Letter to Schiller – 6 Jan 2014

Grüezi Mein Herr Schiller,

We haven’t spoken directly before, but I hope you’ll allow me to introduce myself, as we’ll be in dialogue for the next month or so – my name is John Heimbuch and I’m a theatre director from Minneapolis MN, which is naturally a place you’ve never been, although my state’s acquisition from France was, I believe, in your lifetime – so perhaps you had some cause to hear of it. It’s a place much populated by Northern European ideas and attitudes, and which on some level owes much of its intellectual legacy to the same factors that affected your life – Protestantism, literature, drama, education, and social class – and which your work so vociferously rebelled against.

I have recently undertaken the process of directing what many English-speakers consider your best-known work: Mary Stuart - in a relatively new translation by British playwright Peter Oswald.

The adaptation is good – although my German is admittedly rather shaky, so I’ll not get too far into that, save to say that it is an adaptation, with all the good and bad that adaptations entail. Mostly it means that I – the director – am dedicating much of my energy in attempting to decipher what you – the writer – were striving to accomplish, and how those issues might pertain to the performers, designers, and audiences on this cold day in January 2014.

Our first read was yesterday night, and I will confess to approaching these rehearsals with somewhat less rigor than I usually do (as a consequence of my being also in an ongoing dialogue with Monsieur Alexandre Dumas père regarding his popular novel Les Trois Mousquetaires). Therefore I entered the first rehearsal  armed with only my foreknowledge of the material, which, while sufficient to yesterday’s needs, will be woefully lacking over the next month. As always happens at the first rehearsal, many questions arose over the night, including some which you would have had no need to concern yourself with – such as the use of dialect and accent (Mary’s voice being a particular cause for speculation).

Naturally, a few questions about the history emerged. The more knowledgeable cast members answered these questions, which I was glad of, but I added that historical accuracy was not our concern. I didn’t want this to be museum drama, and believe that history can be something of a rabbit hole. Therefore, unless it exists in your text, it wouldn’t be pertinent to us. We now face a wealth of information at our fingertips, but this overabundance of historical fact, speculation, and conjecture matters little if it doesn’t directly speak to the play you wrote. So I decided the bulk of my effort will be to ascertain the spirit in which you wrote Maria Stuart, what information you possessed, and which liberties you chose to take – with the belief that your choices, omissions, and inclusions will provide a better guide to the text than the facts of history. Therefore, I was particularly delighted when I found your essay “On the Tragic Art” sitting on my shelf, and discovered this sentence:

“It is a right – nay, more, it is an obligation – for tragedy to subject historic truth to the laws of poetry, and to treat its matter in conformity with the requirements of this art.”

I couldn’t have said it better!

The challenge, then, is to determine which poetic laws you ascribe to. Conveniently, the blueprint of those laws is laid forth in that same essay, as clear and universal as the laws of Aristotle or Robert McKee (don’t ask!) – what is more difficult is to ferret out the UNSPOKEN assumptions you brought to your work, and to discern how best to interpret them within this contemporary English-language production.

And so, the reason for my writing to you…

Of course you are insensate to my questions, being both long dead and far away, but the act of asking is nevertheless useful to me. So I will ask, and ponder, and read. And you, in your silent long-dead German-speaking way, will answer through hints and clues, dreams and assumptions, or the form and phrase of your words. And together, together we’ll work this out. Agreed?

Sincerely — your admirer,

John Heimbuch
Minneapolis, MN USA
6 January 2014

PS. I’m enjoying your letters and essays; and I just discovered those adaptations you wrote. Any advice on where to start? Shakespeare, Corneille, Racine, Euripides? The list of authors alone is pretty telling, and it made me glad I spent some time with King John, Richard II, and King Lear before entering rehearsals. In any case, we’ll see what I have time for; M. Dumas continues to beckon…. He cannot be ignored!

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