1. I GOT THE JOB THROUGH Marius, who had gone to school with a mutual friend at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin. I was supposed to write Zusammenfassungen for the theater where Marius worked. These were kind of like Cliff’s Notes. They were critical synopses that directors would consult before selecting which plays to stage, to see if they thought a script sounded interesting before reading the whole thing.
Unfortunately, I had no idea what I was doing, and it was only a matter of time before they found out.
2. Traveling Europe in the early nineties, I’d made it to Berlin just as my money ran out. The GDR had fallen and The Wall had been chipped into souvenirs for tourists and the people of East Berlin had fled to the West. There were hundreds of buildings left empty— power on, rent free—which were soon squatted by an influx of foreigners. I met some people who gave me a room in a squathouse, and I started busking on the U-Bahn. For most of the nineties I lived in the squathouse and played music on the trains for a couple of hours a day. I drank and did drugs.
Eventually I landed in Narcotics Anonymous.
When you go to NA you’re not supposed to do drugs, or hang out with people who do drugs, so I moved out of the squathouse and started looking around for something else I could do besides busking.
3. It helped that I was a native English speaker. A lot of new theater was coming out of England at the time. Sarah Kane’s “disgusting feast of filth” Blasted had premiered at The Royal Court in 1995, followed by Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking in 1996. The English “In-Yer-Face” theater movement of the 90’s was on.
Ravenhill was tapped to helm The Royal Court—he was confrontational, subversive. He was committed to staging new work by living playwrights. Everybody in England with a fucked-up childhood started writing plays.
And the Germans needed someone who spoke English fluently to read them.
4. I was an imposter. If anyone asked, I wouldn’t talk about being a subway musician, I’d talk about this book I was supposedly writing, a book about a subway musician in Berlin—a fiction book, a novel—about this guy who uses a lot of drugs and plays music on the U-Bahn. I told everybody I was writing that book.
Pete, my NA sponsor, said, “You know you don’t have to tell everybody you’re writing a novel.”
“But I am.”
“Sure. It feels good to say ‘I’m writing a novel.’ It sounds better than ‘I’m just hanging out trying not to do drugs.’ But it also sounds self-aggrandizing. It’s like you’re saying: ‘There’s more to me than meets the eye, you know. I’m special. I’m important.’”
Pete had summoned the courage to stop painting, and now he wanted to rescue everybody from their artistic urges. In New York he’d shown at some galleries and enjoyed some critical buzz, but then he’d started going to NA and got clean and stopped painting entirely, which he characterized as a triumph over ego.
“I’m not lying,” I said.
“Sure. So did you do your moral inventory?”
I was writing a novel, and I was getting paid for writing those little synopsis things. I wasn’t just hanging out not using drugs. I was a character from the streets writing a genius book.
Soon I would get some pants that had a working zipper.
And now I was part of a group of young intellectuals.
5. Marius von Mayenburg was a playwright. His first play, Haarmann, was performed at the Baracke, the small studio of the Deutsches Theater, in 1996. The next year he wrote Feuergesicht (Fireface) about a young arsonist who has an incestuous relationship with his sister. It was an instant success. Feuergesicht was performed at Kammerspiele in Munich, the Kleist Theater in Frankfurt Oder, and the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. Marius was awarded the Kleist Prize for Young Playwrights and the Frankfurt Author’s Endowment, among other honors. Feuergesicht was translated into a dozen different languages and played to packed houses throughout Europe.
He didn’t act like a dick about it either. In fact, he seemed bewildered by this quick rise to fame, almost apologetic. He was still the same shy young guy with thinning hair and tired eyes who liked to talk about Harold Pinter.
He invited me to dinner parties. Most of the attendees were also graduates of the Hochschule der Künste, or other prestigious art schools. They were actors, playwrights, directors—all of them young and up-and-coming and brilliant, many of them from liberal intellectual families, the children of doctors, lawyers, magistrates. They were blinding to look at, light from an arc welder. Some of them recognized me from the subway. I would flush and start talking about my novel—anything to get a foothold—if not to be one of them, at least to seem like somebody with a future.
6. Thomas Ostermeier was one of those guys from the dinner parties. He’d directed the German premier of Shopping and Fucking in the Baracke and enjoyed a very successful run. He was made head of the Schaubühne, unprecedented for a man still in his twenties.
So in 1999 Marius went with Ostermeier to work as artistic director and playwright-in-residence at the Schaubühne.
I went along too.
7. Designed by Erich Mendelsohn in 1926, The Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz is a famous Modernist theatre in the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin. A converted cinema, it’s a massive curving brick building with a succession of rectangular windows resembling a filmstrip. The vast interior has moveable walls that section off multiple performance areas of varying sizes. There is a studio and a café.
It was in the upstairs offices that Maja, the head dramaturge, explained my new job:
“Start with the title. Then list all the characters and their roles. Then write a concise summary of the plot, scene by scene. Discuss the main conflict. Discuss subplot. Then a brief analysis: talk a little bit about the tone of the piece, the author’s intention, the deeper meaning. Discuss the language: style, use of dialect, slang, etc. Then run down the technical aspects: set design, lighting, costumes and makeup, sound effects and music. Then anything else you can think of . . . special considerations . . . finally, what do you think? Does it work dramatically? Write a short critique.”
“Right,” I said. “Of course . . . those things.” The safety pin holding my waistband together was digging a raw spot in my abdomen.
“Do you think you can do that?”
She sounded unconvinced.
I walked out of there with a stack of plays. I was out of my depth, but I didn’t want to let Marius down, I didn’t want him to think he’d been wrong to let me in on the game.
I did the best I could. I stayed up all night and read.
8. I had never read many plays before. A lot of them were about people in really shitty parts of London, living in council estates, sniffing glue and getting raped all the time. There were period pieces, too, about people in really shitty parts of London, living in rat-infested garrets, shitfaced on liquor and getting raped all the time.
It wasn’t too difficult typing in the title and listing the characters, or even writing a concise scene by scene summary of the plot, for that matter. Describing the main conflict and subplots was also easy: the characters did things and I wrote them down. Simple. And there were usually notes on the technical aspects too—the set design, lighting, costumes and makeup, sound effects and music, all that stuff. I would just copy those.
But after that things got more difficult. The brief analysis of tone, the author’s intention, and the deeper meaning—these things were not always so readily apparent. I would often read an entire play and afterwards sit staring at the cover, dumbfounded, wondering what the hell I had just read. Most of the plays were linear and coherent, but others seemed full of air, weird atmospheric pieces that made no sense at all.
The notes on the cover were a valuable resource. I found that if I paraphrased the notes, using a thesaurus to substitute words, I could come up with some pretty erudite-sounding analyses.
As for the short critique, I just wrote whatever came to mind, mimicking the disdainful tone of movie reviewers.
9. I started going to see a lot of plays, too, in hopes of improving my comprehension, but although I’d lived in Berlin for most of a decade, my German still wasn’t very strong. So, while not everything I saw was incomprehensible, my grasp was limited.
It was no help that the Germans were doing this thing called postdramatic theater. There were no heroes or villains anymore, not much story, often no plot. Dire-looking cynics with no meat on their bones would engage in pointless repetitive actions, chain-smoking and screaming at each other in German. It was like peering into an abusive relationship. Severe punishments were followed by severe rewards, jealous bickering was followed by rough make-up sex. He’d hold a gun to her head and threaten to blow her brains out all over the sidewalk. Then he’d change completely. He’d smear on lipstick and French-kiss her, cooing baby names while he felt her up. She’d claw his face until it bled. He’d buy her chrysanthemums.
10. I slowly got better at writing the damned things. Or at least at faking them. I had the form down, if not the substance.
No one seemed to notice. Maja would take the pages, slide them into a three-hole punch, punch the holes, and then snap them into a big black binder that she kept on a shelf by her desk. I got a hundred marks per Zusammenfassung. I would print out an invoice on the dot matrix before I left home and Maja would file it away, then pay me from the little flip-top plastic box of petty cash that they used to buy pastries for the office.
Sometimes I would see Marius there. He was always welcoming, but usually busy, and he would disappear behind the door into a private meeting room with Ostermeier and his contingent of serious-minded balding young men to discuss the fallibility of truth. Or the unreliability of memory. Or whatever the fuck they talked about.
I should have been in that office, it seemed to me. I should have been one of those guys with tired eyes, smoking a hundred Gauloises an hour, marinating my intestines in black coffee, plotting out the death of dramatic structure, dissecting assumptions, toppling truth off its dais.
11. After a while I stopped going to the NA meetings. The program was full of spineless whiners and people who had given up, like Pete.
I became isolated; except for my bi-weekly visits to the Schaubühne to drop off Zusammenfassungen and pick up cash, I didn’t interact with anyone. I couldn’t hang out with the old crowd because they drank and did drugs; I couldn’t hang out with the NA crowd because I’d stopped going to meetings and I was headed towards relapse. I never slept. I was bleary, played out. I drank endless cups of coffee and smoked countless cigarettes. I read dark books: Lautréamont, Kafka, Bataille. I read American Psycho over and over again.
The world contracted. Life continued, but I wasn’t a part of it anymore.
I would stay up all night reading plays and writing drivel, listening to the clock tower beat out the hours until dawn. Then I would walk down to Friedrichstrasse and take the S-Bahn into the West. All the people on board would be half-asleep, their eyes closed, jolting and bumping with the train over irregular tracks, the cloying reek of perfume and aftershave choking out the air. I would close my eyes and pretend I was like them, on my way to some shitty job, exhausted.
I would wake up on the train somewhere far from home. The carriage doors would open and there would be something inexplicable occurring on the platform:
—A man with a greasy beard and dressed in ratty clothes lying under a bench. He tries to pull himself out from under it, but the businessman in the impeccable suit sitting above him keeps stepping on his hands. The man under the bench starts to moan about how unfair it all is.
—Naked people on wires swing out from the wings, scattering sparkly dust through the air. A tight phalanx of people move across the platform under opened umbrellas, flinching, peering upwards in terror.
—A woman on a bench, gaunt, haunted, like an expressionist painting, her tattered nightgown soaked with sweat and clinging to her ribs, the tendons in her neck popping out as she shouts at the top of her voice:
“Die geistige Krankheit! Die geistige Krankheit!”
The soul sickness.
And then the carriage doors would slam shut and the train would move off down the next section of track.
12. Anyway that’s what I wish had happened, that I started hallucinating from sleep deprivation and my consciousness fragmented like postdramatic theater.
But I really don’t know why I did it, why I sabotaged it.
There were just too many plays, maybe, too many depressing, incomprehensible plays. Or I couldn’t keep up the charade, pretending I knew what the hell I was talking about all the time.
I started fucking up.
I would fill pages with direct quotes from the plays. I would blatantly copy the cover notes, no longer bothering to disguise my efforts with alternate words from the thesaurus. I went to the library and checked out books on theatrical analysis and copied entire sections verbatim. I started writing odd little asides and burying them in the text. A sentence here, a sentence there. Little fragments of poetry, rants about insomnia, about the subway and the deranged people on it, about myself, my life.
And I kept handing them in. Why not? I needed the money. And when I handed them in I got the same rush I used to get when I was shoplifting: that giddy, falling-down-the-elevator-shaft feeling.
Maja took the pages, punched the holes, snapped the binder, and handed over the cash.
Nobody ever stopped me. Nobody ever said anything.
13. They let me go a couple of months before the season started.
Maja glared at me as I entered the office, the binder open on her desk, several pages torn out. She’d gotten around to reading my work.
She took the pages I’d brought with me, gave me my last hundred marks, and informed me that The Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz wouldn’t be needing my services anymore.
14. When I got back out on the street the world had changed. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
I went down the steps into the subway.