Volksbühne Berlin am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz
Currently no performances. Coming back soon.

Die Kabale der Scheinheiligen. Das Leben des Herrn de Molière

adapted from Mikhail Bulgakov

When the way's been blown up...

Shortly after the artist Diego Velázquez has painted himself on to the canvas of the picture „Las Meninas“ in Madrid, the playwright Jean Baptiste de Molière appears on stage near Paris playing Molière who receives orders from King Louis XIV to write and rehearse a new play within no time to be performed in front of precisely this same king! The play is about playing, about the artist and his relation to the state. And it is none other than King Louis XIV himself who sits in the audience of this iterative performance of reality, this “improvisation in Versailles”, which takes place in 1663.

Some 300 years later the novelist and dramatist Mikhail Bulgakov tries his hand as an actor appearing in various Molière plays. His 1924 novel “White Guard” is about the revolution/counter revolution of 1918/19 in the Ukraine. And the worst thing that could happen actually happens: the “Red” Russian literary critique decides it is an apotheosis of the “Whites”. The author's life is in peril.

In order to create the “new human being” the old underdeveloped kind must be killed. The Soviet post-society – post-revolutionary, post-WWI, post-civil war – is at once a carnival and a death machine, particularly in the years following 1936. It's an unpredictable world in which everyone fights the class struggle within themselves and no one remains innocent. In this avant-gardist despotic realm artists and novelists are always at risk whether they refuse their consent or not. Not only do they face their career paths being sabotaged or falling into oblivion, they are sent to labour camps, tortured and killed by being shot in the head and buried in Siberian black soil as well.

Bulgakov is lucky. At first. Stalin seems to like him and considers the “White Guard” and its dramatized version “The Days of the Turbins” not as counter-revolutionary doings but rather as a song of praise on the invincible Bolsheviks. “The play does more good than harm.” Up is down, right is left. Ignoring – what else! - the theatre and literature critics, he insists that the production be performed at the famous Artists' Theatre in Moscow. Stalin, enthusiastic, watches the show 15 times.
Despite protection from the very top, Bulgakov remains vulnerable. In 1926 the secret service GPU searches his apartment and confiscates his diary which includes a number of doubtlessly ambiguous political remarks. Result: depression, paralysis, black hole. But then, by a recourse to history, the novelist attempts to parade the nightmare out of his head, to control the terror his own body is seized with whenever he plays out in his mind what people might – subjunctive! -  think of him and what his fate might be. He starts to rewrite Molière's Versailles “improvisation” adapted to Soviet conditions. Bulgakov arranges the set in such a way that the Moscow audience can  sit backstage watching the stage and the auditorium behind where the Versailles theatre audience is placed. On stage, sandwiched between two audiences, the artist Molière, the artist Bulgakov deliver their performance – subjected to and dependent on the venerated King/Stalin, whose state they are ready to serve – with a critical eye – and whose victims they may become from one day to the next should they no longer be sponsored and protected by Louis or Stalin.

Things get serious for Molière: the way has not ended if the destination has been blown up.・ And now the way is about to be blown up: the king has withdrawn his protecting hand. After the scandalous Tartuffe, the cabal of the Holy Writ・ imposes their point of view on the play at Louis' court. Molière is accused of blasphemy. The company of actors comes together for the last time at the theatre Palais Royale in Versailles to give a demonstration of that which they are pretty good at ・ acting and playing. Or perhaps they come together at the ball in Moscow in ・ time warp! ・ 1926 at the Spaso House, the American ambassador's residence in the USSR. It is a party Russian-style, as Bulgakov's spouse Jelena later recalls, depicted in an early version of the Master and Margarita・ as a ball arranged by the devil; a real carnival, according to Bakhtin, which also parades eccentrics and the marginalized: scoundrels, poisoners, hangdogs, bawds, murderers, hustlers, headsmen, stool pigeons, traitors, courtesans, lunatics, informers, sexual offenders and other rogues. And heads will roll...

As in the second part of Goethe's Faust, characters and time levels blend and interweave to form a discontinuous whole. Molière, who shares a few traits with Stalin, and King Louis, who might be the truest artist of them all, arrive for rehearsals on a Harley and in a Pontiac Grand Prix Coupé. At the borders of Bulgakov's native country a UAZ utility vehicle 3151 with a 16x11 set of tyres gets fuelled. Of course there are his lover Madame Béjart with her daughter Armande present. He abandons the mother for the daughter. And Armande marries her darling theatre director. In real life or in her imagination - in any case on stage. She's a great actor and a lousy spouse. There is a rumour weighing heavily: incest. Is the new hubby perhaps the father of the bride? Moyron, the stripling, alights from the harpsichord and shows his artistic prowess. He seduces Armande and she is not nearly averse to an amorous adventure – or rather, adultery to be precise. Ménage à trois. And in the middle of it all the ol' dangler jealousy grows rampant. It sticks to their heels like a shadow, its sting acts as an insidious poison. And the poison is effective in Molière and in the actors. They are incapable to write down another word or shoot a single metre on celluloid. And the theatre threatens to break apart. The crew, hanging out in the canteen, seems self-absorbed, preoccupied with themselves. Much personal ado and erotic goings-on offstage between the actors are the real drama. And the camera guy starts a love affair with the best boy as well! A strong authority is needed to take drastic measures and send a clear message ensuring that everyone remembers who's the boss. Which is why we come to Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his family on our journey through time and space. Jeff turns up, and before the first day of shooting is gone, he has blown the entire budget of 250,000 DM with Eddie and Irm, Hanna and Ulli. But Jeff is Alex and Alex is Rainer. And all of them are a little bit Manfred. Back onto the stage! Turn around once on your heels – the thousands of years-old special effect of the theatre! - and the audience looks at Greek antiquity staged by Molière seen through the eyes of Racine; turn around again and Corneille, his rival, has conquered the Comédie Française. Bouton, the servant, peeps through the curtain asking the crucial question: Is the King, is Stalin, Fassbinder … still there? Is he enjoying himself, having fun? Chuffed to bits. And there are Hollywood celebrities present. Maybe the next job is with Scorsese? No blunders now, Alex! Just keep playing! Even if the audience throws addled eggs at you and runs off. Only the children of comedians, who are born to play and act, can withstand the pressure on the stage. Only they flourish in the midst of chaos. So many contradictions. And so many principles. It's utterly pointless. No chance of binding the whole thing together again. Because on stage you can´t go wrong unless you do it right, of course. The evening keeps dragging on, some seem on edge, other have fallen asleep. And then suddenly, without any warning – the big break through to true nature, true emotions or even unexpected philosophical truths. Turn around again, around the axis. Exit the big-time robber chief Charles Moor; his theatrical costume is cut into small colourful shreds that ascend almost weightlessly to the sky over Paris.


The end of a theatre company. The end of the theatre as heterotopia. The end of the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.

Text Sebastian Kaiser; translated by Bettina Seifried