Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

10.5. Forms of Life: Theatre Forms as an Articulated Way of Life
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Herbert Gantschacher (Klagenfurt)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

The Triumph of the Human Spirit: Ullmann in Theresienstadt

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer (Carleton University, Ottawa)


Let us reflect on two introductory stories. In a letter to a friend, French philosopher & author Montaigne remarks "What is it that made us been born at one place rather than at another?" This question opens both to the conscience of being and to the perspective of the relativity of culture.

French theatre personality Armand Gatti tells a story that happened in one Nazi concentration camp. One day, at the peril of their lives, Lithuanian Jews organized a theatre play because they found themselves beginning to resemble the dead too closely. Their play consisted of only one sentence: "I am. I was. I will be." It was of course the self-definition of God speaking to Moses from the burning bush, related in the Old Testament. And they succeeded in bringing their prisoners to laugh to tears. A laugh born out of the surprise of rediscovering the connection between past, present and future. A laugh, which allowed them to exist again, to re-assert their humanity. This was theatre-mocking death. These were words framed within a theatrical experience, articulating our beyond that which makes life existentially possible. This was reappropriating memory so there could be a future, beyond the present, the smelly presence of death.

One does not have to be an anthropologist to know that culture was born the day that human beings became conscious of their mortality. Through this consciousness, we relate, we connect with our body, with the body of others, with our body in nature, with the stones we place along imagined roads so that we can find our way in that dangerous environment, and avoid death as long as possible. The Inuit's stone constructions and the Aboriginal' "songlines," their Emii "dreaming," tell the path, the space from where we come, the "country."

Beyond physical roadmarks, words create that path that space and thus defy death and forgetting. The ancient Egyptians believed the seat of the soul was in the tongue: the tongue was the rudder or steering-oar with which a human being steered his or her course through the world.

Words and the music that carries these words; words and songs as a way of conquering our existence and in the case of the prisoners of concentration camps, of the enclosed ghettos, a re-conquering of their past, their present, their future ("I am, I was, I will be..."), again the odds of murder. The power of words, the power of music, is beyond power: Zeus punished Orpheus not for having revealed the secrets of the Kingdom of Death but for having tried to defy and combat Chronos. Orpheus and his lyre were indeed absolute dangers to Chronos, because everyone who listened to that lyre, to that singing, was liberated from the unfolding of time. There is the barbed wire of the camps, of any camp. There is the barbed wire of the mind, from alienation to ideology. One of space; one of time. A song, an opera, the text carried by that song, by that music conquer time - and Zeus knew this as the only weak spot in his mastery of time -, cancel out barbed wire. Music indeed is a victory on death. More general, culture is a kind of victory on the limits of being mortal, of being. Specifically, this can be reduced to a romantic notion - which was basically still the one of the artists in the first part of the XXth century; anthropologically, culture is a fundamental response to mortality. Songs, an opera, the words carried by that music cancel out barbed wire, conquer time. Culture, indeed, is a victory on death and composer Ullmann and his co-prisoners, intuitively perhaps, knew this.

Every real work of art has faced death on the way to its creation. And when mortality hovers around you every moment of the day with daily trains "to the East", with arbitrary executions; when dysentery, tuberculosis and starvation decimate the ranks of the survivors, then memory, and thus culture, become an urgency, and theatre a way to share it. In Terezin as a "model ghetto" which was a theatrical ploy by the Nazis, theatre became real life. Theatre and music as a form of art, theatre and music as the art of form. Form as the key to opening time; because music is the metamorphosis of time and words permit us to speak about "before" and "after": the transformation of time transforms our inner space; space, then for them became without borders.

Ullmann: "Theresienstadt was, and is still for me, the school of form. Before that, when we did not feel the impact nor the burden of material life because they were erased by comfort, that magical accomplishment of civilization, it was easy to conceive artistic forms of great beauty: It is here, in Terezin, when in our daily existence we had to vanquish matter with the help of power of form, when everything that was related to the muses contrasted extraordinarily with the environment which was ours, that was the true school of mastery. Like Schiller we tried to penetrate the secret of each work of art in an attempt to annihilate matter through form, which is the supreme mission of the human being. The aesthetic one as well as the ethical one.

I composed in Terezin a certain quantity of music, principally to satisfy the needs of the conductors, the directors, the pianists and the singers, and through them of the members of the free-time organization of the ghetto. To make up its catalogue would be as vain as to stress the fact that playing piano in Theresienstadt was absolutely impossible as long as the camp was deprived of instruments. It would be equally as futile for the identification of future generations to evoke the cruel lack of music paper.

One has to stress nevertheless that Theresienstadt contributed to emphasize and did not hinder my musical activities, that in no way whatsoever we sat down to weep on the banks of the waters of Babylon, and that our effort to serve the Arts respectfully was proportionate to our will to live, in spite of everything. I am convinced that those who fight, in life as well as in Art, to triumph over matter which always resists, will share my point of view."

Death beyond death occurs when one erases, when one obliterates memory. This fabulous tie between time gone and time to be, past and future, when one becomes the path traveled, opens the path within us, ties past and future. We all know that the ultimate goal of the Nazi regime was to erase the memory of the people of the Book, the people of Memory, the Jewish people. But memory is the antidote to oblivion. Every work of art is an act of resistance, said Albert Camus. The 2309 lectures held by 489 lecturers in Terezin between June 1942 and October 1944 were acts of resistance like the concerts, theatre plays and operas, the organization of the library and the reading events. Above all else, the painting, the writing and the composing itself. The libretto of the "Emperor of Atlantis", which I will now introduce to you as ultimate form as victory of the mind and of the soul, because it is a matrix of memory articulating the life of the inmate within the destiny of humanity, Peter Kien the librettist-poet and Viktor Ullmann, the composer-poet put the following words into the mouth of Death (one of their allegoric characters): "A laugh which laughs at itself is immortal." Indeed, a work of art that permits the reflection of itself from within itself is immortal. Mozart's "Magic Flute" where good and bad, light and darkness mirror themselves, where an initiatic voyage mirrors a fairy tale, is that kind of work. Ullmann's "Emperor of Atlantis" is a XXth Century "Magic Flute." Not one composed for the Age of Enlightenment but one for the Age of Darkness...Strangely enough, in the XIXth, so is Wagner's Ring, where at every shimmering of the leitmotiv, the whole gestalt is reflected!

Again, Armand Gatti tells how one day in 1943 a certain Ruben Miuchkine, sentenced to 90 days of isolation - which he should not have survived - came out of his cell, dazed. When he appeared in the prison courtyard, he danced a Cossack dance. And at every leap he would call out the letters of the alphabet A,B,C,D....."That day" Gatti said, "the war had been won." Memory of gesture, memory of what constitutes the building blocks of language...With Ullmann's "Emperor of Atlantis," it is the memory of memory that was regained. This music-theatre work is not only "das Ding an Sich" of Auschwitz, and of every "Vernichtungslager," those stars in the sky, those trembling stars of which we have to live the agony for millions of years, as it is articulated in this short fifty-five minute work. It is a work that in a polyphonic way reveals layers of meaning as those studying the qabbalah have traced in the torah. It is also the bridging of cultures, the Germanic one, taking back, retrieving, the words and language of their captors; the Czech one, the other central European cultures also which had been carrying forward their yiddishness for centuries, but also the contemporary world where Jazz, Shimmy, Bach and music from the New World, short-circuit time and space.

The almighty weapon of the Nazis was murder. So brutal, "uncivilized" was their behaviour that death feels abused by them and refuses to continue to play their game, to work for them; "Death goes on strike." "DER KAISER VON ATLANTIS ODER DIE TOD-VERWEIGERUNG." What did the inmates have next to murder? Nothing! Kien the poet, Ullmann the musician conductor, Schächter and their 7 characters say this in the midst of hell. Ullmann and Kien put into question, laugh at, bypass the Nazi's might to kill, even when in overspeed, they aim at the "final solution." Texts sung, human voices, instrumental ones, thoughts with music, through words and music: this kind of opera respond to the mass murderers in the highest form of their own language, conquered by the inmates, far from the barked orders...Here culture is not only an act of taming death, it is courage itself facing death.

In his ultimate work, the seventh sonata, he will mix elements of his Emperor of Atlantis with the Hussite song "You who are God's warriors" (Smetana, Dvorak, Haas...), with Yehuda Sharett's "Rachel" (See how her blood floods in mine, her voice sings in mine, Rachel who guards the herds of Laban, Rachel mother of mothers...), and with Mozart and Bach. All this built into a magical, majestuous centerpoint, and a polyphony, which creates liberty. This last score still wet on Oct. 16th, '44, inmate Ullmann was put on train and murdered in Auschwirtz-Birkenau two days later.


About the Emperor of Atlantis

(a) This "Spiel in einem Akt" happens also to be a "Legende in Vier Bildern," theatrical go-between of singspiel, commedia del 'arte, cabaret, opera, oratorio, spiritual cantata. It has the makings of an allegoric play - "Jedermann in Terezin" -, a parable - the metamorphosis of man -, a Japanese No-play - in its structure.... It is about hard-core reality and about the road to spirituality. It is about memory (Bach, Haydn, Brahms, Berg, Mahler, Dvorak, Suk, Ullmann himself are quoted or signaled...) and thus about future (the Emperor's farewell address). It is about the present - an apocalyptic ruler inviting the end of the world - and about all the potential dictatorships, about all potentates, about every bit of nazi hiding within each of us....

(b) Reality and the destiny of the inmates are already very present in 1943 when Kien and Ullmann start the "Emperor"
"The corpses have been sent to the recycling unit...10,000k of phosphorus"
"What remains for us in this poor world. Will no one buy us? We have to go wherever the four winds blow us."
And what is Harlequin (M. Everyone)? A memory, paler than the yellowed photographs of those men who no longer know how to smile."

(c) The sparkle of love comes from the grassroots and will ultimately put the "great leaders" facing their destiny.

"Look, the world is full of light and colours
Is it true that there are worlds that are not hard and brutal?
Is it true that there are landscapes that have not been laid to waste by shelling
Death becomes a poet when united by love"
This is what sings in duo the two former enemies, the male soldier and the female "Bubikopf."

(d) Death clearly has taken the side of humanity

"I am death the gardener, who sows sleep
I am death who reaps the ripe corn of suffering in the fields
I am death the one who delivers you from pestilence; I am not pestilence
I am death the one who releases you from suffering, I am not the cause of suffering"

Death united by love put the Emperor in front of the 'mirror', before guiding him through it...

Conscience resurfaces:

"A terrible physician has lifted the scales from my eyes and cured us from our blindness."
"We shall bear our sufferings and not rest until hatred and tolerance have been eradicated from our hearts."

But great relativity resides in his final remarks: can humanity learn the lessons of pain and suffering it continuously inflicts on itself?

The war is over you said with such pride. Is only this war over, the last? White flags will wave, bells will chime joyfully from every tower; and fools will dance, sing and leap. But for how long! The fire has only been damped down, not put out. Soon it will flare up again, murder will rage anew and yet it was the peace of the grave I longed for."

Viktor Ullmann went beyond the narrative, descriptive element; through citations, both in music as in the writing that have marked his culture - from the Old and New Testament to Hobbes, he aims at the universality of his message. Moreover, digging deeper into the layers of meaning, he allocates to the allegoric figures particular musical ones (fourths, thirds, augmented characterize presence and dominance at moments that enlighten, for those who know, particular elements of the text). Finally, like in the qabbalah, numerology signals his ultimate messages, which relate to the complex triangle of apocalypse, life and salvation.

Like William Owen's poetry "I am not concerned with poetry, my subject is war and the pity of war: the war is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn," Viktor Ullmann offered through "The Emperor of Atlantis" a work reflecting on the memory of a civilization on the brink of losing itself. Without "pathos", he was "speaking to the yet unknowing world," telling the story of those "carnal bloody and unnatural acts, those accidental judgment, casual slaughters and deaths put on by cunning and forced cause." And that, in the XXth

Century, in our own house, and on such a scale as was never dreamt of in Horatio's or even in Hamlet's philosophy.

"In the midst of nowhere, where the living can no longer laugh and the dying can no longer lament," (First act) Victor Ullmann went through the theatre to tell reality, through reality to tell the past the present and the future of mankind ____ "I was, I am, I will be" _____, cutting through the barbed wire of space and time, searching for a redemption not for his individual soul but for a humanity at a loss. His posthumous victory through music and words is the victory of culture as dynamics of spirituality.

© Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer (Carleton University, Ottawa)

10.5. Forms of Life Theatre Forms as an Articulated Way of Life

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For quotation purposes:
Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer (Carleton University, Ottawa): The Triumph of the Human Spirit: Ullmann in Theresienstadt. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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