Drama King

A Play on Words

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    A director at a modern theater in Berlin is raising questions about what makes a play with his post-dramatic theater.

  • Facts


    • Award-winning theater director Rene Pollesch is controversial because his plays are a mix of text fragments without regular characters or stories.
    • Mr. Pollesch’s work is shown at the Volksbühne, a theater in Berlin known for challenging viewers.
    • His work is influenced by French philosopher-sociologist Michel Foucault
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Director René Pollesch. Source: dpa
Director René Pollesch. Source: DPA


If you head out for a night at the theater in Berlin, you may come away with more than you bargained for. Or less, depending on how you see these things.

René Pollesch, a controversial director, is showing plays at the Volksbühne, a theater renowned for being provocative and experimental. He might have won many prizes in Germany but if you like your theater traditional, his plays are not for you.

His more conservative detractors say that thanks to Mr. Pollesch, there is no more soul, beauty or depth in drama today; no characters and no real people with real feelings.

More leftist detractors complain Mr. Pollesch is not critical enough about society and that if political realities are not shown on stage, change is not possible.

He sees his role as a collector, taking text from anywhere for his scripts, throwing together snippets from ads, business jargon and politicians’ promises.

Mr. Pollesch’s pieces do certainly lack conventional characters or straightforward plotlines. They are more like a soap opera, but with video, fast edits and bleak humor.

He produces a seemingly endless flow of works – and words. The plays have titles such as “Je t’adorno,” “Kill your darlings,” or “Cavalcade, being a holy motor.” Mr. Pollesch describes his own works as “splatter boulevard” or “snuff comedy.”

In putting the plays together, he sees his role as a collector, taking text from anywhere for his scripts, throwing together snippets from ads, business jargon and politicians’ promises. Often he only finishes the plays during rehearsals; if he sees something interesting at the movies, Mr. Pollesch pulls that into the piece at the last minute.

Rather than the actors shaping the words in the performance, these texts almost ring out through the actors. It is a new kind of work for performers who have to learn huge chunks of complicated theory and masses of words.

House for sale - Volksbuehne Berlin
A scene from House for Sale, a Pollesch play at the Volksbühne Berlin. Source: DPA

Mr. Pollesch didn’t invent this approach but he takes it to extremes. Whatever his detractors say, his work is less about the destruction of characters and more about the power of language.

Mr. Pollesch’s work is heavily influenced by French philosopher-sociologist Michel Foucault and his writing.

Mr. Foucault said that since the beginning of the modern age, words have been disconnected from divine truth and have been circulating in the emptiness ever since. He argues that we are shaped by words, born into discourse which socializes us, permeates us and shapes our wishes and desires.

As one of Mr. Pollesch’s characters says, “Someone is living my life, but it isn’t me.”

Although Mr. Pollesch plays with the relationship between language and bodies, for him, real people, not just discourse, matter too. Despite being covered in lots of text, Mr. Pollesch’s characters are humans who feel desire, struggle in today’s world with the forces of capitalism and try to articulate their own desires. They are not just the product of discourse but are people trying to figure out what life is about.


This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: thomas.assheuer@zeit.de

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