The first thing I noticed when I looked at a portrait of the character I am to play, Ludwig van Beethoven, was that he has much more hair than me. As I delved deeper, I discovered that his height was estimated to be 5 feet 4 inches, so I have a foot on the Master. Then I began to read the history of Beethoven and realized that our physical differences were nothing compared to the can of worms that represents what is allegedly known or thought about the composer. The fact is, that the facts about Beethoven pale in comparison to the myths, legends, speculations, and downright falsehoods of his contemporaries, biographers, worshippers, detractors, and story tellers. What we know about Beethoven is actually much less than what some people think they know.
As an actor, this creates a bit of a dilemma. Who is this man I play? How did he feel? What did he think? How did he move? Unfortunately, as is often the case, there are only glimpses of his reality from letters and comments of his own making and some from his contemporaries. There is a tremendous collection of primary source historical documents gathered in the Beethoven Haus in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven’s birthplace. Unfortunately, neither the LTA budget nor my personal finances would support a research trip to the archives, and it is almost 15 years since I last lived in Germany so my language skills are a bit rusty. I do clearly remember “Ein Bier, bitte” (oder zwei, oder drei), which may also explain why LTA chose not to send me there. So our excellent director, Joanna Henry and I were left to rely on secondary sources to fill in our historical knowledge, complete with those authors’ guesses, prejudices, and personal preferences.
What I found myself left with were several key pieces of information that formed our approach to the character of Beethoven in 33 Variations. First, we have remained focused and bounded by Moises Kaufman’s exceptional story, and the words of the script. Almost all of Beethoven’s lines come straight from letters Beethoven wrote, or from quotes attributed to him by contemporaries. Second, we pulled out the facts (born, 1770 in Bonn; died 1827 in Vienna; he became completely deaf during the period covered in the play) and they gave us costumes, customs and courtesies. Finally, we have the magnificent music the Master composed to serve as both muse and guide. Ultimately the fusion of the play, the history, and music shaped all of the choices that we offer as a representation of Beethoven in our production.
Beethoven is a volatile and enigmatic character. He is caught between the forces of politics and art; the stratification in the society of his time and his passion for republicanism; his desire for wealth and his refusal to subjugate his art for its gain; his strong religious ideology and his “lusts of the flesh”. Like most of us, he cannot maintain a balance between these forces, but is thrown back and forth between the polar opposites in his mind as the stresses and strains and frailties of his humanness crash against the shore of his desired better self. It is his reflection on these struggles during the solitude of his deafness that we hear so vividly in the Missa Solemnis, the Diabelli Variations, and the glorious 9th Symphony.
It is a testimony to the dramatic arts and its power to tell stories and capture great moments that Beethoven’s funeral oration was written by a Viennese dramatist, Franz Grillparzer. Even more fitting that his powerful words were spoken by the renowned Viennese actor Heinrich Anschütz:
“An instrument now stilled. Let me call him that! For he was an artist, and what he was, he was only through art. The thorns of life had wounded him deeply, and as the shipwrecked man clutches the saving shore, he flew to your arms, oh wondrous sister of the good and true, comforter in affliction, the art that comes from on high! He held fast to you, and even when the gate through which you had entered was shut, you spoke through a deafened ear to him who could no longer discern you; and he carried your image in his heart, and when he died it still lay on his breast.”
-Elliott Bales, 33 Variations