I had forgotten the stories
about his life here

Björn Roth, artist, son and collaborateur of Dieter Roth came to visit Christoph Marthaler and got an exclusive sneak peak of Das Weinen (Das Wähnen). Philine Erni talked to him about what he just saw in rehearsal, about his father and what pharmacies and Zurich were to him.

You just came out of the rehearsals, what did you see?

Björn Roth: I saw the director speaking to the actors and I actually found that quite interesting: I was thinking why couldn’t a play be like that? Just the director interrupting all the time.

After seeing some of the scenes just now, I immediately felt dizzy. Hearing my father’s texts and trying to understand what the fuck – excuse me – they are. That might also be because, although I understand German and can read it a bit, I was never able to get through my father's texts. In the end I always felt completely dizzy. It will be interesting how the audience will respond to that.

What did you think when you first heard that Christoph Marthaler will be staging Das Weinen (das Wähnen)?

Björn Roth: I thought good. Yes. I feel his respect for the text.

After my father’s death, I wanted to interfere in everything. Some of my father’s works were in part also my works. We made artworks together. But I learned to accept what people would like to do with the art, what kind of exhibitions. I got some training before coming here when his play Murmel went on stage. He was very proud that he had written the most boring play in the world. But when it was shown at Volksbühne in Berlin, it was so funny. The director could make it funny somehow.

Of course, you have to do something. You cannot just have actors reading on stage. There has to be some visual fun. I understand that. Now I am just very interested to see the reactions on Saturday.

I have heard many readings of Dieter's texts. But they were never as strange or interesting or funny as when he read them himself. He managed to be funny. He was reading and then he suddenly stopped. Maybe that’s why I think it’s nice to see a play like this where the director is continuously interrupting. My father interrupted himself while he was reading. “What bullshit is this.” “It’s too boring. Let’s read something else.”

Christoph Marthaler chose the setting to be in a pharmacy because he remembers several encounters with your father which sooner or later lead to a pharmacy. Do you remember anything about that?

Björn Roth: Not really. Christoph just told me that they were in a pharmacy twice together. At Frankfurt airport. It was very interesting to see that they have put it in a pharmacy. What an irony these days with the Corona-Virus.

For Christoph Marthaler a pharmacy is a place of hope and despair…

My father was not only fond of restaurants and bars. He was also fond of pharmacies. He had a medicine for everything. “Take this pill, Björn, take this.” “These three together and you will feel better.”

I worked with him the last 20 years of his life. We were very close. When I started to work with him in the late 70ies, there was a medicine called Reactivan and also painkillers called Thomapyrin – you cannot buy this stuff anymore. It was actually written on the package of the Reactivan, do not drink alcohol with this. We would down them with a beer and the hangover would disappear. There were some side effects of course. Those days pharmacies were used a lot to get the right side effects.

What significance did texts have in the overall oeuvre of your father?

Björn Roth: I always saw my father as a poet. He himself even said that he only did visual arts to finance his writings. But I see the poetry in most of his visual art as well. One example: I helped him build towers of self-portraits out of chocolate and sugar. When we had finished the biggest tower, it was about 3000 kilos of chocolate and on each shelve were 38 self-portraits. When 3000 kilos of self-portraits were standing on top of each other, the lowest ones were sinking and their faces started to show this burden, this terrible burden of getting flatter and flatter. All the strain to keep this burden of one self – of himself – I always saw that as poetry. That’s how I interprete this sculpture.

And in many of his earlier works: Using ingredients that would not last like chocolate, f.e. mayonnaise, bananas, cheese and so on. There are works that are 50 years old and still changing. The longest stories you can watch. Another example: The longest banana. When he put the banana through the printing press, it got eight meters long. An eight meters long print that is still changing colors: First, you could not see it on the cloth it was printed on and then slowly it became brown. After a week you started to see the print.

Another ongoing story is the one of your father's texts in Christoph Marthalers plays: In the late 1980s, your father gave two special editions of his writings to Christoph Marthaler as a gift. From then on, Christoph Marthaler moved from town to town with these books, and fragments of them repeatedly appeared in his productions.

In a way it's an endless thing.

Being back in Zürich you remembered a link between your father and Schauspielhaus Zürich…

Björn Roth: I remember when I first came to Zürich in 1973, I was 12. That was more or less the same age as when my father first came here: My father was born in Hannover in 1930. When in 1943 there was this heavy bombing of German cities his father, who was Swiss, sent his two sons, Dieters younger brother and him, to Switzerland. To two different families. My father was sent to a Gasthaus [the Pension Bergheim on Bergstrasse in Zürich, run by the family of Betty and Fritz Wyss], where mainly artists, who had fled Nazi Germany, were staying. He was 13. He was the only kid in that place. This was his life here - being lonely while living with older intellectuals and artists.

They were musicians, actors, writers, painters [also Jewish and Communist refugees]. He was there for two years and they taught him how to paint and play the piano and this and that. He already had these tendencies as a kid. He wrote letters to his father and mother, which we should have in the archive, but I didn’t find them the last time I looked. He wrote about what he was doing here: he went to concerts and to the theatre and so on. The actors, who were in this Gasthaus must have taken him to Schauspielhaus. He was completely impressed.

One of his jobs was to bring apples and pears to the Kronenhalle. They grew them at the Gasthaus and traded them to the Kronenhalle for their Fruchtsalat. When I first came to Zürich, he brought me to his Lieblingsrestaurant and told me all those stories about his life here. I had forgotten them.

After the war he was first reunited with his mother. It took her a year to get from Hannover to Switzerland. And you can imagine what happened to women in the years after the war, who were travelling through all these army bases. In two world wars she had lost her whole family: Her father and brothers were military men. They were in the cavalry – they were riding horses and waving swords, very brave men, and of course got killed immediately. As far as I know, there were only six survivors of our two families. My grandfather got out of Russian prison in 1947, two years after the war was over.

My father never wanted to speak about this. He wrote some texts which referred to this, but never wanted to speak about it. He once told me that when he came to Zurich and everybody was so nice to him and there was so much food, he first thought they were making fun of him. That tells a lot about him and how critical he was about humans.