The Schaubuehne
photo by Dieter Matthes/Schaubühne

'The Pole' at the Berlin Schaubühne
by Dieter E. Zimmer

Probably for the first time ever, Nabokov's brief youthful verse drama 'Polius/The Pole' (1924) was produced on a stage. Klaus Michael Grüber directed a production at the Berlin Schaubühne. The opening night was on September 28, 1996. There will be around 20 performances in Berlin through October, all in German, based on a prose translation by the eminent German playwright Botho Strauß. In November, it will switch to French and move on to the Paris Festival d'Automne, for about 18 performances at the MC 93 in Bobigny. From December 7 to 10, there will be four performances at the Stadthof in Zurich (in German). The production is scheduled to end up at the Théâtre Vidy in Lausanne (in French again) from December 16 to 18.

Nabokov's play, based on Scott's diary, depicts the dying of the four last members of Captain Scott's expedition to the south pole in 1911/1912. Beaten to it by Amundsen's team and trying to make their way back to their vessel, they got stuck in a long lasting blizzard which none of them survived.

Nabokov's play, though not a fragment, actually is just a single scene, counting fifteen pages in Dmitri Nabokov's English translation and lasting only 58 minutes on the stage. The four men, one of them delirious, one sick and all of them fatally weak and worn out, rest in a tent, exchange a few last words and then walk away or slowly expire on the spot. Captain Scott is played by the prestigious German actor Bruno Ganz.

Grüber fans may have expected a hallucinatory fantasy on the subject of coldness, whiteness and death where the spoken word would matter little. Instead, the blizzard has calmed down completely before the transparent curtain opens on the somber scene, and complete silence reigns so that every word that is uttered assumes additional importance, as if it were a grave revelation about life and death. The only alien elements Grüber adds are plaintive musical fragments by the Hungarian composer György Kurtág (born 1926), performed by six solo instrumentalists and a vocalist. As they walk on and off the stage, for some reason they wear glitzy costumes as if in a vaudeville act, contrasting sharply with the dying men's functional grayish weatherwear.

The reviews were rather reserved, though not ferocious. The blame for the paleness of the production was attributed to the slightness of Nabokov's text rather than to Grüber's failure to bring it to life.


The 'Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz' is a state-subsidized private theater in the west of Berlin, founded as a stricly experimental company in 1962. Since 1981, its home on the Kurfürstendamm has been a building erected by Erich Mendelssohn in 1928, just one block from where Nabokov lived from 1932 to 1937. The building first housed a Cabaret-Theatre and then a movie house called "Universum," which Nabokov would have passed almost daily. The Schaubühne won world-wide renown from its productions in the sixties and seventies, notably by such stage directors as Peter Stein, Klaus Michael Grüber and Robert Wilson. It has also produced almost all the theatrical works of the contemporary German playwright Botho Strauß, many of them staged by Luc Bondy.

Address: Kurfürstendamm 153 * D-10709 Berlin * Germany

Phone: +49-30-890020

Klaus Michael Grüber

Klaus Michael Grueber
(photo by Ruth Walz/Schaubühne)

Born in 1941, Grüber studied acting and was assistant to Giorgio Strehler at the Piccolo Teatro in Milano where he directed his first stage production in 1967, Brecht's 'Trial of Jeanne d'Arc.' Since that time he has worked all over Europe as one of its foremost "experimental" stage and opera directors. Two of his most memorable exploits were a 'Faust' in the Paris Salpêtrière (1975) where the audience had to walk around the building to look at the different scenes and a Hölderlin ('Winterreise') in the Olympic stadium of Berlin (1977). His productions, most of which have been concerned with the classics, have had a penchant for the somber, tragic, mystical and visionary. However, with Labiche's 'The Rue de Lourcine Affair' (1988, Berlin Schaubühne) he also had a great success in the lighter vein.


Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Frankfurt:

September 30, 1996

"It's the eyes. Nobody here has eyes. True, everything is wonderfully desolate during this evening at the Berlin Schaubühne. It would be hard to die more beautifully, more exquisitely, more calmly. Splendid ice floes on the stage floor... Everything most beautiful. Only that the eyes are lacking... For it quite clearly were Scott's, Fleming's, Kingsley's, Johnson's eyes which fascinated the young Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899 to 1977) when in 1923 he discovered Scott's diary exhibited in the British Museum."

- Gerhard Stadelmeyer

Süddeutsche Zeitung, München:

September 30, 1996

"What may have moved the Berlin Schaubühne to present Nabokov's 'The Pole'? Klaus Michael Grüber's attraction to the text--and the coproduction with the Festival d'Automne in Paris that for this reason could be envisaged. Also the public's curiosity, for whatever Nabokov may have written, we want to read it, hear it, see it. And now we are disappointed to find that Nabokov as a youth was no theatrical prodigy; and at the same time we are enchanted because Klaus Michael Grüber knows how to work magic even with such a miniature."

- C. Bernd Sucher

Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin:

September 30, 1996

"In remembrance of its former Chekhov achievements, the Berlin Schaubühne might have discovered another potential success [among Nabokov's later full-blown plays]. Instead they discovered 'The Pole,' which was at most a succès d'estime."

- Günter Grack

Die Zeit, Hamburg:

October 4, 1996

"Quite unexpectedly there has been added a new one to the innumerable sagas about Captain Scott: 'The Pole,' a dramatic scene by Vladimir Nabokov, a slight youthful work dated 1923--probably the great poet's tiniest work... The world is quiet and silent-and the spectator hopes Grüber will present Nabokov's text as a tableau almost without speech and movement, as a still and floating image slowly dissolving into white light. But presently Nabokov's text turns up, in a really modest and only discreetly poshlosty way... Grüber's strangest and most beautiful invention: transforming Nabokov's word structure into an antarctic night and funeral music."

- Benjamin Henrichs

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