Kahn's Take on 'Wallenstein' and 'Coriolanus'

Steve Pickering as Wallenstein in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Wallenstein, directed by Michael Kahn.
Scott Suchman
Steve Pickering as Wallenstein in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Wallenstein, directed by Michael Kahn.

When was the last time you had a conversation about Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller?

Or about a fellow by the name of Albrecht von Wallenstein, the most famous general—on both sides—to emerge from the ruinous Thirty Years' War in Europe? It raged between 1618 and 1648 and consumed large parts of Europe in bloody religious and national conflicts, with armies marching and pillaging across the states and kingdoms that comprised what is now modern Germany.

Actually, quite a few people have had occasion to talk about both historic figures, courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company director Michael Kahn, who is directing Schiller’s “Wallenstein” as part of that theater's hero-traitor duo of plays—the other is Shakespeare’s Romanesque “Coriolianus,” directed by David Muse, about a hero-general who refused to court the Roman plebians in order to become the First Man in Rome.

The Thirty Years' War—a continental civil and religious war of God and territorial gain along with the great Swedish king and general Gustavus Adolphus, the leading figure opposite Wallenstein, the star general for the Holy Roman Empire forces—isn’t much written about any more. Only Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” set amid the suffering of the collaterally damaged peasants, used the war as a setting. Ironically, the Shakespeare Theatre staged that play –with Pat Carroll in the title role—a number of years ago, and now it’s a part of the 2013-14 season at Arena Stage with Kathleen Turner in the lead.

“Wallenstein” was originally a trilogy written by Schiller, a German playwright and contemporary of Goethe. Best known to the common folk for his "Ode to Joy," now the anthem of Europe, Schiller had Shakespearean ambitions in his history plays. The play has been compressed into a highly focused look at the rise and fall and tragedy of the great man, who in the course of the play is both hero and traitor when he seems to switch sides.

“I don’t see it a play that’s just about the Thirty Years' War, I mean we’re talking about it now, but not many people do,” Kahn said in an interview. “I wanted to do it because it was a play by Friedrich Schiller, and because Schiller was very much like Shakespeare, he thought in big, epic, meaningful terms, he embraced history and turned it into poetic, intense drama.”

If ever there was such a thing as a mini-boom in performing Schiller outside of Europe or his native land, Kahn managed it right here in Washington. He has staged “Mary Stuart,” “Don Carlos” and now “Wallenstein,” which is in part about the uses, and misuses of power, a subject which rings like a bell in Washington .

“I think this is going to be my last Schiller, period,” Kahn said. “There’s not much left to do, in any case. I can’t see doing “William Tell,” for instance or anything else.”

“The original play is nine hours, a trilogy in eleven acts,” Kahn said. “It’s never been done in the United States as far as I know. Hopefully, it won’t be the last time.”

Kahn has a reputation for doing well for condensation—he pulled together all of Sophocles’ “Oedipus” trilogy into one consuming and powerful play, “Henry IV Parts One and Two” into one play and “Henry VI”, all four parts, into one single night of riveting theater, not however, cutting the famous “First of all, let’s kill all the lawyers,” which is embedded in one of the plays which features a city plebian rebellion.

“We’re doing this in repertoire with "Coriolanus,” which is to say that the same actors are in both plays something which hasn’t been done in a while,” Kahn said. “Both David (Muse) and I felt there were themes about leadership, war, politics and disagreements about military strategy that prove tragic in both plays. It’s been suggested that Coriolanus, who saves Rome, then betrays it after he ignores what he considers to be the rabble, is very much like some contemporary politicians, in his unwillingness to display a common touch.”

“Wallenstein” is further enhanced by as translation by America's former poet laureate Robert Pinsky. “I think the play echoes for us,” Kahn said. “The disagreements—the war and among the leaders of the conflict—result in a standoff. I think we know something about political standoffs today.”

“What I’ve always loved about Schiller is that he has that same gift for dealing with complex issues and events through drama that Shakespeare did,” Kahn said. “He is the Shakespeare of Europe in that sense. His characters are great men and historical figures, but they’re characters, complex and human.”

Thanks to Kahn, Schiller is very much alive in Washington and the United States.

*“Coriolanus” and “Wallenstein” by the Shakespeare Theatre Company run through June 2 at Sidney Harman Hall.

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