Die Schutzbefohlenen

Dutch premiere

Elfriede Jelinek, Nicolas Stemann, Thalia Theater

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Austrian Nobel prize winner Elfriede Jelinek wrote Die Schutzbefohlenen as a reaction to the increasingly acute and distressing refugee problem in Europe. Referring to the title and theme of Aeschylus’ classic text The Suppliants (in German Die Schutzflehenden), she gives voice to the defenceless asylum seekers, with her sharp pen ruthlessly exposing the cynicism and latent racism in European politics. The renowned German director Nicolas Stemann, who directed Jelinek’s play Babel at the Holland Festival in 2007, has reworked Jelinek’s indictment into an oratorio with a torrent of text and imagery. The production confronts us with a Europe which has never fulfilled its promise as a protector of human rights.
Programme Icoon


Background information

Early in 2013, sixty asylum seekers occupied the famous Votive Church in Vienna; in the summer of that year the majority of them were extradited by the Austrian government. In October 2013 hundreds of asylum seeking Somalians and Eritreans perished when their boat sunk off the coast of Lampedusa, the Italian island which has become a househould name as the 'gateway to Europe', the principal European entry point for African immigrants. The survivors of the disaster were sent to the Northern European countries. In the meantime, the protests of asylum seekers (and their sympathisers) against their deplorable living conditions and criminalisation have been continuing, in Austria and Germany, but also in the Netherlands, Belgium and other European countries.

The Austrian Nobel Prize winner for Literature Elfriede Jelinek wrote her most recent theatre text Die Schutzbefohlenen in response to these events. As well as giving the asylum seekers a voice, she also connects the current tragedy of the fate of asylum seekers at the outer borders of Europe, the church occupation in Vienna, the catastrophy at Lampedusa, its causes and effects, with motives from Aeschylus' classic Greek tragedy The Suppliants (in German Die Schutzflehenden). In Aeschylus' play 50 women (the daughters of Danaus, the Danaids) escape from Egypt to avoid a forced marriage to their Egyptian cousins and beseech the king of Pelasgos of Argos to grant them asylum.

In late September 2013, Stemann put Elfriede Jelinek's text Die Schutzbefohlenen on stage for the first time. In collaboration with the Thalia Theater he organised a reading of the piece at the St. Pauli Church in Hamburg, where a group of 80 Africans had found refuge.

Stemann is considered one of the most in-demand young directors in contemporary German-language theatre. Over the last few years he has impressed with various productions based on Jelinek's texts and with adaptations of classical texts, in which he espoused new standards and searched for new theatrical forms. Stemann has reworked Jelinek's complex, often sarcastic but also emotional text for Die Schutzbefohlenen into an oratorio with a torrent of text and imagery. The cast, consisting of actors from the Hamburg Thalia Theater and a number of guest actors, confront us with the cynicism and latent racism in European politics when dealing with human rights. For, as Stemann explains, 'these rights are only granted to them who are allowed to take part in Europe.'


The Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek was born on October 20, 1946 in Mürzzuschlag in the Austrian state of Stiermarken. The young Elfriede had an extremely difficult relationship with her mother, who wanted to raise her as a musical prodigy. The twisted relationship with her mother is the subject of her novel The Pianist, which was filmed by Michael Haneke.

In 1960, while still at school, Jelinek began to study the organ, the recorder and composition. In 1971, she rounded off her organ studies at the Vienna Conservatory with good results. In 1964, she also began studying theatre and art history at the University of Vienna, but she had to break off her studies after several semesters because of her precarious mental state. During this time she wrote her first poems, publishing her first collection, Lisa’s Schatten, in 1967.

After 1969, Elfriede Jelinek was active in the student movement and in the literary discussions centring on the magazine Manuskripte. In 1974, Elfriede Jelinek married Gottfried Hüngsberg, who had been part of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s circle in the 1960s. That same year, she joined the Austrian Communist party (KPÖ), which she left in 1991. Jelinek’s work is strongly related to her political engagement. In the early years of her career, this primarily concerned feminism and the struggle between the sexes, the central themes in novels such as Wir sind Lockvögel, Baby! (We are Decoys, Baby!), The Pianist and Lust. Toward the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s she became the target of hate from the extreme right in Austria for her fight against Jörg Haider’s FPÖ. Since that time, she has shifted her attention in works such as Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead), Babel, Rechnitz and Die Schutzbefohlenen to social and political criticism, particularly Austria's Nazi past and the present-day fascism in her fatherland. Rechnitz was staged at the Holland Festival in 2010 by the Münchner Kammerspiele, while Babel, directed by Nicolas Stemann for the Burgtheater, played at the Holland Festival in 2008. Jelinek’s work is very diverse and also very controversial. She is praised by many critics for her phenomenal use of language, while others consider her often-sarcastic texts obscene, blasphemous and rancorous. In her career she has won many prizes for her work. Recent awards she won were for Winterreise (based on Schuberts song cycle; Schubert is one of her favourite sources of inspiration) in 2011, and for Schatten (Euridyke sagt) in 2013. In 2004, Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Nicolas Stemann (1968, Hamburg) is one of the most in-demand young directors in German-language theatre. A recurring theme in Stemann's work is the modern individual who is responsible only for himself, without ideological support, moral values or social responsibility. Freely using irony and sarcasm, he incorporates this theme into sophisticated and entertaining thematic collages and simultaneous images, making frequent use of modern multimedia such as video, music and animation. Die Schutzbefohlenen is the most recent of many stagings he has been making of Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek's texts since 2004.

Stemann studied direction at the Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna and at the Institut für Theater, Musiktheater und Film in Hamburg. During his studies, he founded the Stemann Group and produced his first major work with them: the Terror Trilogy, consisting of Antigone (1997), Möwe (The Seagull), Terrorspiel (1998) and Leonce and Lena (1999).

In 1997 Stemann had his first big success with his direction of Goethe's Werther, which he and actor Philipp Hochmair with a youthful lack of respect reduced to its essence, imparting it with their very personal and contemporary treatment. Five years later, with the same Hochmair in the lead role, Stemann caused a sensation with his best known production to date, his adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet (2002), which was invited that same year at the Berliner Theatertreffen. In 2004, Stemann was invited at the Theatertreffen again with his staging of Elfriede Jelinek's Das Werk. In 2005, he directed Jelinek's plays Babel and Ulrike Maria Stuart. Babel was staged at the Holland Festival in 2007.

Following his award winning productions of Schiller's Die Räuber in 2008, Jelineks Die Kontrakte des Kaufmann in 2009 and Offenbach's opera La Périchole in 2010, Stemann staged his Faust I+II at the Salzburger Festspiele in 2011, in association with the Thalia Theater in Hamburg. In 2012, he worked on the musical project Der demografische Faktor and the music theatrical lecture Rein Gold based on a text by Elfriede Jelinek. In 2013 Stemann wrote and staged the performance Kommune der Wahrheit. Wirklichheitsmaschine for the Wiener Festwochen. In late September 2013, Stemann put Elfriede Jelinek's text Die Schutzbefohlenen on stage for the first time. In collaboration with the Thalia Theater he organised a reading of the piece at the St. Pauli Church in Hamburg, where a group of 80 Africans had found refuge. The full, staged version of this piece will have its Dutch premiere at the Holland Festival this June.

Stemann has won many prizes in his career. The influential theatre magazine Theater Heutevoted his production Ulrike Maria Stuart (text by Jelinek) play of the year in 2007; Stemann himself was voted director of the year in 2012 for his Faust I+II.


Elfriede Jelinek
Nicolas Stemann
set design
Nicolas Stemann
Stefanie Carp
Paulus Vogt
Thalia Theater, Hamburg
made possible by

‘Bewegender Auftritt – Das Publikum war ergriffen, es gab minutenlang Beifall.’ –

Mopo about the lecture Die Schutzbefohlenen