|Actor/director Peter S. Case, a Resident Artist
of La MaMa E.T.C. and member of the Great Jones Repertory, will stage his
own five-character theatrical adaptation of "Death and the Ploughman"
(Der Ackermann aus Böhmen, 1400) by Johannes von Saaz in La MaMa's
First Floor Theater. The adaptation, based on the 1947 English translation
by K.W. Maurer, is a prose poem that is stunningly lyrical, with a highly
polished rhetoric and cadence. The staging will be abundant in music and
movement, with imagery drawn from medieval illuminated manuscripts and paintings
of Bosch and Breughel.
Though written at the cusp of the Medieval and Renaissance eras, "Der
Ackermann aus Böhmen" (literally the plowman from Bohemia) is
strikingly modern. It is probably literature's most provocative argument
between man and death, and is intensely rewarding to read today. Its author,
also known as Johannes von Tepl and Johannes von Schüttwa, was a
Town Clerk and School Rector in Saatz and Public Notary in the Diocese
of Prague. The piece is widely known in Germany (where is widely regarded
as the first important prose work in the German language) and has only
been adapted to the English speaking stage twice in our memory: at the
Gate Theatre in London in 2002 and by Anne Bogart's SITI Company in 2004.
Both used a much more "contemporized" translation by Michael
Johannes' prose-poem is believed to be inspired by the death of the
author's first wife in 1400. The grief-stricken writer introduces himself
as a ploughman, whose plow is his pen. Representing Man, he bitterly accuses
Death of unjust dealings toward humanity. Death argues back forcefully
and sometimes scornfully, eventually reconciling the ploughman to the
necessity of dying. Throughout the fiery debate, the ploughman asserts
a noble human ideal against Death's more negative view of mankind. The
dialogue is free of dogmatic teaching and is an astonishing disputation:
the author makes deliberate and frequent use of legal forms and phrases,
and the dramatic effect is that Death is on trial. Ultimately God, the
judge, gives Death the victory but Man the honor. The conclusion is the
Man can overcome the awesomeness of Death only through an active and honorable
life, inner peace and a clear conscience.
Peter S. Case's unique adaptation breaks Death into four characters,
played by a man, two women and a ten year old girl, each chosen to heighten
aspects of Death's arguments for dramatic effect. Case's choice also fulfills,
literally, the fact that Death speaks in the royal "we." One
of the four Deaths is personified with the beautiful image of the ploughman's
The 1947 translation by K.W. Maurer forms the basis for Mr. Case's playscript.
Case is a theater artist who is mindful of language; one of his accomplishments
is to help fashion Kristin Linklater's Columbia University e-course, "Shakespeare's
Sonnets and the Modern Voice." Maurer's translation elegantly recaptures
the symmetrical, harmonious structure of Johannes' sentences, which are
a source of the piece's enduring fame as progenitor of the New High German
form. (Writers of the 1940s had great diction for this, in my opinion.
Write me hate mail if you disagree.) Examining the script and its source,
Case's work is obvious. He has condensed Maurer's regal, lyrical translation,
keeping its heightened flavor and accentuating its metric style. This
playscript dances out on iambic feet and affords seemingly unlimited potential
for the actors.
The masterpiece has often been cited as the most profound prose writing
in German humanism and a "break point" between Medieval and
Renaissance thinking--evidence of the beginning of the Age of Reason and
Enlightenment. Case explains his enthusiasm for the piece in modern philosophical
terms, saying "By questioning the need for death and its hold on
humanity, you question the need for God." He edited out every reference
of God until the end of the script, for dramatic effect. This was to make
the final adjudication more dramatic, when the Wife/Angel says, "Each
man owed his life to Death, his body to earth, his soul to the divine."
Case explains that the work is a comfort to people in mourning and it
calls us to the foundations of our religion and spirituality. He says,
"It teaches us you have to embrace death or you will never find peace."
The design by Peter S. Case will use part of the audience area as an
extension of the stage. Stage imagery will be inspired by medieval illuminated
manuscripts and works of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. There will
be extensive use of Biomechanics, Butoh and Grotowsky-based movement.
Music composed by Storm Garner, an accomplished violinist; is informed
by medieval sources and will utilize minimal instruments: cello, violin
and some percussion. The music will create a ritualistic atmosphere that
will bring the four deaths together throughout the show. In the end it
will be the voice that sheds death's facade and brings all the characters
together as human beings.
The ploughman is played by Rob Howard. The four faces of death are Robert
Yang, Elli Stefanidi (as Death/Wife/Angel), violinist Storm Garner and
ten year old Bridget Clark.
Peter S. Case holds an MFA from Columbia, where he was
a School of the Arts Fellowship Recipient. He recently was organizer of
the La MaMa Umbria International Symposium of Directors in Spoleto, Italy.
He has acted with La MaMa's Great Jones Rep in "Perseus," "The
Trojan Women," "Antigone" and "Oedipus." He played
Peter in Dario D'Ambrosi's stage play and movie, "The Pathological
Passion of The Christ." He has also acted with Milwaukee Rep.
· There is a useful article on "Der Ackermann aus Böhmen"
and its author online in The Literary Encyclopedia: http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=16326.
· Albert Wimmer has a chapter on the work in his Anthology of Medieval
German Literature: www.nd.edu/~gantho/anth354-532/Ackermann492-507.html.
· If you know any German, give yourself a treat and read aloud
from Johannes' text, which can be found at: http://www.fh-augsburg.de/~harsch/germanica/Chronologie/15Jh/Tepl/tep_tod.html.