Kandinsky Anew | Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Violet: The Production That Wasn't
Jelena Hahl-Fontaine and Lissa Tyler Renaud

This is Jelena's story of her Sad Failure to bring about a production of Kandinsky's stage play, Violet, at the theatre in Wiesbaden.


First a little context: Germany is extremely lucky in terms of its theatres. Historically, Germany's nobility was ambitious to promote all forms of culture; as a result, every few dozen miles we find a castle with a well-equipped theatre attached to it. Since Germany has around 20,000 castles, this translates into an enormous number of theatres, all of which had actors, musicians, choirs, orchestras, and dancers of excellence. And today, all these performing arts continue to be proudly and very well financed at the state, city, or community levels. In the beautiful old spa town of Wiesbaden—where my story takes place—along with its famous park, church, casinos and other sites, we find a renowned state theatre, large enough to compete with the theatres in Frankfurt and Darmstadt, not even 30 miles away.


In 2010/11, the state Wiesbaden Museum had a huge, acclaimed, blockbuster exhibition which took its title from Kandinsky's treatise: "On the Spiritual in Art: From the 'Blue Rider' to Abstract Expressionism." And this museum was five minutes from the also huge, acclaimed, and technically perfect theatre.

The exhibition was a really comprehensive, wonderful show of the highest quality. From October 31, 2010 until February 27, 2011, throngs of museum-goers could admire numerous major works by Kandinsky and by all members of his German-Russian Munich group, including the American-born Feininger, along with great French paintings of the time, and a roster of American Abstract Expressionist royalty: Rothko, Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and more.


All that was the work of Dr. Volker Rattemeyer, the museum's director. Since I had been helping in Wiesbaden from the beginning—for example, by locating nearby paintings for the show to save money—I suggested a production of Kandinsky's play, Violet, at Wiesbaden's renowned theatre. Initially, Dr. Rattemeyer actually got the approval of the theatre's Artistic Director, "X." Of all of Kandinsky's plays, I had chosen Violet because it was the most fully realized, and therefore the most possible to stage. For my meeting with X, I furnished all the materials that would be needed for the production… and X concluded that it would be impossible to stage.

Why? "One would have to change a lot to make it interesting to today's public," and etc. I tried several arguments in support of the play's "historical interest," but he wasn't having it. Actually, the meeting could have ended after a few minutes. But X wanted to be polite, and I endured almost an hour of dozens of eloquent variations on his theme of Not Interesting for Today's Public.


And now, Jelena's short play, written for Scene4, entitled,
"My (Humorous) Sad
Violet Failure."


ME to X: You know, there was a similar large exhibition, also with the title taken from Kandinsky's major treatise, On the Spiritual in Art, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1985. And it was accompanied by a very interesting theatre piece: the first Futurist opera, Victory over the Sun, by the now so famous Malevich (and Kruchenykh and Matyushin), the first ever performance since 1913 in Russia! And that stage play was a great success.


X: Well, after looking at the text of Violet—and thank you so much for sharing what would be especially useful to know for the staging, and the 300 pages of additional material that you have kindly brought to Wiesbaden—of course nowadays the interests of the public have changed and I see we would have to "modernize" the play quite a lot… 


ME: But given the celebrity of Kandinsky, don't you think that a strictly historical production, as close to his intentions as possible—and today in your large, technically equipped theatre it is possible!!—would arouse enough interest?  Perhaps not for a whole season, but for a few performances, where I assure you, many experts would come from far away just to see it… (etc.).


[Gradually, I came to understand that X simply needed a personal success with the press and the public, to be recognized as a modern, creative director. And he was afraid he wouldn't achieve that with a historically accurate staging; "accurate" risked being criticized as "not creative."]

ME: Then put the blame on Kandinsky, say it could only be a historical production, as close as possible to his own instructions…"  

X: (Repeating, very politely and in detail) But one has to take the wishes of the public seriously; it would be impossible, especially nowadays… (etc.)…


[I didn't actually give this next argument, which could have been offensive
—but later I wished I had, so I take the liberty of including it here:]


ME: (with a forced smile) Think of all those paintings by Kandinsky, in the most prestigious museums in the world. I am sure you would not suggest correcting them by painting over parts of them to meet the taste of today's public!   



Next thing, I learned that X was leaving Wiesbaden for another theatre. He was replaced as Artistic Director by "Y", who was friendly and learned, and my heart filled with new hope. But no: the same scenario played out with Y as with X, almost literally the same arguments in dozens of variations! I had to smile that X and Y had the identical ability to talk at such length and say the same things (and almost nothing), with such rhetorical perfection—an ability familiar from politicians and other intelligent, ambitious men, and others who are well-paid.


After Y, too, had confirmed how carefully he had studied my documentation, I tried a different approach: "This wonderful theatre, with all its modern technical means … How I admired the ballet, "Märchen für Eilige" ("Grimm's fairytales for those in a hurry"): at highest speed, the dancer-acrobats combined all those well-known fairy tales into the most hilarious chaos! Such a perfect, professional team would only have to hear Kandinsky's instructions one time to reproduce those movements perfectly…"

The reason I kept reminding both X and Y of their theatre's modern means was that so much would have been easily realized there that in Kandinsky's time would have been difficult or impossible—for example, the abstract play of forms and color/light between the acts!! Really: it would have been possible, for the first time, to SEE the "paintings" he imagined in motion, changing in time. What a fantastic effect!!


Besides that, compared to Kandinsky's play Yellow Sound, which generally gets much more notice, Violet is longer, has more variety, and is more detailed. And then there is its modernity—its pre-dada and pre-surrealist elements, and also its Brechtian "alienation effect" 20 years before Brecht's own anti-illusionistic [Verfremdung] staging concept. As just one example, in Violet the audience can hear the directions for the set pieces called out from backstage: "The sun, higher!" so they are always aware of being in a theatre. Taken all together, these make Violet especially interesting! And Rattemeyer, director of the state Wiesbaden Museum had understood that, too. But well, he left Wiesbaden immediately after his big exhibition.  


I can't know if these directors would have reacted more favorably if I hadn't insisted on a historical staging, but had instead left them space for their own creative judgement. I remember coming with a large heap of all the materials I could think of to help with the sense of historical truth. That might have been discouraging for such… creative geniuses. But as a result of this experience, I think what's needed for Violet is a director with a lesser ego, perhaps a woman [here Jelena insists I include her hint that I should be asked to direct it (Lissa, - ed.].


Well, so in the end, too bad, the piece was not staged. The only tiny compromise was that a few actors performed, in the museum hall, a very short sequence of movements … But the visitors to the museum would have been interested. What a missed opportunity.




The occasion of the exhibition passed. I was quite disappointed, and determined to publish as many of Kandinsky's stage experiments as possible. This became Kandinsky-Forum III. Die Bühnenexperimente. There, Violet is rendered comprehensively, combining the more complete parts from either his German or Russian versions, followed by commentary. But, well, it is still in German.


Wherever Kandinsky's instructions for Violet aren't clear enough or detailed enough, my knowledge of all his other plays, poems, and artistic and literary productions help; also what I know from his enormous number of letters, including his always detailed and frank letters to Gabriele Münter.


In any case, after all this time, I still hold the opinion that a staging of Violet according to Kandinsky's own script and intentions would indeed be of the greatest, widest interest.




Next month, we will re-visit what we have of the Violet text in English.



Readers can see the German-language version of Violet in

Die Bühnenexperimente, on pages 103-134, here:

The stage experiments. (Kandinsky-Forum III), by Jelena Hahl-Fontaine. Verlag: E.M.E., Fernelmont/Belgium, 2010.

ISBN: 978-2-87525-083-4.


Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Curator, writer and editor, Kandinsky Anew Series
Lissa Tyler Renaud BA Acting, MFA Directing, PhD Dramatic Art with Art History (Kandinsky and theatre), summa cum laude, U.C. Berkeley (1987). Founder, Oakland -based Actors' Training Project for training based on Kandinsky's teachings (1985- ). Lifelong actress, director. Book publications: The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge); an invited chapter in the Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky. Has taught, lectured and published widely on Kandinsky, acting, dramatic theory and the early European avant-garde, throughout the U.S., and since 2004, at major theatre institutions of Asia, and in England, Mexico, Russia and Sweden. She is a senior writer for Scene4.  
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.



Jelena Hahl-Fontaine, formerly Hahl-Koch (PhD, Art History and Slavic Studies, Heidelberg) is one of the world's leading Kandinsky scholars, her professional life having centered on Kandinsky for over 60 years. She was Curator of the Kandinsky archive at Lenbachhaus, Munich, the primary Kandinsky repository. Publications include a major monograph, Kandinsky; the Arnold Schoenberg-Kandinsky letters; Kandinsky Forum vols. I-IV; and many writings on A. Jawlensky, A. Sacharoff, V. Bekhtejeff, the Russian avant-garde, and more. Taught at the Universities of Erlangen, Bern; Austin, Texas; and Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Has lectured widely at prestigious venues of Europe, America and Australia.
For her other articles, check the Archives.

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