Chapter 9 Why Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Play Garbage, the City, and Death Could Not Be Performed in Germany

In: Theatre Scandals
Author: Beate Schappach

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This chapter analyses the scandal around the play Garbage, The City and Death (Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod) by German playwright, theatre and film maker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Published in 1976, the play immediately caused controversy in West Germany, because it was accused of reproducing anti-Semitic stereotypes. The scandal unfolded in three phases:

  1. 1.Literary Scandal (1976): Destroying the first edition of the play
  2. 2.Theatre Scandal (1980s): Preventing the staging of the play and blocking the opening night
  3. 3.Resolution (2009): First performance of the play in Germany

The play challenged the democracy of post-war Germany. The controversy over the play turned into a scandal, because two democratic values were at stake: the protection of human dignity and the freedom of expression. Those, who were in favour of the play, as well as those who were opposed to it, claimed to protect either one of these values and, therefore, the young West German democracy. The scandal was caused and driven forward by the crucial questions: How will West Germany come to terms with its National Socialist past? Will it be able to maintain a stable democracy?

The case study of Garbage, The City and Death provides insights into the general structure and dynamics of scandals: Scandals arise through the public circulation of de-contextualised information about the subject of the controversy. The lack of information is caused by the logic of the scandal itself: Banning the play and the performance respectively prevents the general public from forming a well-founded opinion based on actual knowledge of the subject. The scandal is driven forward by an emotionalising rhetoric built around the de-contextualised pieces of information. Once the gap of information is filled, the scandalising rhetoric turns into a rhetoric of irrelevance: reviews of the first performance of Garbage, The City and Death in Germany considered the play hardly a matter of public concern.

Theatre Scandals

Social Dynamics of Turbulent Theatrical Events