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Mirjam Koen, Adorno, why on earth theatre about Adorno!

Beethoven and Bach brought the true music. Karl-Heinz Stockhausen the future. The rest, from Beatles to hoempa, was 'jazz', commercially capitalist and therefore pernicious. Very briefly, this is what we Theodor Adorno should know. Paul R. Kooij now plays this art-philosophical sharpshooter in a performance by Mirjam Koen. Just when the division between high and low art in the subsidy system, based partly on Adorno's thinking, is being challenged by our own Council for Culture consigned to the bin.

Is that a coincidence, Mirjam Koen, or did you feel it coming?

'The funny thing is, Theodor Adorno has been getting more and more attention lately. Especially with the rise of populism and, of course, Donald Trump. There was also a new biography of Adorno published recently, and the questions he asked are certainly topical again now: how much influence does capitalism have on us? Adorno has written a lot about that.'

Student uprisings

'But it is not because he is in fashion now that I started working on it, it is rather the other way round. That you suddenly think: hey, he's not that forgotten at all.'

You have been making theatre for a long time. The Onafhankelijk Toneel, which was dissolved a few years ago by a management action by the municipality of Rotterdam, was founded in 1973, just when Rotterdam was throwing out all classical art and encouraging innovative art. Did Adorno define your career?

'I was not brought up with Adorno. I came up with this subject because for a long time I wanted to make something about the student uprisings of sixty-eight. A lot of things opened up. It was really a tipping point. A lot succeeded, and also a lot failed.

But there is another reason for this performance. In recent years, I heard stories from composers who told me that they had a very difficult time because their applications were rejected by committees. Because in those music committees there were only colleagues who were serial atonal music made. As soon as music became harmonious, it was not allowed. It was not done. And then Adorno comes around that corner again. Because he is the founder of that extreme and strict delineation of art between good and bad. He created new taboos.'

More nuanced

'I thought that was weird, I disagreed. So I wanted to know more about the man. Then I first Doctor Faustus read Thomas Mann, because Adorno had a lot of influence on that. Then I started reading Adorno himself, and it turned out to be much more nuanced. He is a very interesting man, a very sharp thinker, but quite difficult to fathom.'

'That is also why I work with a philosopher, Dora Timmers, because she can explain what it actually says. What Adorno stands for interests me enormously, even though he has no answers. In the end, it turns out that purely on the basis of theory, he opted for a dichotomy between autonomous art music and the rest, which he put under the heading 'Jazz'. I find that ridiculous. I understand him, but I find it ridiculous.'


'So we're sitting there with the players teasing him incredibly with that too. For example, we have Roll Over Beethoven put in because, before his death, Adorno was working on a piece about Beethoven that he greatly appreciated. But so there is also a bit of Bach in there. And pop music from that era, but the more experimental pop music, which he didn't know, but would classify under the culture industry. Like Soft Machine.'

What was he like, Adorno?

'He actually grew up very pampered. The persecution of Jews and the Holocaust so shocked him that he dedicated his life to agitating against fascism. He saw people around him being murdered and humiliated. He was a very critical person, but also very troubled. That is how he managed the F-scale invented, by which you can measure the personality structure of fascists. In fact, he predicted someone like Trump.'

'He saw no ideological answer to fascism, only fragments, little bits of truth, from which he drew hope. He hoped people would see how horrible the world was. But he had no ideology of his own.'


People like Baudet think Adorno is the devil. They even consider him the inventor of 'Cultural Marxism' invented by the alt-right. What do you think of that?

'Cultural Marxism is a term coined by today's populists to make people like Adorno suspect. Breivik was motivated to his atrocity and mass murder by a book that the Frankfurt School in a bad light, because Jewish and Marxist. Adorno stood for leftist evil. I find it very sad how we are now so opposed to each other again. Scary things are happening in the world.'

How do you make theatre out of that?

'I make it only when I know who will play Adorno. I always think from the players' point of view first. So I thought it would be great if Paul R Kooij played it. I've worked with him before.'

'Another trigger is the Busenattentat. Students in Frankfurt in 1969 wanted him to take an activist stance. He was a celebrated man, but refused to take action. Adorno did not participate in violence and occupations, but was forced to engage in self-criticism by students, which he found Stalinist. He saw yet another spiral of violence looming. He was not thanked for that.'

'Of course, he didn't handle it conveniently either. When his institute was occupied, he called the police because he was very indignant that people were occupying his workplace and damaging things. He thought that was trespassing. I think then: be wise, but he went against it. He didn't want to take part in anything that might even lead to violence in a democracy.'


'After that, he became increasingly pressured, including during lectures. At one point, some female students came up with an action. He was very fond of female students. That was common knowledge. He may have been married to Gretel, a chemist, but he was also in love all the time. He was not sex-crazed, but he was constantly in love and sometimes had relationships, but he was very open about it. He also wrote about that. Gretel was fine with it, he was very anti-bourgeois.'

'The students then caught him on that. During a lecture with a thousand people, three female students came forward in leather jackets. They started dancing around him and when they opened their coats they were found to have bare breasts. Someone photographed that. It was all prepared and then sold to the newspaper.'

'He was insanely shocked by that, at the stupidity and flatness. He then fell into a very deep depression. During a holiday, five months later, he died of a heart attack.'


'My performance zooms in on that incident. But the play is set on the day of his death, thinking back on that event, and his life.'

'Paul Kooij can play that whole vulnerable thing. He really enjoyed doing it, because he has never done that before: playing a philosopher. So we fed him with a lot of knowledge, so he could really delve into that. Opposite Paul are three young women who teach him that trauma. Those are played by young actresses who can also sing. And we have a sound artist who provides the music. he can do everything with electronics, but also masters many acoustic instruments. I really enjoy doing that together.'

The Onafhankelijk Toneel, the company you founded with Gerrit Timmers and Ton Lutgerink, now has to make do with little or no money. Soon the house where you had temporary accommodation will also be gone. Life is hard, while the quality of your work is undiminished, and also well appreciated in the press. It is quite ironic that as innovators of the time, you are now on the sidelines.

'Yes, such is life, I say then. We worked very hard and had a lot of fun. Until we had to deal with a change manager who knew nothing and an alderman who had never been to our theatre. Nobody from the municipality extended a hand to us. I am sometimes very furious about it, but I have no desire to become bitter. I would be very happy if we were given another chance, though. There are still so many plans, we still have so many young makers who want to work with us!'

Good to know
 'If we leave Theodor alone, all will be well' by OT Rotterdam, is still on view. Enquiries: 
Talk show The Idea and lecture at performances Ostade A'dam

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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