2000s Archive

Berlin: Act II

Originally Published November 2003
With Germany’s reborn capital entering a new stage of its career, a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright revisits the scene of his first production, long before the Wall came down.

When I went to Berlin for the first time, in 1959, I was young, optimistic, and enthusiastic. Berlin was not. It still lay mainly in ruins—Allied bombings and Soviet armies having done a thorough job of it. The city sat in the center of Russian-occupied East Germany and was divided into four sectors—U.S., Russian, British, and French. The young and able-bodied had been fleeing the city, and it was becoming home only to the old plus as many younger workers as could be bribed to come or stay.

I, on the other hand, was American, bushy-tailed, and arriving for the world premiere of my first play, The Zoo Story, having its debut amid the German devastation. When I wrote The Zoo Story, Off Broadway had not yet come into its own, and no theater seemed interested in my hour-long, rather grumpy play. Besides…who was I?

Friends arranged for the play to find its way from New York to Florence to Zurich to Frankfurt to Berlin. During this journey it was translated and given its first performance on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape—in German, of course, a language I speak not a word of.

You can be at the world premiere of your first play only when it happens, so I quit my job delivering telegrams for Western Union in New York City, borrowed steerage sea fare, and sailed to Bremerhaven. I then continued on by train to Berlin, meeting my first Soviet soldiers along the way—very young, with very large machine guns.

Two years later I was back for another world premiere, this time of my play The American Dream—and while I was still young and a functioning playwright in New York City, my optimism and enthusiasm were tempered: The Wall had gone up in my absence, and West Berlin, where I and my work were, was even more of a beleaguered island.

By 1990 everything had changed. The Wall was down, the Soviet empire had collapsed, Germany was one country again, and Berlin was a city of cranes. The rebuilding was going on everywhere I looked. It was much slower in the eastern section, where the Communist government had kept things shabby and dreary—as a kind of punishment, it seemed. But even here work was going forward. I no longer had to negotiate fallen buildings to find the Berliner Ensemble, Bertolt Brecht’s theater and its revelatory productions.

During the preceding years, the center of the city—the art galleries, the shops, the “life”—had moved west to the Allied zones of control, in particular to the Kurfürstendamm area, and here there was relative normalcy. It was much like being in any other European city so long as you remembered that the normalcy ended only a few miles away. Mitte, the old city center, the cultural and governmental center, had been left in disrepair, and my visits there in 1990 were trips to a wasteland.

Now, as I write this, all is changing yet again. The heart of the city is returning to its old centers. A giant business, entertainment, and cultural complex has risen in Potsdamer Platz—a complex, unfortunately, of considerable architectural incoherence, in spite of individual buildings of great interest. Maybe all this will change: Much of the surrounding area is still a vast wilderness.

Although new concert halls and museums have been built and a vast transportation complex is nearing completion connecting all of Germany with its reinstated capital, much of the construction is literal. The great treasure of museums, libraries, churches, and government buildings around Unter Den Linden, east of the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, is being reconstructed much as it was before the ­destruction of the Second World War, and the massive shops and office buildings along Friedrichstrasse, for example, are—for all their reimagining—echoes of a previous time, a time you cannot have experienced. I was in the presence of an equivalency.

If you’ve been to a city several times over a long period you have something new visitors don’t have: familiarity, an almost “at-home” sense. What you usually don’t have is the surprise of the new, the wonder of the new. With Berlin, on the other hand, my familiarity with the city also allows me the surprise of the new, for the city is in constant flux—it is rebuilding its identity all around me.

The city seems to be doing several things at once—reconstructing its past, opening itself to new adventure, and flexing its muscles—saying, in effect, “Here is the wonder of how it all was, and here, too, is the future.”

I find it is all very exciting and perhaps nearly as wonderful as Berliners think it is.

Berlin is a city of memorials. Well, the entire city is a memorial to itself, but two transcend the genre. As architecture, I find the Jewish Museum (designed by the American architect Daniel Libeskind) thrilling and disturbing. To walk on the faces of thousands of Holocaust victims done crudely in flat metal in a vaulted chamber is to participate in the awful truth of history. To stand for a while in an outdoor forest of askew pillars, in a sloping courtyard, is to find your balance and sense of reality departing. The irony and inevitability of this museum in Berlin is profound. I found the experience essential, and wondered if I could have borne it had I been Jewish.

The memorial which moved me most as a writer, a writer aware that the sanctity of the written word is often threatened and silenced (especially in totalitarian societies, but even in dem­ocracies), is in the Bebelplatz, a large, paved open square in Mitte, in front of the reconstructed library of Hum­boldt University. I went there in the evening after the working crowds had gone. I saw a kind of light rising from a central area of the square. I went to it. There I found that one of the large paving stones had been removed, and an area of maybe four by four feet, covered with glass, offered a view of a small underground room filled with high empty bookshelves. This is the spot where in 1933 the infamous book burning took place, where the Nazis made a huge bonfire of works by Jews, intellectuals, and left-wing writers con­sidered unworthy of being read and studied in the Thousand Year Reich. It was designed by Micha Ullman, and is deeply moving. I went there on a cold night, but the chill I felt had to do with what I was experiencing. Even now, months later, when I remember it, I still feel like crying.

For many, many reasons, Berlin can do that to you.

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