The Em
pty Stage

Eine Rede von Simon Stephens, Dramatiker, anlässlich des 175-jährigen Jubiläums des Thalia Theaters am 11.11.2018


Klicken Sie hier für das Video zur Rede.


It’s rather extraordinary to be standing here on this stage. Its something of an odd experience for me I have to say. The joy of being a playwright is that I normally get to sit in the seats where you’re all sat and watch the poor bastards who have agreed to take a part in my plays come up onto stages like this and act out the unthinkable nastinesses and speak the swear words I’ve imagined for them to act out and to swear.


It does feel curious standing on this side of the lights. As curious as it feels, it feels too like a real honour.


It’s an honour to be asked to speak to the public of Hamburg. A city of culture and grace. The city of Mendelssohn and Brahms and St Pauli Football club. A city of great newspapers and galleries and of theatre and opera. Hamburg has always been a city that captures the imagination of the English. Particularly the English with a love of rock and roll. Anybody who knows me or my work will know that rock and roll is the art form that inspires me as much as any other and, even at my age, the idea of those 8 hour gigs at the Indra Club and the Star Club that the Beatles played in the first years of the sixties, captures me. I love this city.


It’s been an honour to work so often in Germany. When I first worked here, in the early years of my collaboration with Sebastian Nubling, I loved the way that Germany was the place the cool rock stars came to make their best music. In my mind I was treading the footsteps of David Bowie and Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. I loved that idea. I love this country. In the past I loved this country to the point of actually supporting it’s football team at World Cup Finals. For an Englishman that is, shall we say, unusual? (That was before England got good at football and Germany got rubbish).


And it’s a great honour to be speaking in this theatre. This is a theatre that matches its beauty with its remarkable tradition. This most exquisite room has held, for a hundred and seventy five years, the most exciting actors, the finest plays and the finest directors and designers in the European theatre. To play a small part in that tradition today and to toast its birthday means a great deal.


I love this stage. And I particularly love it today because it is so empty. One of my favourite experiences as a playwright is the experience of exploring an empty stage.


As a young resident writer at the Royal Court theatre in London I would often go and sit in the auditorium during the daytime and look at the stage as it waited in between shows. Empty stages for me are charged with remarkable potential. In some ways they are akin to birthdays.


Birthdays and empty stages are both spaces, one architectural and one temporal,that allow us to consider two of the great questions any storyteller must ask. “What has happened here?” And “what will happen next?”


As a dramatist, when I consider the empty stage, the consideration of all the plays that have been played there inspires me almost to the point of breathlessness. This stage has known Goethe and Handke, Schiller and Jelinek and a hundred and seventy five years worth of work in between. The collective force of that work would inspire any writer. It graces us with the possibility that we are in some odd way passing through the Green Room with giants of our craft, drinking at the bar with them, waiting in their wings.


And empty stages inspire me, too, to consider what I could put on them. I consider empty stages and imagine the actions I might dramatise, the speeches I might write, the provocations I may set for my directors and design team. An empty stage is charged with possibility. Anything can happen here. It is my job simply to imagine it.


And that imagination should be, and at its best often is, disobedient and daring. That daring is sometimes best served by a spirit of irreverence. An irreverence captured for me in the English word for “stuck” – “play.” Like children, theatre makers create a spirit of play, of playfulness. It is freeing and anarchic. It is also, I think, deeply serious.


I was fortunate enough over recent years to come to know the great English playwright Edward Bond. He is one of the most important writers in post-war European theatre’s history and has defined its legacy. He defined for me the seriousness of the play of making theatre.

He said to me that its no coincidence that the culture that first gave Europe Law and Democracy is also the culture that first gave the continent drama. What the ancient Greeks realised, he said, was that democracy and law, however fundamental to human government, necessarily cannot incorporate contradiction or uncertainty. Something can’t be a bit illegal. We can’t almost vote. But to be human is to be uncertain and is to be contradictory. The Greeks realised the need for a public space in which strangers could sit next to one another and engage in the public interrogation of the uncertainty and contradiction of what it is to be alive. This space was the theatre. Through the consideration of what has happened here and what might happen next, through, in effect the stories it stages, the dramatic space, the theatre, defines what it is for the contradictory, uncertain human animal to live in a democracy.


Yuval Noah Harrari, the Historian wrote something in his book Sapiens that inspires me to this day. He was talking about the difference between Human beings and other animals. He noticed that no land mammal other than the human being can survive in packs of more than 150. Wolves can’t. Lions can’t. Few birds flock in such numbers. But the human animal lives in packs of numbers far greater. Here today we make a pack of several hundred. Hamburg is a pack of nearly two million. Germany a pack of over eighty million. Europe a pack of seven hundred and forty million. How can we survive in these packs? And packs that sometimes, now more than ever in my lifetime, are defined by apparent contradictions? How can we make sense of ourselves? How can we create a spirit of some form of unity? Well he suggests it is through our capacity to believe in things that we can’t see. Our capacity to imagine what has happened somewhere and what might happen next and, through that imagining, to construct meaning.


Our capacity to believe in stories. We tell each other the story of Hamburg and it defines the place. Of Germany. Of Europe. Of our world. Of what it is to be alive in the twenty first century.


Stories aren’t a colourful adjunct to the human experience, a diversion, a distraction. While they may be best coined in an anarchic spirit of play, they are fundamental to our sense of self.


It strikes me, that the spaces that we create in which to tell those stories, are the spaces in which the human animal defines itself. When those spaces are corrupted then the stories can go askew. The story of Germany can be skewed and hijacked by corrupt storytellers. The stories of our planet. We’re seeing it happen now. In Europe. In the United States. In Brazil. Perhaps because we neglected to take care of them the stories have fallen into the hands of the bastards.


It has happened in my own country, the United Kingdom. Never wholly a kingdom and never really United.


In the build-up to the referendum vote that led to the decision of the British Government tointitiate the withdrawal from the European Union, the leading advocate for the campaign to leave the Union, Michael Gove, was confronted with the dire predictions of economic experts as they forecast the consequences of economic isolation. He said, in a phrase that chilled the heart of liberal thinkers everywhere, “I think we’ve had rather enough of experts, don’t you?”


This summer my eldest son, and one of my closest friends, Oscar, horrified me by suggesting to me that he thought Gove was right. When he explained what he meant I realised Oscar was right too. He said that one of the reasons that the Leave campaign won that referendum was because it didn’t depend on experts and one of the reasons the Remain campaign lost was because they wholly depended on experts. They depended on technocrats and economic forecasters. My son asked me whether I would have changed my mind if those same experts had predicted economic success in the event of the UK leaving the European Union. Of course I wouldn’t! What I was compelled by and what the Remain campaign failed to tell with any clarity was the story of Europe.


I feel European because I love that story. I love the story of the Beatles at the Star Club and the story of Brahms and Mendehlson, I love the story of St Pauli football club and David Bowie in Berlin. And I feel a part of that story. It is a story that defines me and it is the story that we failed to tell. And in our failure we failed to compel people to believe in something that they couldn’t see.


And the consequences of that failure for my country, perhaps for my continent, may well prove catastrophic. Now, more than ever in my lifetime, we should feel an urgency to tell our stories better.


Right now, as in any moment when a culture finds itself in flux, our work as storytellers is fundamental. We need to ask with more incision and determination than ever before, what has happened here and what might happen next.


We need to fight and kick and plead and defy opposition as we try to tell our stories in the best possible spaces. Spaces that are clear, and public and human and that allow truth, fearlessness and honesty and the uncertainty and contradiction that Bond spoke to me about. We need to celebrate those spaces and cherish them because if we don’t we may lose them and if we lose those spaces we stop telling our stories.


And the consequences of stopping telling our stories are clear to anybody who considers what has happened in my country in the last decade. While the left assumed that history had ended and so stopped reimagining and redefining their narratives, the right didn’t and went on to win the hearts of the population and took control of the Government.


I can think of no space better suited to the redefining of this city’s stories, this country’s stories, this continent’s stories than this theatre. I can think of no better occasion to celebrate and cherish it than on its birthday. I can think of no more important day, no more important time to think for a while about what has happened here in this city, this country, this continent for the last hundred and seventy five years. And then to ask what might happen next.


I wish Herr Lux and his brilliant team and fabulous ensemble a day that allows them to do that. A happy birthday. A birthday of thought and celebration. A birthday of reflection and daring imagination.


Schones Geburtstag Thalia.


Simon Stephens