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German 'Sprechtheater' and the Transformation of Theatrical Public Spheres

— Matthias Warstat, Friederike Oberkrome, Hans Roth

The lecture will start from reflections on the somewhat strange, no longer quite common German concept of ‘Sprechtheater’ (speech theatre, spoken theatre), which cannot be easily translated into English. Regulary, it serves as a kind of umbrella term for different types of dramatic theatre, as they are distinguishable from opera, musical, and dance. Historically, though, the concept is closely connected to the development of a ‘national theatre’ in Germany.

In the first part of the talk, we will examine how the affectively highly charged constructions (or fictions) linked to the idea of a ‘national theatre’ were related to language and speech. This special relationship was first challenged no sooner than in the second half of the 19th century with Richard Wagner’s also highly nationalistic vision of a theatrical ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’. Although from then on many projects of the historical avant-garde have constantly attacked the idea of a ‘Sprechtheater’, the concept has been preserved in Germany until far into the 20th century, particularly in rather bourgeois, identity-oriented theatre discourses.

In the second part, we will discuss which conflicts, but also new spaces of experience the traditional relationship of theatre and language can create nowadays in the context of theatre and migration. So this part will focus on recent changes and diversifications of the theatrical public sphere. On the one hand, the importance of language for the theatre is still frequently used to legitimize the rejection of applicants with other first languages from the German acting schools. On the other hand, new forms of theatre have emerged, in which the experience of multi-linguality takes centre stage and draws on the audience’s various relationships to the connection of language, identity, and memory.