The dead and the damned: Delkhah’s stellar staging of Mann’s ‘Mephisto’ in Tehran

TEHRAN, Jan. 21 (MNA) – Iranian stage director Masoud Delkhah revived Mnouchkine’s adaptation of Klaus Mann’s famous novel ‘Mephisto’ in a four-hour performance that had the audience breathless and unblinking on the edge of their seats.

Hendrik: The working class needs a revolutionary theater.

Sarder: The working class needs the truth. Every one of us needs the truth.

- Mephisto, written by Ariane Mnouchkine, directed by Masoud Delkhah

There is something about the forbidden that calls out amid the silence, the murmurs, and the shouts. As if there is something in its very nature, not simply in the act itself, that cannot be changed, cannot be tamed, and more often than not, cannot be avoided. In the realm of literature, Mephistopheles or Mephisto – the demon agent of Lucifer with a background in German folklore – is of particular interest because nothing appeals more to writers than the concept of ‘conflict’, and what better conflict than the one that challenges the most complex and mysterious element of all, namely the human mind, and by extension, the human moralities?

Masoud Delkhah is a well-known and well-liked name in today’s Iranian theater. Once his name accompanies a particular play as the director, you have already raised the bar of your expectations, and you step into the auditorium with a good feeling in the pit of your stomach, while thinking to yourself, ‘I’m here to watch something phenomenal; or at the very least, something that will leave a lasting impression; or even if not that, something that will pose an imploring question.'

And if his name is not going to do the trick for you, the name of the play surely can. Mephisto; which brings to mind the story of Dr. Faustus and the pact he made with the Devil, his body and soul in exchange for magic, infinite power. The dark realm of sins, betrayal, power, corruption, and temptation. The Forbidden. Who doesn’t like a story built upon those concepts? After all, it is said that Adam and Eve exchanged heaven for a taste of the forbidden. And perhaps, the nagging question at the back of your mind has always been, ‘What would I have done in their stead?’ And perhaps, you are here tonight in search of an answer.

The ‘Mephisto’ that Delkhah revived on the Iranian stage as part of the international competition for the 36th Fajr Theater Festival, was penned by French stage director Ariane Mnouchkine, based on Klaus Mann’s famous novel of the same name, published in 1936 whilst he was in exile in Amsterdam.

The play narrates the life of a struggling actor from Hamburg, Hendrik Höfgen, who turns his back on his revolutionary ideologies during the reign of National Socialism in Germany (1933-1945), and appears in the role of Mephisto from Goethe’s Faust before the generals of the third Reich, ingratiating himself with the Nazi Party to keep and advance his career and social position to the point where he is appointed as the artist director of the Prussian State Theater. Meanwhile, his former friends stay behind in the Hamburger Künstlertheater (Hamburg Artists' Theater), and in their relentless fight against fascism, they are either killed in prison, or forced to leave Germany, or choose death.

The story of the play is factual; the story of great German actors such as Hans Otto, who was tortured and killed by the Gestapo for refusing to name political associates, or stage and film actor Joachim Gottschalk who committed suicide with his wife minutes before the expected arrival of the Gestapo at their house, but most importantly Hendrik Höfgen himself, who is based on Klaus Mann’s former friend and colleague Gustaf Gründgens.

Gründgens and Mann had both belonged to a strongly left-wing theatre group before Hitler came to power. At the time, the group was touring Spain. When Hitler became the Chancellor, Mann urged Gründgens not to return to Germany, but Gründgens not only returned home, but embraced the Nazi regime in order to advance his career. It is said that Mann never forgave his former friend Gründgens, who later took shape of his novel’s protagonist and made the deal with the devil for his personal gains. The Höfgen of the story has a nervous breakdown at the end, weighed by the burden of his choices, while the Höfgen of Delkhah’s production is haunted by the ghosts of the people he left behind, his close friend and brother Otto, his wife Erika, and his mistress Juliette. The actual Gründgens dies in Manila of an internal hemorrhage in 1963, suspect of having committed suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills. 

Delkha’s ‘Mephisto’ is a giant production. A three-and-a-half-hour play with 25 actors (chosen out of over 600 applicants) and 20 singers and 15 stage crew, with a small orchestra ensemble packed in the corner of the stage, playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Georges Bizet’s Carmen Suites, Jean-Paul-Égide Martini’s 'Plaisir d'amour' accompanied by lyrics from Elvis Presley’s 'Can't Help Falling in Love'; as well as a number of Russian folk music, and Faust Cantata by Alfred Schnittke at the end of the play. The music was so live and reverberating that it became a character of the play, an integral part of the narrative, and also as a mood-changer, perhaps something that director Delkhah had wisely considered to be effective in keeping the audience entertained during the long hours of the performance. It worked. No one really complained about the length of the play, and ‘Mephisto’ left the stage in passionate bouts of applause.

“We destroyed the spirit of the humankind,” Sarder told Otto upon hearing the victory of National Socialism in Germany. Mann’s complex novel, Mnouchkine’s brilliant play, and Delkhah’s breathtaking staging of it, are all invaluable attempts at keeping the spirit of humankind alive.

News Code 131469

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