CLOSED. Those who can, should stay home. “Closed”. It is written on the door of the cinema on the corner. The world becomes an archipelago of solitude. The virus sends us all into the wilderness of streaming provider entertainment. Everywhere men with weapons. Ben Affleck and Mark Wahlberg and Javier Bardem shoot or save the world at the same time, only Jean-Luc Picard is even kinder than he already was, a “troglodyte” breaks open Kurt Russell’s stomach with an ax made of bone and He sticks a red hot flask directly into his liver. We have to take care of ourselves, a lot.
Total silence in the auditorium. Only sometimes someone coughs in a repressed way. “Thank you,” says the man to the audience under the light of the only spotlight, “thanks for everything. It was an honor to be with you … with you. I hope we all see each other again very soon. Take good care of yourselves.” And then there is a great applause, furious, challenging, encouraging, that celebrates life, in solidarity, a great applause, but it is not intended for the man on stage, but for the theater and its audience as such. Then perhaps an angry and defiant applause would arise celebrating life, but the theater, which is truly deserted, remains silent. And it will remain silent for a long time. The desperate man is in a ghost theater. There is nobody there. Not even himself.
Translation by Adriana Jacome.
Roland Schimmelpfennig He is a German playwright, author of A clear and icy morning in January at the beginning of the 21st century (Peripheral). This article was originally published in the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Since then, several theaters in different countries have recorded it on video to broadcast it on their networks.