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Culture

How much creative liberty can a theater director take?

German theater director Frank Castorf is known for scandalous productions. Now he's being sued by Bertolt Brecht's heirs for not sticking to the original script. Is theater about trying new things or staying authentic?

Bertolt Brecht caused a scandal in 1923 with his play about the reckless, drunken and promiscuous poet Baal. The Berlin premiere was tumultuous.

The contemporary enfant terrible of German theater, Frank Castorf, was hoping to cause a similar stir with his current production of Brecht's famous work at the Residenztheater in Munich. And he did.

It wasn't the audience, however, that was enraged over the four-hour play about bad boy Baal, who participated in various Middle Eastern wars. Instead, it was Brecht's heirs whose feathers were ruffled over the changes Castorf made to the script - so much so, in fact, that they want the production to be banned.

Frank Castorf, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Tobias Hase

Castorf doesn't see any reason why the show shouldn't go on

Barbara Brecht-Schall, 84, maintains the rights on her father's works until 70 years after his death - that is, 2026. In her name, the plays' publisher, Suhrkamp, has requested a preliminary injunction against the theater with the state court in Munich.

Conflicting statements

It appears that this legal conflict could drag on for quite some time. Residenztheater spokesman Ingo Sawilla told DW that the theater has no intention of stopping the show.

"We stand completely behind Frank Castorf's production and it would be a catastrophe for us if we were no longer allowed to perform the piece," he said. The Residenztheater is expecting the next performances to go on as planned.

Castorf has called the Suhrkamp lawsuit "passé and absurd." The theater's director general, Martin Kusej, emphasized in a statement that Suhrkamp had made a conscious decision to grant performance rights for "Baal" and that the Residenztheater had informed the publisher about the nature of the production before rehearsals began.

Suhrkamp, however, disputed this claim, saying it had made multiple requests but had not yet received a final version of the script.

Both sides are unwilling to comment on the ongoing lawsuit.

German law favors authors

The Berliner Theatertreffen, an annual theater festival in the German capital, has called Castorf's disputed work one of the "10 most noteworthy productions" and expressed plans to show it during its two-and-a-half-week event in May.

Rolf Christoph Hemke, Copyright: private

Rolf Christoph Hemke specializes in theater law

The Deutscher Bühnenverein, a German association for theaters and orchestras, has also expressed its support. It should have been clear to both the publishing house and Brecht's heirs that a director like Frank Castorf would reinterpret the piece, association head Rolf Bolwin told the press.

"The strict view that a play shouldn't be altered is not anchored in copyright law," he commented. According to the contemporary German approach to theater, known as Regietheater, the director has the freedom of creative interpretation.

While Bolwin speaks out in favor of theater, German copyright law tends to side with authors, theater attorney and dramatic advisor Rolf Christoph Hemke told DW. According to law, the copyright holder has the right to forbid the misrepresentation of his or her work.

However, Hemke added that alterations to a work were allowed if the copyright holder was not able to object to them in good faith.

"This leeway is rather narrow, but according to legal precedence in the past few decades it has been stretched in favor of theater directors," said Hemke. Often, he added, publishers simply quietly accept the freedom taken by directors - with prominent exceptions: "It is well known that the heirs of Bertolt Brecht, Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett are disputatious."

Most disputes easily resolved

Castorf came into conflict with the Williams heirs 14 years ago when they sued him for his production of "A Streetcar Named Desire." As is his custom, the director used the original work as a pool of quotes from which he more or less reassembled his own play. In the end, it was decided in court that Castorf could perform the work if he changed the title: "Endstation Amerika" instead of the commonly used German title, "Endstation Sehnsucht" (Final stop: desire).

2000 production of A Streetcar Named Desire by Frank Castorf at the Salzburger Festspiele, Copyright: AP Photo/Rudi Blaha

Castorf already went through a legal battle with a Tennessee Williams play

Hemke said copyright disputes have only very rarely led to an absolute performance ban in Germany. Usually the authors or their heirs and the theaters or directors agree that certain passages or the title of the work must be changed - or that a counter statement from the author is to be read prior to the performance.

Only one case has been taken all the way to Germany's top federal court, the Bundesgerichtshof. In 1967, director Alfred Kirchner produced the operetta "Mask in Blue" at the Bremer Theater, but using the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss and the jingle from the television series "Stahlnetz." It resulted in a three-year legal battle with the Berlin theater publisher Felix Bloch Erben. The court finally decided in favor of the publisher and prohibited the performance.

Drama behind the stage

Compared to other countries, copyright rows on German stages are all part of the show, explained Hemke. In Anglo-Saxon countries, he said, directors tend to stay true to the script in order to avoid a court case, but also to sell tickets. With fewer cultural subsidies, the financial pressure is higher than in Germany, where state funding is common for small cultural institutions.

Hemke preferred not to speculate on how the curtain would close on the dispute between Frank Castorf and the Suhrkamp publishing house. "Both the Brecht heirs and Frank Castorf are capable of a fight," he said. "It could go on for a while."

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