The Silver Lake - A Director's Note

Tuesday 24 September 2019

ONE

For a good many years I have been fascinated by Der Silbersee, the
most fantastical of the collaborations between playwright Georg Kaiser and
composer Kurt Weill. Until I felt that there was a real chance of producing
this play-withsinging (‘singspiel’), I could not have accounted rationally for
the fascination, and I am not sure I can articulate it well now – but I will do
my best.

I feel that it is a beautiful and original work, of unsparing
intelligence, sincerity, and invention. Weill’s better known collaborations
with Brecht have immediate appeal, but to me they are less interesting
musically; there is much irony, and little flight. The surfaces are dazzling,
the censure thoroughgoing. What I sensed about Der Silbersee was that it is
poetic; the imagery is vivid and unexplained, the characterisation distilled
yet unforced, the narrative showing that writer and composer know the worst of
the world and of people, but that they dare to hope.

So there is something special about Weill and Kaiser working
together. Weill is now well known in the English speaking world, in a sort of
Weimar-cabaret meets Parisian-‘dancing’ meets Broadway-musical-with-a-sting
sort of way. Kaiser is hardly remembered at all, and if he is it is only
because his early play From Morning to Midnight had such an effect on the much
later experimental theatre movement in England.

TWO

Kaiser was the fifth of six sons born in 1878 to a middle class
Magdeburg shop owner with no pretensions to culture. The fact that his other
brothers profited from their solid education and career opportunities meant
that Kaiser had shelter with these brothers when he left the family home. From
an early age he suffered from an unspecified but acknowledged nervous disorder,
and he was disinclined to conformity. Though dedicated to letters, he disliked
his first job after leaving school, working in a bookshop – and he became a
shipping clerk.

At 20 he set out for South America, casually deciding to stop for
3 years in Buenos Aires. For reasons best known to himself he set off with an
Argentinian officer on a journey on horseback into the interior: the companion
died of malaria, and Kaiser contracted a serious case of it. He returned to
Germany a semi invalid, living with a brother and going in and out of care in a
sanatorium. All this time he wrote plays, and by 1905 he considered himself a
professional playwright – though it was another 6 years before a play (The
Jewish Wife – I will give the roles of his plays in English, for convenience)
was published. At the same
time he had admirers in literary and musical circles in Berlin, a wife with
some money, and ferocious energy.

Fame came with the first performance in 1917 of The Burghers of Calais, which he wrote in 1913.
Financial security did not come with it; by the end of the war Kaiser moved his
growing family to a rented, furnished house in Munich, and he started to pay
for food by pawning and then selling articles of furniture from the house. Though
there was little more than bread and water to feed the family, Kaiser somehow
raised money to contribute (significantly) to a memorial to a Socialist writer
who had been murdered in a Bavarian prison in 1919. Ultimately his landlord had
him arrested, and he spent several months in jail – where he wrote another
play.

Though Kaiser was very private, he revealed much of
himself at his trial. His work as an artist, he claimed, was so important that
merely practical considerations should be overlooked; he had no interest in
publicity, and rarely attended his own first nights, but he was obsessed by his
mission as a writer and would put up with any privation in order to keep working.
On release from prison he had a decade of intense activity, and his plays were (alongside
those of the more famous Gerhart Hauptmann) the most frequently performed in German
theatres. When he came to write Der Silbersee, he had at least 5 plays running in German theatres
at the same time.

Kaiser’s defence in court, and his most expressionist
plays, make clear his single minded interest in stripping away from events the
accidental, the expedient, the merely psychological, in order to arrive at some
bare idea, which for him had the status of objective truth. He must have been
as infuriating as fascinating!

THREE

How to crystallise the quality of Kaiser’s plays and
libretti? Well, there is the evident model of ‘stationsdrama’, what we would
call a passion play. Scene follows scene as if in a procession of different
wagons, and the sufferings of a principal character are refined through
interactions with others, and through rapid changes of fortune. There is little
or no explanation, a clerk stands for all clerks, and in the space between the
scenes the audience is invited to realise the significance of the sequence.
Characters express themselves by the decisions they make.

All of Kaiser’s protagonists seem to experience several
irritants – usually financial, sexual, or familial – in their path as members
of a community. They often brush up against the law, and often they are
wounded; almost always, they experience as false, inhibiting and limiting the
values imposed upon them by society. The ‘irritations’ arrive as suddenly as
another wagon in the play; when the implications of money are to be considered,
more often than not there is a sudden lottery win, as in ‘Der Silbersee’.

Set against this is the experience of awakening. In
Der Silbersee, Severin experiences privation, injustice, injury, and his nature
is corrupted so far that he can only imagine revenge. His alter ego, Olim,
having shot the thief Severin in the line of duty, recognises that more
important than that duty is his own obligation to help a man who only stole
from hunger. Both Severin and Olim are able to change, to be better than
circumstances might have suggested. Severin stops himself from taking the
revenge with which he has been obsessed, and Olim is steadfast in his
resolution to serve the man he wounded. Stripped of their wealth by
unscrupulous aristocrats (a caricature of the Nazi sympathising opportunists
not lost on Nazi censors), they are hopeless and wretched, and make their way
together to drown themselves. As it might in a fairy tale, spring turns to
winter in a moment, and the lake freezes. Since the silver lake will now
support them, rather than overwhelm them, they accept the responsibility of
living. The voice of the Poor Relation, Fennimore, reminds them that they must
go on, together, better.

FOUR

What draws me to Kaiser, to Weill, to this very
unusual collaboration? One day when I was preparing this production I was moved
to pull out my score and recording of King Priam, by Tippett, one of the works I
feel most privileged to have directed. The name was in my head, for some
reason. As I came to the final scenes I realised that apart from all the
majestic eloquence of the piece, I was thinking of it because Tippett believes
in the regeneration of men and women. Although Tippett created narratives of
psychological investigation that would have held no interest for Kaiser, what
they have in common is the belief that human regeneration is both possible and
necessary. Weill and Kaiser evidently shared this belief – and that is what
makes their collaboration so genuine and evocative. Ironically, what made it
unacceptable to the Nazi authorities is the stirring call to resist, to
protest, to reform, to believe that we can be better.

At other stages in preparing the production I re-read
German fairy tales, especially those of the brothers Grimm, and the stories of ETA
Hoffmann. Der Silbersee is called a ‘wintermarchen’, a story for winter – and
it is as much a fairy tale as it is a station drama. Heavy bonds of family and
relationship, sudden fortune and decline, sinister fantasy, the recurring
requirement of thoughtful choice, and the surprising consequences of those
choices – these are the features of all of Kaiser’s drama, and of German fairy
tales. “Once upon a time all the hungry people buried Hunger. But all the food
in the shops was destroyed, in order to keep the prices high – so people were
still hungry. A man broke into a shop, where shopgirls were dancing, but
instead of bread he took a pineapple, the most beautiful, scented, exotic thing
that could be imagined…”

The Winter of Der Silbersee is a season of hunger,
inequality, opportunism, and what at the moment is called ‘fake news’. Both
Weill and Kaiser knew that their work would make enemies, and that it might
incur persecution. Along with a whole generation of artists, Weill fled, first
to Paris and then to America; Kaiser went to Switzerland, bitterly resentful of
the state’s interference with his only way of making a living. Both crossed a
silver lake, in a way, and both found a way to go on working and bearing
witness to the dangers and opportunities of the societies they found. But there
is something particular about this moment in 1933 in Saxony and in Berlin when
Weill and Kaiser worked together, and theatres could present such work – about
the lust for a pineapple, and the love of people who have been set against each
other.

JAMES CONWAY
Director, The Silver Lake – A Winter’s Tale
(Der Silbersee, Ein Wintermärchen)

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Your Comments

  1. This is a really fascinating introduction, thank you, James. Very much looking forward to seeing this production soon!

    Jenny

    Said Jenny Helfrecht on at 23:50pm on 24th Sep 2019

  2. A very interesting and informative introduction to a real classic . I read it after seeing the show. Very unwise of me , but I must say that the show was a stunning interpretation with a brilliant mise en scène .

    Said Fabienne Pessayre on at 17:13pm on 8th Oct 2019

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