Locus Amoenus II: Theater

Locus Amoenus, Latin: the lovely or pleasing place. A common trope in Ancient Roman literature, usually a garden or woodland–a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and striking beauty. The concept features in works by authors as early as Homer, and it was reveled in by the later pastoral poets before being passed on to the writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Locus amoenus is a place to retreat to, often with overtones of Elysium on earth.

Staatstheater_Wiesbaden_foyer028Foyer of the Staatstheater in Wiesbaden, just over the Rhein. 

Like the farm kitchen, the first of my personal loci amoeni I wrote about, the theater is no Vergilian garden–but a spot for me equally as transfixing, equally as bound up with memory and childhood and beauty. Like the kitchen, the theater is something that transcends all cultural boundaries: the moment before the curtain goes up or the conductor comes on stage is always the same, whether one is in Munich or in some drafty town hall in Vermont.

My love of the theater started when I turned 15, and began working as an usher in the next tiny town over. The Barre Opera House–certainly no Baroque jewel, but it had white molding and red velvet curtains and four box seats (no one sat in them anymore, but they existed!). To me, it was an entirely enchanting place. I would always work the balcony so I could use the secret spiral staircase in the wings, and lean out over the polished wooden railings, and pretend that I was in Vienna in 1791 for the premiere of Mozart’s Magic Flute. I loved the audiences, too–the aging, tenacious contingent of small-town Vermonters who could talk with equal ease about the local milk prices and the symphony on the program. Most evenings I had the feeling I was the only one in the place younger than 75, and I collected compliments from old men wearing immaculately pressed suits that must have been new sometime in the late sixties. There where two operas a year, and I remember driving home after Le Nozze di Figaro through the worst blizzard of 2008, drunk on Mozart for the first time in my life.

Writing of his own childhood, Thomas Mann says, “I can never forget the hours of deep, solitary happiness in the midst of the theater crowd–hours full of horror and delight of the nerves and intellect, of insight into things of the most vast and moving significance, such as only this art affords.” He, as always, gets it just right.

6758627-Staatstheater_Mainz_MainzStaatstheater in Mainz, with weekly market. 

Still, America–and small-town New England above all–isn’t really made for theater-goers. Once we got older, my sister and I went to a handful of operas and plays a year, usually traveling over an hour and paying 35$ or more for a spot in the cheap seats. I called up the opera houses every year to ask about student discounts, but never got anywhere.

The difficulties come in large part from the  infrastructure behind the arts in America, which has a distinct air of precariousness. Funding usually comes from audiences and donors alone: if no one buys the tickets, the theater closes its doors. On one hand, such a close relationship between the audience and stage is good–on the other, however, the entire set-up keeps ticket prices high and stifles the creativity of directors and actors. One need only look at the Metropolitan Opera, currently on the verge of bankruptcy due in large part to the “risky new productions” (read: non-traditional, moderately avant-garde) brought in by the new manager Peter Gelb.

IMG_0725The Alte Oper in Frankfurt. The inscription reads, “To the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.”

In Germany, the entire system runs on different terms, and better ones, I think. This is truly the land of theater: every small town has at least one, and an opera house, and a symphony to boot. The amount of productions even the smallest of theaters is able to put on over the course of a season is staggering to me. For instance: at the Staatstheater in Mainz, certainly no metropolis, there will 78 performances of some 30 different works in December alone, spread between several different stages and often performing simultaneously with one another. In America, such a vast program would be inconceivable anywhere other than a very large city. Here, between Wiesbaden and Mainz, two small towns within ten minutes of each other, I could go to the theater every night for the next two years.

The financial precariousness is entirely removed, too: even the smallest theaters in Germany receive hefty funding at the state or municipal level. It’s part of the mentality–being able to go to the theater in one’s own town is a point of pride, a vitally important facet of local culture and identity. At an artistic level, this financial situation means that almost anything goes on stage, for better or for worse (mostly for better, in my opinion). Directors can be as trashy or shocking or ground-breaking as they wish, without worrying about offending the sensibilities of a conservative audience. And for students, it’s an absolute windfall. With my card from the University I can see anything in Mainz for free, and get front-row tickets at pretty much any other theater in Germany for 4-8 €.

IMG_0741Schedules for the next month, hanging above my desk…

And so I go to the theater. There’s a sort of rhythm to it all–dress up, look at train schedules, run to the station and read on the train, wait in line at the box office, look around the city a bit during intermission (intermissions in Germany are long, because EVERYONE has to drink a glass of Sekt [champagne] and eat a Brezel!), rant about the whole thing on the way home. It’s exciting, and utterly new.

Staatstheater_Kaskadenbrunnen0106Staatstheater in Wiesbaden by night.

Some highlights of the past two weeks:

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (or Nora in German, because Puppenheim just sounds weird). In Frankfurt, where we gawked at the sky scrapers and tried without success to find Goethe’s house. The production: shattering, minimalistic, with spotlights shone directly into the audience and rock music turned up too loud. It’s Germany; everything’s designed to make you uncomfortable. It’s astonishing to me how a work some 150 years old can be so relevant.

Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, performed in the local museum in a room full of frescoes and statues from ancient Greece. Mahler is absolutely wrenching live.

Elfriede Jelinek’s brand-new Rein Gold in Wiesbaden. Jelinek is insane; I’ve been obsessed with her ever since my professor told me I must on no account, read her novels, because they were borderline pornographic filth. She’s everything I love about German literature: edgy and hard-hitting, willing to ask the hardest of questions. Rein Gold was a Bühnenessay (Stage-essay; the first of its genre according to the authoress)–a witty, often disturbing meditation on Richard Wagner’s Ring, taking up the themes of capitalism and heroism in modern Germany. Lots of references to the current political situation that I didn’t understand, lots of references to Wagner that I did.

Travelogue XVI: Mainz and Wiesbaden

4.Mainz_Looking back at Mainz from Wiesbaden’s side of the river.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past two months, it’s that Germany does small-town rivalry like nobody’s business. Sure, America does it too, but there it mostly takes place between entire states or geographical areas: the North says the South is full of Bible-and-gun-toting rednecks, the South thinks the North contains nothing but inhospitable, cold-blooded yankees. The Midwesterners live in the fly-over states, California is full of yuppies and ex-hippies, etc. In Germany, everything takes place at a super-micro level–the rivalries start between even the tiniest of neighboring Dorfs, between regions separated by only a few kilometers.

Take Mainz and Wiesbaden, for instance, the two small cities I’ve come to know rather well in the past couple months. The way most people describe the differences between them, one would think they are worlds apart geographically, and separated even further by the vastest of cultural, linguistic, and ideological differences. In reality, however, the cities sit directly across from each other on the Rhein–some ten minutes apart by train or bike, connected by a half-dozen bridges. To any outsider, they appear quite similar: two lovely mid-sized German towns in the heart of wine-country, both with a fascinating history and vibrant cultural scene.

IMG_0580One of the lovely bridges connecting the two cities, seen from Mainz’s side of the river.

Amongst the locals, however, pithy commentary abounds. Here’s just a sampling of remarks about Wiesbaden (good natured, I think?) from the past few weeks:

A friend’s host-father, from Mainz: “Die Sonne lacht über Mainz, die ganze Welt über Wiesbaden! The sun smiles upon Mainz, and the entire world laughs at Wiesbaden!”

Oberbürgermeister (the Mayor of Mainz), at a reception for international students: “We Mainzers inherited two things from the Romans: good wine and the fact that we keep the barbarians shut up on the other side of the river.”

Little old lady from Mainz at the bus stop: “Das Beste an Wiesbaden ist der Bus nach Mainz! The best part about Wiesbaden is the bus back to Mainz!”

The article Dos and Don’ts in Mainz from an apartment-search website: “Don’t: think Wiesbaden is cool.”

Host-father again, on the topic of local history: “Mainz was around first. Back in the days of the Romans, Wiesbaden was just a collection of dirty little huts in a field. But then the old Mainzers started getting interested in the hot springs in the area, and turned Wiesbaden into the city it is today.”

On posters, handbags, and doormats for sale in downtown Mainz: “Mainz is better than Wiesbaden.” Short and sweet.

Reaction from a group of local students, when I said that I was thinking about going over to Wiesbaden for the day because I had heard it was beautiful: “Why on earth do you want to go there??!”

Whatever, Mainzers. (MEENZER, sorry!) All I’m saying is, all those old Vermonters from my home town who stand around the Creemie machine making pithy remarks about flatlanders, cityslickers, and people from New Hampshire–they could pick up a few tips around here.

Although everything they say about New Hampshire is perfectly justified.


Travelogue XV: Frankfurter Buchmesse


14. Oktober, 2014 When I was working on my application for the DAAD, I was asked to write about why I wanted to study in Germany, specifically, as opposed to continuing on in America. I had already written about my love of classical German literature, and the wonderfully traditional program at my university that gave me a firm grounding in everything that fell between Goethe’s Werther in the 1770s and Thomas Mann’s death in 1955. Beyond that date, however, German literature was for me largely an unknown territory, and that unnerved me. I wrote:

In the end, there is always something discomfiting about my study of old art–a feeling that, by taking it all so seriously, I am disconnecting myself from the issues of today. With this in mind, while in Germany I would like to examine the heritage of Germany’s early creators in the context of the 21st century. How do these figures continue to be a part of cultural and political dialogues, and how are current thinkers building on their legacy? In Germany, the answers to these questions are grounded in reality, and will give me a concrete starting-place to extend my knowledge of German literature and art up to the present day.


I spent all day Saturday at the Frankfurter Buchmesse (Book Festival), and found there just the sort of starting-place I had been looking for–a place to learn and network and make connections to the who’s-who in 21st century German art.

Like so many events in Germany, the festival has a tradition that stretches back half a millennium, to Johannes Gutenberg’s first printing-press in Mainz. Since its official re-opening in 1949, the Buchmesse serves not only as a meeting-place for publishers, authors, and readers, but also as a platform for political figures, artists, directors, translators, academic and cultural exchange students, news agents, and media moguls from all over the world. Organizers pick a country to formally “host” every year–Finnland this year, Brazil last year–and center the festival around the literature of that land, with hundreds of political and cultural events open to the public.

I looked at books and picked up magazines, listened to live programs from Arte and ARD, tried not to freak out too much. My reading list grew exponentially. It was all so utterly different from my journeys of the last few months–this had nothing to do with cobblestone streets and Baroque architecture, with old literature and history and music. Everything was as cutting-edge as it gets, thoroughly modern–an entirely different atmosphere, and therefore exceptionally exciting.

Below, just some of the materials I picked up on current literature. Not just in Germany, but in Switzerland, Austria, etc….


More pictures. The hall devoted to international literature was spectacular. We had the feeling of being on Embassy Row in Berlin or Washington DC–it was clear that these publishers were here to represent much more than literature. Many booths were quite beautiful, with flags and local artwork and displays that reflected the architecture of their particular country. After walking through such a room, one realizes how very little one knows of the world.

Below, the booth for Asian literature, and Russian books across the corridor.



Mass public. Frankfurt alone has 10x the population of the state I grew up in. I have never seen such crowds in my life. And all for the sake of books!


It wasn’t just high culture, either–here is the German pop-band Glasperlenspiel, giving an impromptu concert after marketing their recently published book of knitting patterns (?!). So. Many. Fangirls.


Also, the one huge building was more or less a Comic-Con, complete with thousands of cosplayers and geekery of all types. My siblings would have loved it. I had my picture taken with some storm-troopers, because that’s just what you do sometimes. 🙂 Below that, more cosplayers eating German wurst.



For me, the highlight of the day was a prescreening of Martina Gedeck’s new film Das Ende der Geduld (The End of Patience), sponsored by ARD, and then an interview with the actress herself! I am rather a huge fan–her films Die Wand and The Lives of Others are at the top of my list. Das Ende der Geduld was also exceptional, and intensely relevant–brutal, political, problematic, asking the sorts of questions that need to be asked today in Germany as well as in America.


There she is!!


So that was the Frankfurter Buchmesse. On the train back to Mainz, we were so exhausted we could hardly talk. It was a good day.

Travelogue XIV: People

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

The Tempest V.i., William Shakespeare


3. Oktober, 2014 I am, in general, delighted by people. The chance to get to know more of them has been for me one of the greatest joys of this whole traveling experience. To get to know–by that, I don’t necessarily mean in the way of forming lasting friendships, though that is good too, but rather to encounter, to engage in dialogue, to come into contact with beings so marvelous that they slightly change, over the course of a conversation, the way you see the world.

There was, for instance, the woman on whose couch I slept my first night in Mainz, who gave me potted plants and a beautiful Persian rug for my room. She restores paintings at the art museum in the city–Baroque graphics, mostly, and a few impressionistic watercolors. When I stopped by her workspace, she lovingly turned over two of the works on her dest and showed me the strip of brighter paint around the edges, as wide as a fingernail clipping. “That’s where the old frame was,” she said. “We’ll never get the color back. But aren’t they beautiful? From a private collection–what a treasure.” From the amount of care in her voice, she could have been talking about a child or a dear friend.

Or a few days ago, the elderly gentleman in the cafe in the city, a composer of music for silent films–German expressionist films of the 1920s, to be exact, the same works I had studied and fallen in love with last semester. He was a talker. He came under the spell of Richard Wagner as a young boy and can still play all the piano reductions. He had read the entire opuses of both Robert Musil and Thomas Mann. His favorite scene Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is where Ulrich shoots the grand piano to pieces with his pistol. And he knew someone in Austria who had a portrait of the family estate painted by Hitler. “Das ist Erzählung–that’s story,” he said.

IMG_0638Drop-spindling on the marketplace.

Or just this evening, there was a local bum sitting near me in the Old City, where I was leaning on the edge of a fountain and spinning wool. “Is that a spindle?” he said, and without waiting for me to answer launched into a monologue on the effects of handwork on the soul in a rushed world, drawing in references to the Virtuous Woman in Proverbs and the Senecan concept of internal rest, speaking of the necessity of practicing stillness in order to live well and to prepare for death. “Das Meer der verzehrten Menschen ist sehr groß,” he said. “The see of wasted men is vast.” I thought, he has voice of an actor and the syntax of a poet or a professor of literature. But before I could ask him how he came to speak like that, he turned around and walked off.

Beauteous, indeed.