German theater has always been known for its boundary-pushing and daring approach to performance. From controversial topics to unconventional narrative structures, German theater has never shied away from controversy. One of the most well-known ways to achieve this is by including nudity in performances. In this article, we will examine the role of nudity in contemporary German-language theater.
Nudity has been a part of German theater since the early 20th century and has always been a vehicle for social and sexual commentary. These performances push the boundaries of what is considered socially acceptable and address social norms that remain hidden from public discourse. Through the nude form on stage, artists are able to get to the heart of the complexities of identity, sexuality, and power dynamics. Furthermore, nudity in contemporary German theater has become a means for artists to challenge the taboo of sexuality.
A classic example of this is the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner. In Scene 7, set in Marie’s chamber, Marie, the protagonist’s lover, becomes involved with a drum major, the leader of a marching band. He talks about starting “a breed of drum major” with her. She resists at first but then lets him have his way. It is all one, anyway.
This scene is not developed further in Büchner but is often used in modern productions to bring the sexual act onto the stage. Marie’s nakedness, in this case, is a metaphor for the vulnerability of socially disadvantaged people. In contrast, the silence her nakedness evokes is used to hide such problems for social appearances.
But Woyzeck is also increasingly played naked in more recent productions, such as Christoph Mehler’s 2011 production at the Staatstheater Nuremberg or Sebastian Hartmann’s 2015 production at the Deutsches Theater Berlin. The aim is always to show people in their wretchedness: “Nudity on stage always has a very direct effect. Nudity aims at intimacy and closeness. Nudity also stands for defenselessness and devotion. That’s why theater people like nudity,” writes Ronald Meyer-Arlt, for example, in a review of Heike Marianne Götze’s 2012 production of Woyzeck at the Schauspielhaus Hannover.
German director Frank Castorf, known for his provocative productions, often introduces nudity into his performances. In his production of Berthold Brecht’s “Baal,” for example, staged for the 2015 Berlin Theatertreffen. Somewhat unnerved, Sophie Diesselhorst asks on nachtkritik.de, “So why, dear Frank Castorf, do the women always have to be half to almost/entirely naked and balance on high heels with you? Because they can do it so well? Because they want it that way? Because it’s so tremendously sexy when they also talk intelligently and furiously?” Castorf’s approach to nudity aims to move audiences beyond the performance of normative ideals of femininity and masculinity, as the extended exposure and occupation of the nude form on stage exposes it.
Three high phases of the naked theater in Germany
In her book Theater der Nacktheit, Ulrike Traub identifies three high phases of nudity as a staging device:
- The free body culture in the Kaiserreich and the Weimar Republic with Isadora Duncan, Anita Berber and the girl troupes of the Ausstattungsrevuen.
- the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies with the musical “Hair”, the Living Theatre and Viennese Actionism
- the present
While in the first two phases nudity was used as an instrument of protest against rigid sexual morality and was thus ideologically colored, this can no longer be used as an explanatory pattern for the present in the same way.
Body politics and gender roles
The battle line has become a different one. Today, Traub says, it’s about the idealized body image of the media, which only endorses the optimally shaped body. “A secular cult of beauty, which only appears to be a liberal one, has taken the place of religiously-motivated corporal chastisement,” she writes. Instead of overcoming shame, the new permissiveness merely leads people to fear the critical gaze. If naked bodies are offensive at all today, it is because they are not perfect.
In this respect, using nudity in contemporary theater also addresses body politics and gender roles. Nudity can be an effective way to deconstruct stereotypes and present alternative narratives. Productions have emerged in German-language theater that explicitly address issues of body image, sexual identity, and power relations. Using nudity as a tool opens new perspectives on these important social discussions.
The human body as a means of expression
Rather than being used as a shock element or for pure aesthetics, the naked body is used to express a deeper connection between the performers and the audience. The protective shields of everyday life are thrown off through nudity, and the characters are presented in their vulnerability and authenticity.
This was the case in Ewelina Marciniak’s 2018 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” production at Theater Freiburg. Thieß Brammer, one of the actors in the play, says in an interview with the Badische Zeitung: “It was important to the director that we can understand the nudity and understand it as actors. There are also productions in which the director merely wants to be cool or to shock. But in our case, the nudity was always underpinned by content.”
In one “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” scene, the actors walk naked into the audience. “The director wanted the greatest possible drop,” Brammer says. “That we not only play pleasure on stage, but the audience also has pleasure. I always look beforehand to see who looks nice in the audience and then go there first.” And his colleague Rosa Thormeyer adds, “Titania says shortly beforehand that there are only joys in the forest. And this moment of absolute joy is what this scene is supposed to represent in the audience.”
Breaking and removing taboos
As before, however, nudity in theater is also readily used to test the limits of what is possible and to confront the audience with unusual perspectives. The focus is drawn to the human experience and reflection on our physicality by de-tabooing nudity. In Jürgen Gosch’s legendary 2005 Düsseldorf production of “Macbeth,” the entire cast appeared nude: all men of advanced age, dousing themselves in blood, peeing, and sliding around in their feces on stage.
Nudity in contemporary German-language theater is much more than skin; nudity in performances carries a wide range of meanings. It is a way for artists to challenge social norms and question what is acceptable. Including nudity in a play responds to societal challenges and allows one to express the human experience in its purest form. Some may see nudity as indecent, but German theater aims to help people engage with other identities without judging differences, gender, and culture. The use of nudity in contemporary theater will persist and likely continue to cross borders. Nudity has always been a means of art and expression that pushes the boundaries of social norms in unexpected ways.