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Einar Schleef

by Etel Adnan

They would meet in New York or at Etel Adnan’s home in Paris. Even if they didn’t speak much with each other, Etel Adan remembers a deep sense of connection to Einar Schleef: “A gesture of the hand said as much as his words.” She describes his theatre as the most impressive that she has even seen on a stage–without compromise or vanity and without angling for fame or validation.
But who was Einar? Now that he is part of our past we can ask this question. A question that is not meant to have a direct answer. I just said that he is part of our past, but he is alive in the sense that we won't be surprised if he just phoned, or that we still wish to have coffee with him.

When I saw him for the first time I looked up, the way I will look at a tree, at something that will be part of what I call “nature”: a rock on a ranch, a wave close to the shore. We can't explain that. He is not necessarily associated to his theatre when I think of him.

When I think of him, which happens very often, I become aware of his physical presence in different places.

Those places are as vivid as himself, for he had the power to magnetize his environment,  to make it happen, so to speak. His presence meant always not only himself but the space he was in. So, when I see him in memory in Central Park, New York, I notice simultaneously the tree behind, the granit under his feet, even some bird flying over his head. Of course, I see also the utter despair in his soul, something he could not erase, and that we could not alleviate.

Also in that park, I will remember his stuttering voice, his special way of speaking english, his way of not finishing some sentences, as if he were unsure of the necessity of language. A gesture with his hand said as much as his words. 

Something about New York scared him: it could well have been the accumulated greed of the capitalistic world concentrated over there: his over-sensitiviy made of him a visionary, a non-stop visionary, somebody always on the point of collapsing under the weight of what he could see, and what he saw over there created a near-panic.

He loved coming to Paris.

The city reflects primarily the villages of France: medieval streets here and there, old fashioned cafés, monuments to a faded empire, obsolite decorations, schools and universities, all this on both sides of a lazy river. When in Paris, he wouldn't do much: he will tell me he wanted to visit the section where the night life will be, the not so recommendable places, and then he will give up, he won't make the effort, and, moreover, they had nothing he didn't know, they had nothing for him, point. He loved the city for its casualness, its lack of demanding, and for allowing him to be  momentarily out of Germany. I think I can say that Paris gave rest to his mind. 

As we were close to Place Saint-Sulpice, he loved the piazza, mostly in the summer, because one could sit outside, and the benches were dry. Night after night he will sit looking at the huge fountain, and listening to it, for hours, till two o'clock in the night, when the flow of the water will be stopped. And even in the summer, the night will get cold, and he will sit there, in a peace, I think, he seldom felt elsewhere.

We never had long conversations, and I suspected that he did his real thinking when preparing his plays on stage.

He will think as he was working. He carried a huge silence in him, around him, and his silence had a way of telling a lot. He will not speak much. For exemple, he used to mention his mother, who was his obsession, but not add much more to the evocation of her name. He will mention Nietzsche, but never quote him; just his name will do. But on the other hand, on stage, he will recite the whole of Ecce Homo for the rhythm, for Nietzsche to return. 

I could say that Einar hated professors, critics, professional intellectuals, because he considered thinking not to be something that needs to be developed, or explained, but  as a raw material, something there, like stones, clouds, or oceans. And he needed the stage because on the stage thinking becomes a cosmic event, practically independent from us. He was dealing not with concepts, but with their energies. 

He was extremely alone, I know it for sure.

Sitting in front of the fountain of Saint-Sulpice I urged him a few times to  go somewhere, to the movies, to a concert, and he would say no, he would tell me “I just want to sit near you, I am so alone”. So alone. And he was, as his overflowing inner violence would make any close relathionship with him impossible: he would brutalize whom he loved, as if his violence were in the same breath a call for help, and a way to push away the very ones he needed most.

When Einar staged texts extracted from Döblin's works he produced a master meditation on war. I had asked him a few times to talk about W.W.II, the war lived by his parents,  and he will not respond. But his face will show enormous hidden emotions. His real response was on stage: war was ridiculous, cruel, but it was immense, immensely destructive, a blind force, a cataclysm. I couldn't read “Gertrude” because of my ignorance of the language it was written in, but I can say that Einar didn't seem to be able to enjoy casual talk for any length of time: he was involved in a brain storm that didn't know a rest.

What can I say? His theatre was the most impressive I ever saw.

Theatre as we know it in the Western World is essentially an aesthetic experience. It is much more too, of course, but remaining an aesthetic performance. Brecht wanted to turn it into an essentially political  message, and it worked, but worked just for him. Heiner Müller was eminently political, of course, and he adressed the tragic element in our cultures, and in his century. But he had also (and why not?), an aesthetic appeal, a “star” presence, behind his plays. Einar went beyond all that. He wanted, he achieved a theatre as meaningful as sheer reality, and used his instinctive talent to achieve a theatre where his skills disappeared behind plays which became events, the way reality becomes made of events. His works had the autonomy of physical happenings, you watched them the way you watched a storm, a plane crash, or a mountain. You forgot that they were carefully made, composed, by a director. You just watched, as if you were within the world you were seeing, as if that world happened to exist as roads, or people, or their shadows just do, without you ever bothering to know how or why.

In her own words, Elfriede Jelinek said what I want to say: “As a poet and creator of theatre, Schleef was the most outstanding phenomenon that I have encountered”. She called him first a poet, then a creator of theatre,  and not a plawright or a stage director, and called him an outstanding phenomenon, not something you can define or explain, but something that happens to be just there, to be.

In that he has been unique and made us think philosophically, the way reading Nietzsche opens for us a reality beyond the text that sustains it. Nietzsche's aphorisms are statements that are “there”, facing us, not meant to be explained or justified, mental events that happen to make sense. I felt the same type of reality, of neutrality, if I can say, facing Shleef's productions. 

It took a great courage to be Einar.

There was no compromise in him, no vanity, no search for fame, no search for reassurance. Alone with his instincts, his genius. In that sense he was unprotected, an innocent man with a genius his brain could hardly put up with, thrown into a world which has lost, more than anything else, even the very notion of innocence. That was something that we will not experience easily again.   

I miss Einar. We miss Einar. His works were apparitions, were angels, they were one of the definitions of angels, like an idea can be some angel, like the Mediterranean can be an angel, always or by moments, like a particular sound can suddenly become an angel. To be innocent, he proved, was his particular way of being moral by being also beyond good and evil.
(c) Ethel Adnan, 2018. Commissioned by HAU Hebbel am Ufer for the event "Erinnern ist Arbeit".