Wasted Land

Music Theatre for the 100th Anniversary of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

+++ NICO AND THE NAVIGATORS show “Wasted Land” using T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in English. At the beginning there is an approx. 15-minute introduction by the poet Norbert Hummelt in German. Duration in total approx. 95 min. +++

When the American author Thomas Stearne Eliot (1888-1965) published his long poem “The Waste Land” in 1922, he struck a chord with the times: Four years after the end of the First World War and under the impression of the immediately following pandemic, the “Spanish flu”, which went down in history, the poet, who was himself plagued by severe psychological problems, described in a total of 433 lines and five paragraphs the lonely and meaningless existence of modern man in a dreary, parched and broken environment.

For the 100th anniversary of “The Waste Land”, Nico and the Navigators want to create a scenic-musical revision of the poem that asks about the lasting validity and increased relevance of the text.

Externally, of course, it’s about irony as a mask of despair, which Eliot expert Mary Karr compares to David Letterman’s sarcasm, to Cindy Sherman’s erotic conundrums or to non-linear leaps in Quentin Tarantino’s films – a technique of associativity that has been familiar to the Navigators since their beginnings and which now predestines them for the continuation and rewriting of “The Waste Land”.

In terms of content, however, it is about escalations that the author could not have foreseen and that still affect us today in changing variations – about wars and drought catastrophes, about the artist’s progress “as a process of perpetual self-sacrifice with the aim of the complete annihilation of the personality” (Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) and, most recently, about a pandemic that forces every individual behind a mask.

The title “Wasted Land” is meant to allude to Homo sapiens’ wasteful treatment of the earth and the consequences that follow.

At the same time, the production will deal with the biographies of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who became “persona non grata” for a time because of anti-Semitic statements on the one hand and active enthusiasm for the Italian fascists on the other, and who are still critically discussed today. Thus, the play can and should also ask about the role of intellectuals in political debates, about elitist positions as a starting point for right-wing thinking.

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Press reviews

Barbara Wiegand / RBB - Inforadio

“Haunting: Nico and the Navigators take up the gloom… a sound space with enough room for your own associations to let yourself drift in lines that don’t always make sense, that you don’t always have to understand for them to touch you… the vocals sensitively empathise with it… the dance seeks to express the fears and aggressions that open up here…”

Barbara Wiegand / RBB - Inforadio

T.S. Eliot wrote his poem "The Waste Land" in 1922 under the impression of numerous crises - as gloomy as it is timeless. A good hundred years later, the theatre collective Nico and the Navigators take on the text and turn it into "Wasted Land" at the Radialsystem.

The performance can be listened to here: https://www.ardaudiothek.de/episode/kultur/eindringlich-wasted-land-von-nico-and-the-navigators/rbb24-inforadio/12549199/

(Recording / Ted Schmitz) "...what branches grow | Out of this stony rubbish?"

What are these roots that are taking hold, what branches are growing | Out of this stony rubbish?

1922, the First World War is over. So is the Spanish flu. There has just been an extraordinary period of drought in Europe. Crises that demoralised people and left the country desolate. Emptiness, including personal emptiness. In his poem "The Waste Land", T.S. Eliot delves deep into the mood of the end of time, in fragmented, associative 433 lines, peppered with quotations from past myths and legends and full of glimpses into human abysses and personal states of mind. There is no plot, rather individual events. It is about the office of the dead, drought and flood, strife and the course of events - yesterday and tomorrow.

(Recording / Ted Schmitz) "April is the cruelest month"

April is the cruelest month of all, even spring in T.S. Eliot's work is a hopeless reminder of a deprived winter. NICO AND THE NAVIGATORS take up the gloom over this 'Waste Land' in their "Wasted Land" and rise at the beginning from the fog billowing across the empty stage to play with and around T.S. Eliot's words. Sometimes this resonates with a certain melodrama, sometimes it breaks with it, in which the group ironically exaggerates many a quotation.

(Interlude / Patric Schott) "Tristan and Isolde, first act, verses 1 to 8..."

The music with electric guitar, violin, trumpet, drums and synthesiser is sometimes an atmospheric tapestry of sound, sometimes a propulsive disharmony, then suddenly a cheerful folk song, a blues ballad - a sound space with enough room for your own associations to let yourself drift through lines that don't always make sense, that you don't have to understand to be moved by them.

(Interlude / Wolke Mišewitch, Ted Schmitz) "Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over. | This music crept by me upon the waters"

The vocals of NICO AND THE NAVIGATORS sensitively empathise with this. The dance seeks to express the fears and aggression that arise here - forceful, a little formulaic at times. The scenic interpretation also sometimes seems rather performed, only enhanced by the very strained effect of the livecam. Here, one would have wished for more individual accents. Time and again, however, NICO AND THE NAVIGATORS manage to get close to T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land". A poem that, in its fragmentary nature, was intended to offer support to its author. In times of crisis that seem so timeless to us today.

(Interlude / Wolke Mišewitch) "Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over."

Frauke Thiele / RBB / Kulturradio

Nicola Hümpel has staged T. S. Eliot’s dramatically desperate poem in “Wasted Land” like an atmospheric outcry, in which you don’t need to know every English word to grasp the basic mood… The musicians also repeatedly provide humorous breaks by singing lines of text all at once, turning them into a song of their own. It’s varied and develops a life of its own… Wherever one’s own perception then leads one atmospherically, whether into the end-time mood after the First World War, into current catastrophic moods or into personal emotional states – everyone can let themselves drift freely.

Frauke Thiele / RBB / Kulturradio

Link to the article: https://www.rbb-online.de/rbbkultur/radio/programm/schema/sendungen/der_tag/archiv/20230330_1600/kultur_aktuell_1745.html

Intro: The Berlin company NICO AND THE NAVIGATORS has perfected its performance art over the last 20 years - its mixture of music, music theatre, dance and performance and text and acting and video art. And all of this is probably also needed for the new piece that will premiere tonight. The source of inspiration for it is "The Waste Land", the poem by T. S. Eliot, the Nobel Prize winner for literature. He published it in 1922, just over 100 years ago. How do NICO AND THE NAVIGATORS now attempt to take up this poem atmospherically and find references to our present day? Frauke Thiele gained some impressions during the final rehearsals for the production. 

[Ted Schmitz]: "April is the cruellest month..."

"The Waste Land", spoken in the original English. The poem begins with a lament, a lament about April - the cruellest month of all. 

[Ted Schmitz interlude]: "Stirring dull roots with spring rain..."

There is talk of dull roots and shrivelled tubers, nothing of fresh new beginnings. T. S. Eliot himself called his poem "a rhythmic quivering", like an endless depression, a personal despair that expands into a general state.

Hümpel: "How many recurring themes emerge, from the pandemic, the Spanish flu, the depression of a society that is looking for a way out but can't find it, the traumatised returnees from the war, inflation, the economic crisis."

Nicola Hümpel, director of NICO AND THE NAVIGATORS, has staged T. S. Eliot's dramatically desperate poem in "Wasted Land" like an atmospheric outcry in which you don't need to know every English word to grasp the basic mood. 

[Ted Schmitz]: "Lilacs, out of the dead land..."

Hümpel: "It's not so easy to understand the poem, you can perhaps grasp it, you can sense it, you can sense the mood. You can grasp this beautiful language and these terrible images for moments and take them into your own world." 

[Ted Schmitz]: "Coming over the Starnberger See..."

She creates an atmospheric tapestry in which language, music, video images and dance are interwoven.

[Interlude by Wolke Misewitch]: „Starnberger See, da ist es so schee..." 

There are three performers on stage. The singer and actor Ted Schmitz, who speaks, plays and sings the original text. Then there is the actor Patric Schott, who categorises the text in German in the period in which it was written and explains references in the text.

[Patric Schott]: "In 1922, the Treaty of Rapallo is signed between Germany and Russia, which regulates the mutual waiver of compensation for the costs and damages of the First World War."

And the dancer Lujain Mustafa, who deals with the words in her movement, finds her own language and also repeatedly intervenes with commentary.

Hümpel: "The dance is a way of sensing the texts and words, as well as the music. It is also the female perspective on this material, which makes it very exciting. What's more, Lujain, who comes from Damascus, reads the whole text in a completely different way and you can see that in her physical interpretation."

The dancers, actors and musicians are all dressed in muted shades of brown to match the mood. They all look into the cameras on stage and are mixed live on the video screen in relation to each other. Abstract video images in which the performers appear and disappear are also shown repeatedly.

[Ted Schmitz]: "A brain allows one half formed thought to pass. Well, that's gone and I'm glad it's over."

[Wolke Misewitch]: "Bored and tired, food and tins..."

And the music, of course, which accompanies the scenic realisation of the poem, drives it forward and leads it down its own path. 

[Interlude Wolke Misewitch]: "glad it's over...bored and tired"

Time and again, the musicians also provide humorous breaks by singing lines of text all at once, turning them into their own song. It's varied and develops a life of its own. 

[Interlude Wolke Misewitch]: "glad it's over..."

Hümpel: "There are soundscapes, collages, everyday noises, so it's also become a kind of radio play, with a strong alternation of dominant musical passages and then very subliminal atmospheres." 

[Recording Ted Schmitz]: "The river sweats. Oil and tar..."

Wherever your own perception then takes you in terms of atmosphere, whether to the end-time mood after the First World War, to current catastrophic moods or to personal emotional states - everyone can let themselves drift freely.

[Ted Schmitz]: "Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Shantih, shantih, shantih."

Outro: Wasted Land is the name of the new piece by the Berlin company NICO AND THE NAVIGATORS. Tonight is the premiere at the Radialsystem, where it can be seen until Sunday. Incidentally, Norbert Hummelt, poet and translator of T. S. Eliot, will introduce this poem and its layers of meaning and will read from his translation of "The Waste Land". In each case before the performances in the Radialsystem.

Barbara Hoppe / MORGENPOST

War, pandemic, recession – it’s almost astonishing how topical the poem still is these days… To transform the poem into a scenic-musical production, the team first looked at the many musical allusions that Eliot himself wove into his text. They range from the onomatopoeia of Richard Wagner’s operas to folk songs and ritual chants. Using this diversity as a basis, the ensemble developed its own composition to frame and accentuate the piece. The instrumentation of guitar, percussion, violin, trumpet and electronic elements allows the group a wide range of musical expression.

Barbara Hoppe / MORGENPOST

The theatre collective Nico and the Navigators adapts the seminal long poem "The Waste Land" for the stage

When the long poem "The Waste Land" by the American author T. S. Eliot was published around 100 years ago, the First World War and the Spanish flu were only a few years old, leaving the world reeling from the horrors it had experienced. In addition, a global economic crisis was causing people to struggle. The poem itself had also gone through a tough phase. Reflecting the reality he experienced in form and rhythm, it was Eliot's writer friend Ezra Pound who contributed to the final version of the now world-famous poem with his radical creative suggestions.

War, pandemic, recession - it's almost astonishing how relevant the poem still is today. Nico and the Navigators thought so too. Founded in 1998, the ensemble is now one of the most important musical theatre groups in Europe. With their current production "Wasted Land", which premieres on 30 March at the Radialsystem, Nico and the Navigators refer directly to the literary source. It helped that Nicola Hümpel, co-founder of the ensemble with Oliver Proske, has known "The Waste Land" since her school days.

"On the one hand, the literary quality of this poem is beyond any doubt - and on the other, it speaks to us directly and topically thanks to the themes it deals with," summarises the artistic director and director of Nico and the Navigators.

The evening navigates through the complexity of the original

To transform the poem into a scenic-musical production, the team first looked at the many musical allusions that Eliot himself wove into his text. They range from the onomatopoeia of Richard Wagner's operas to folk songs and ritual chants. But the rhythm and sound of the language also inspired the artists to create atmospheric moods and passages, which in turn influenced the scenic processes. Using this diversity as a basis, the ensemble developed its own composition that frames the piece and sets accents. "There are moments in which the language takes over the leading function - and other sections that are purely instrumental," explains Nicola Hümpel. The combination of guitar, drums, violin, trumpet and electronic elements gives the group a wide range of musical expression. A large and essential part of the production and the music was created during rehearsals.

Even though Nicola Hümpel is the one who ultimately creates the overall composition from the fragments, the spoken word performance, dance and video projections, she emphasises that the development of the piece was a collaborative task. In terms of acting, the ensemble works with so-called guided improvisation. The actors receive instructions for their actions, which they incorporate into their improvisation. A method that offers plenty of scope for the surprising and sometimes enlightening. "This unknown, unconscious", explains Nicola Hümpel, "can only be achieved in this way - with suggestions or reflections that lead to the discovery of the radically unique." And a method that seems predestined for the scenic realisation of T. S. Eliot's text. Ultimately, the aim is to look behind the irony, which is merely a stylistic device to speak more easily about the true state of the world and the resulting hopelessness: "This explains the associative element, i.e. the linking of historical and mythological allusions in the text with Eliot's time - and then again with our present in the production," explains Nicola Hümpel. This faithful examination of such an extensive literary work was very special, she adds.

Introduction to the literary source by the translator

However, it is crucial that you don't have to know the literary original to understand the play. "Wasted Land" not only recites Eliot's "The Waste Land" in full, it also leaves room for your own associations. Norbert Hummelt, a lyricist and the translator of "The Waste Land", also introduces the work before each performance. Together with the powerful sound of the language and the intoxication of the images, Nicola Hümpel hopes that the audience will experience the same powerful reverberations as she did herself.

A production by Nico and the Navigators, funded by the Berlin Senate Department for Culture and Europe and by funding from the "dive in. Programme for Digital Interactions" from the Federal Cultural Foundation. In cooperation with Radialsystem.

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