Interview with Sebastian Hartmann about “Der Einzige und sein Eigentum” („The Ego and It’s Own“)
Günther Mailand: There are people who say that „Der Einzige und sein Eigentum“ is a very atypical Hartmann play, or at least surprising, because it moves the audience a little more gently in some parts. Perhaps it tortures people a little less than they’re used to from your other plays. How would you classify it?
Sebastian Hartmann: It’s a question of how you say goodbye to a house after 10 years of cooperation – after all, a new Artistic Director is coming in, for whom I won’t be working. And I didn’t really want to go out there again with material that was generally known. I didn’t want to transform a classic. After many discussions, the dramaturge suggested „The Ego and Its Own“ by Max Stirner, whom I actually only knew from my schooldays here in Berlin. At the Immanuel Kant Gymnasium, we secretly passed it around and said, look, these are anarchist thoughts – to trust only oneself, and to get out of the collective. In administered socialism, the idea of individuality had a completely different claim. Within this context, the individual that was supposed to emerge had a completely different dimension of anarchy. The fact that this was so frowned upon by Marx and Engels – who actually wrote a very long treatise about it – made it even more appealing to us. It was kind of subversive to read Stirner. And I didn’t even realise that I had forgotten it for 30 years or more.
GM: What was it like to look at the material again today?
SH: When I looked at it again, I realised how dangerous the material is. That it, on the one hand, can be seen as a fundamental capitalist idea: Nothing goes beyond me, I am my own right. You just have to read a little deeper, because Stirner means something else. He means to go beyond the ghosts of the past, through an independent ego, and not to organise oneself in parties and in social and psychological contexts that always produce the same problems. The problems of our present are war, social brutalisation, and the dog-eat-dog society. This has nothing to do with an ego, but with a mental mainstream of „who appears how“. And the real, honest self – which does not organize itself in party thoughts, but perhaps in associations – transcends this. That was the approach in terms of content.
GM: If I understand you correctly, you read Stirner in an emancipatory way, or at least extract elements that had an emancipatory effect then?
SH: Well, we always forget that back then, when you came out of the Enlightenment, you had to conceptualise the ego in a very different way. It was a time that functioned very differently from our overpopulated, high-tech, high-speed society. Spaces of contemplation and theses were much more physical and bodily, much more discussed. Today we are an ego that manages itself via Google and has access to non-stop information. Today we can look up everything quickly and – bang – I have something like a half-knowledge, so to speak, but I have not organised, internalised, and embodied it. So I am not at all in my thesis. Stirner’s controversial thesis does not only take place up here in my brain, but he actually thought about something socially. But this is a philosophical thesis, and not a manual. Today we read Stirner like an instruction manual, often testing it for truth and untruth, instead of answering the question of what would be thought or built up behind it, in the sense of how important emancipation of religion, state, society, and parents would actually be. And I’m not talking about some bad, weird thing like Reichsbürger or something. I’m talking about a clever, intellectual thesis like Beckett or Handke might have done after the Second World War, who said that we should no longer write psychological plays because bourgeois psychology drove us to war. And the fact that we forget that so quickly – how our „wanting to have“ as a capitalist society always drives us back to where we’re stranded at the moment – that’s something I would have liked to have read in Stirner more closely than the platitude „Oh, he defends the ego“. Of course, there were discussions in our rehearsals, but they were quickly resolved.
GM: I find it interesting that Stirner’s celebration of the individual can be read emancipatively or totally affirmatively, depending on the system and the historical moment. It is self-evident why one would support the defence of the individual under the conditions of the GDR or Stalinism, but how can Stirner be understood in 2023, under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism? I suspect that 99 per cent of the people who see the play read it as a critique of individualist capitalism.
SH: I don’t think so, maybe 50 per cent. The others might see it as a process of coming to terms with it. The people I found more interesting were those who saw it as an event of radical liberation from the shackles of the past. That is, not becoming an instrument of existing mainstream psychology. That is, not to become a consumer product, that is ultimately pushed back into an ego, but that is simply another ego. Just as perhaps in 200 years the term „democracy“ will have a different renaissance than the sinister interpretation we currently have of it in our society.
GM: By „shackles of the past“ do you refer to socialist missteps? Or what exactly is meant by that?
SH: Well, missteps… I would say „attempts“. That humanity is trying to get along with this world in a different way than just in this capitalist system, which has developed from a medieval feudal structure and for a certain time, at least after the Second World War, also experienced a renaissance in prosperity here in Europe. They felt comfortable riding on the backs of other parts of the world. No, no, I’m not interested in criticising any social system, I’m interested in describing the situation here and now. And that was not even as politically-connoted in the material as we are discussing here. But the basic sound. The mode we switched on during rehearsals was actually an act of love. It’s not for nothing that they sing „From Love“ at the end. I don’t think much of waving flags with a certain attitude on stage anyway. Because I think that art should show itself in a different way than in a debate.
GM: If I understood you correctly, you would say that you do not so much want to deliver a result with your work – in the sense of a critique that suggests a certain direction to the audience – but rather, that you illustrate, and then the rest happens in the people themselves. My question would be: can I separate the image from the critique? I’m thinking of the phrase „You can’t not communicate“. For example, if I put on a musical about the individualist, it’s a statement – you can’t get away from it. What are your thoughts on this, on this relationship that I wanted to address? You mentioned Marx and Engels. It is said that Karl Marx’s critical analysis of Stirner was a major inspiration for the development of his theory of historical materialism.
SH: I guess that’s true. But we didn’t actually (think)… so we’ve been dealing with that. Of course. But the evening itself gives the impetus to think. Just as music stimulates me to get into a certain mood, or a picture stimulates me to think about certain things, I start to deal with the information myself. I can’t go on stage as someone who thinks for other people. Or, let’s say, I don’t want to. I want to ‘think with’ people. And that the critics always take it to this level of confrontation or provocation, to the point of disturbance or irritation… I had to realise that certain uses of certain materials cause something like irritation. I think this is a healthy process of mutual perception. I find it harder to produce a spectacle. When things are too easy to participate in, or too easy to read, then you start to feel comfortable in it. Entertainment is not my job. Maybe certain scenes are entertaining for a moment, but that’s what you play with, as a director. That you say, ‘this scene that’s coming up is a bit culinary, it’s going down well, but we’ll counter it with this’. Or ‘I need a contrast here’.
GM: I think that also happens in „The Ego and Its Own“, in places where there’s a kind of showmanship dancing, everyone’s glittering, but it’s actually a terribly distorted performance.
SH: Maybe! These are blurry moments. They’re also polarising. Some people say „Great choreography“, others say „Oh God“. And I think that’s what’s called „shimmering“, or not outlining the edges so sharply. So, I’m more of an expressionist – or even an impressionist. I don’t paint naturalistically on stage. I don’t go into a precision in the processes to allow for as many possible theses at the same time, to keep the space stable in terms of art, and not in terms of a statement. Because, in itself, art has only the statement that it is art. It does not want to be perfect, nor does it want to be able to do anything. But it also does not want to be able to do nothing, it belongs to the realm of intuition. And I personally think it is more important to trust the viewer’s own intuition when he reads the pictures, than to put the “Sandmann” or the daily news in front of him and say: „This is how it is“.
GM: I have a question: I wonder if this adherence to the individual, to the responsible individual who can rebel, doesn’t fail to recognise that the individual is subordinate to structures. If you look at it from a Marxist perspective, you would say that being provides consciousness. To what extent is the individual capable of agency within a structure that, in a sense, produces action?
SH: It’s an interesting question. I can only say that everyone has to find out for themselves. Personally, I am convinced that everyone has to clarify for themselves to what extent they want to live in certain structures or not. At what point do you have to become active – maybe in connection with other people – but for me that doesn’t potentially mean a party or a social counter-current, rather, people who have a common interest in something. And I could even imagine that there are many areas in this society that would develop differently if there were ways of doing that. For example, Marx wrote that the contradictions have to get correspondingly high before you get to a revolutionary situation. I can hardly imagine them being higher than they are at the moment. We are on the verge of nuclear confrontation, we are erecting borders everywhere. Since the collapse of this polarity of the socialist and capitalist world system, we have had more wars than ever. This wall that was torn down here in Berlin has been built everywhere else.
GM: The next question is very simple: if you were to give contemporary theatre one word as a heading, what would it be?
SH: Art. So, as a recommendation, I would recommend more art to contemporary theatre. I think contemporary theatre is quite lame, and very liberal on many levels. I don’t like all this „we-can-do-anything theatre.“
GM: Finally, room for self-criticism: What failed in „The Ego and Its Own“? What is missing from the play?
SH:(Thinks). That’s a good question. If you asked me that on other nights in the theatre, I might answer differently. Because this is such a cohesive group, especially in the collaboration with the musician PC Nackt, and because it is carried by such a great love for the ensemble – which very courageously followed this idea of translating a philosopher on stage into a musical language – I would find it a pity to speak of a failure. Perhaps my failure is that it does not last longer. That there is no second part that lasts another two hours. Maybe I failed to get more people on board to sing along. Maybe there isn’t the scene that makes the audience applaud. Maybe the rhythm isn’t there, maybe it’s not well done. (Thinks). I can hardly answer the question.
GM: This is also an answer. Sebastian, thank you very much!
SH: Thank you very much, Günther, I had a lot of fun.