The recent German premiere of “Three Hotels,” Jon Robin Baitz’s stinging morality tale about a corporate executive as despicable as a Nazi, brought familiar sensations of pain in a country whose language and memory still twitch when confronted with symbols of inexplicable inhumanity.
Parts of the German-language version of “Three Hotels,” which debuted in late September at Berlin’s Schlossparktheater, resonated all too deeply in a country where affluent Mercedes-Benz owners in the West still prattle on about the “unbearable” costs of reunification.
But other aspects of the script, particularly Baitz’s cynical comparison of capitalist exploitation to Nazi ruthlessness, simply dredged up too many old demons to preserve the play’s contemporary outlook, and were cut.
“Three Hotels” maps the rise and fall, in three sparsely staged monologues, of a self-hating Jew, Kenneth Hoyle (ne Hirschkowitz). An ex-Peace Corps volunteer, Hoyle has become a loathsome careerist in the employ of a multinational manufacturer of low-grade powdered baby formula, which the company shamelessly markets as “better than breast milk” in underdeveloped nations where mothers know no better.
Hoyle, the company’s hatchet-man, opens the play slowly mixing martinis and describing how he downsizes unprofitable operations from Tangier to Lagos. By the third act, the company has fired him.
“This is an absolutely typical European theme,” said Heribert Sasse, director of the Schlossparktheater and the man who plays Hoyle. Referring to corporate-ethics scandals such as the sinking of the Brent Spar oil rig, Sasse locates the play’s main appeal in the modern relevance of its moral critique, especially in a wealthy country like Germany where, he said, “we justify everything, so long as it brings a profit. In the third act, what really comes out are the values that are sacrificed in the name of a career.”
Indeed Schlosspark’s low-budget version of “Three Hotels” – performances cost around DM2,000 ($1,400) a night – intrigued the opening night’s Sasse-friendly crowd more for its message than its production values. The stage bifurcates the 200-seat venue, propped like an island in which Hoyle recounts his demise, as adrift in the audience as he is in his moral convictions. Unfortunately, that construction works better in theory than in practice, as many reviews pointed out.
Overall, local critics were mixed on the performance, some hailing it as a breakthrough for the newly reopened theater, others terming it a “wanting effort.” Either way, the subject matter held much greater sway here than Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” which Sasse brought to Germany with little success earlier this summer.
“I personally prefer ‘ Three Hotels’ more (than ‘ Arcadia’) because it’s closer to life,” Sasse explained. “Theater is already elitist. If you then pick plays that are elite, it’s even less fun.”
The Baitz text has been nimbly adapted by Michael Schindlbeck in a translation more striking for its omissions than anything else. The Schlosspark production runs a comfortable 80 minutes, but only because it scales back the bits of monologue in which Baitz probes Hoyle’s loss of Jewish identity.
Hoyle’s wife Barbara’s cutting references to him as a corporate “Albert Speer” are indeed left in, and Hoyle still recounts to the audience an ill-advised boardroom wisecrack in which he compares the company’s Third World expansion to “The Final Solution.”
But whereas German dramatists can easily play the Nazi card in demonizing a protagonist, they are at a loss as to how to portray Jewishness.
“To my great sorrow, Hitler saw to it that the great Jewish intelligence and wit which created European theater in the 1920s is gone,” Sasse said. “It is completely missing. And here in Germany, where humor is sparse, we miss that like daily bread.”
Long passages centering on Hoyle’s Jewishness, for instance, have been wholly excised. As both Sasse and translator Schindlbeck explained, in as ethnically homogeneous a country as Germany, the theme of Jewish assimilation is lost on audiences. “That side doesn’t come across (here), people can’t empathize with it, but the other – the danger of anti-Semitism – that they recognize indeed,” Sasse said.