Face to face with John von Düffel: German theatre and adaptation of novels for the stage

John von Düffel is a successful novelist, dramaturg and Professor of dramatic writing.

Over the past two decades John von Düffel has offered a myriad of contributions to German theatre. He has contributed enormously to the development of the city’s theatrical scene, which boasts a seemingly limitless array of intriguing avant-garde productions. He is particularly interested in adapting novels for the stage; in the past von Düffel has tackled the challenging task of re-working the likes of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for the theatre. The following is an excerpt from a seminar with the playwright at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, where he currently works:

‘Texts are gorges or power plants and we have to see how the strength, power and energy present in these texts can come to life and explode on stage for us today. They store a kind of energy, which I don’t mean in terms of esoteric stuff, but as something very sensual and real when adapted to the stage. Adapting a novel for the stage is essentially trying to transmit some of the power and the energy of the novel into the different element of theatre.

In general, one needs to ask crucial questions prior to adapting novels for the stage. Firstly, what are the strongest points in the text? Which specific qualities make this text interesting for the stage? Finally, how may directors and actors mould these elements and qualities of the text to engage an audience?

There are countless ways of adapting novels for the stage. Conventionally we talk about ‘dramatizing’ a novel; primarily you locate the central plot before outlining the ways that characterization and specific events arise within. The accumulated experiences and situations, which occur as the plot develops, are crucial towards characterization. By illustrating the ways in which characters react, face and overcome conflicts in the plot, we can dramatize a novel and create ‘dialogue’ theatre. 

The way one deals with a novel is not prescribed, and there are no recipes, it’s more a question what the special interest is doing this specific novel on stage. In Germany, there are many different forms of dealing with a text on stage. If you have the feeling that the rhythm of a text is empowering then naturally its mutation into a theatrical event can simply rely on transmitting it through the voice of an actor. This obviously depends on the form of the novel itself. Adaptation has endless possibilities: you can mix forms; you can mix between conventional dramatic forms and performative forms. You can mix between discourse and scene. Of course, the novel may be used as pure material or a piece of art from which you observe and address its topics and central motives.

The most important question to ask is why you want to see a particular novel on the stage. A comprehension of why you want to do it informs you of how to approach the adaptation process. It is important to consider the relevance of adapting a novel to the stage at a particular time.

My 2005 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901) addressed the ethical implications of modern economic globalization. Buddenbrooks has been adapted onto the stage more than any other novel in German theatre. Mann’s novel tells the story of the economic decline of a wealthy German family in Lubeck, North Germany. We wanted to tell a story about a certain codex and ethics of economics that was wiped out by a new way of making money, and making very much money. Financial pressures gradually corrupt the family and their entire lives break down. We looked at this very renowned, famous and almost holy piece of art from a certain perspective, and it was very easy, to be honest, to make the right decisions for that interest we followed.

There is a huge spectrum of forms and many of them are being used in a creative way at the present. Recently there has been a great deal of great literature adapted onto the German stage. Karin Henkel has often turned Dostoyevsky to the stage- she is currently working on Crime and Punishment in Hamburg at the moment. Similarly, her adaptation of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman is in Theatertreffen, Berlin this year. We are encountering a period of strong directing in German theatre in which there are a great variety of directors experimenting with various forms. There are no feelings of creative restriction, nor a sense of collective submission to one style of directing and adapting’.

John von Düffel has eyes towards the future and the progression of German theatre. He exclaims,

‘There are many novels screaming out for attention, which would all prove enticing for theatre. Of course, there are very often copyright problems… Agents often try to protect the author which seems strange when you consider that polemically, the theatre gives a certain life to a text’.

One can’t help but side with von Düffel; it certainly seems a shame to inhibit future stage adaptations of novels. However, judging by the broad landscape of dynamic theatrical productions consistently popping up in Berlin and the country’s other cities, there is nothing much to worry about. Von Düffel and his contemporaries are providing Europe with progressive and thoughtful avant-garde theatre. They are powering through not only Berlin, but Germany as a whole – bearing a torch-light which the rest of Europe would do well to notice and follow.

John von Düffel (Biography)

Born 1966 in Göttingen, grew up in Londonderry, Irland, Vermillion South-Dakota (USA) and Oldenburg i. O/Germany. Studied Philosophy and Economics in Stirling/Scotland and Freiburg im Breisgau. PhD 1989. Since 1991 Dramaturg and Dramatist in Stendal, Oldenburg, Basel and Bonn. 2000 – 2009  Thalia Theater Hamburg. Since 2009 Dramaturg at Deutschen Theater Berlin and Professor for Dramatic Writing at the University of Arts Berlin.

Plays / Adaptions: u. a. ”Das schlechteste Theaterstück der Welt”, ”Rinderwahnsinn”, ”Die Unbekannte mit dem Fön”. „Elite I.1“, „Alle sechzehn Jahre im Sommer“. Translations: „Warhorse/Gefährten“, „One man two gouvernours“. Adaptions: „Buddenbrooks“ nach Thomas Mann, „Joseph und seine Brüder“, „Doktor Faustus“, „Der Turm“ nach Uwe Tellkamp, „Wolf unter Wölfen“ nach Hans Fallada. Antiken-Bearbeitungen: „Ödipus-City“ am Deutschen Theater Berlin, „Orest“ am Residenztheater Mündchen.