The Provinces

Michael Ende, 1949
Michael Ende, 1950s

On leaving drama school, it was time for Michael Ende to put theory into practice, but after life at a renowned academy, he found being an actor a sobering experience. As a student he was accustomed to discussing complex theoretical questions, but his first job took him to a provincial theatre company in Schleswig-Holstein. The troupe travelled from town to town by bus, usually performing on makeshift stages, surrounded by beer, smoke and the clatter of skittles from nearby bowling alleys. Even the acting was a disappointment, for despite his dark curls, Michael Ende was never assigned the part of ‘heroic lover’ that he had trained for. Instead he was made to play old men and malicious schemers, and had barely enough time to memorize his lines.

Despite the frustrations and disappointments of his early acting career, Ende came to value his time in the provinces as a valuable learning experience that endowed him with a practical, down-to-earth approach to his work: ‘It was a good experience, a healthy experience. Anyone interested in writing should be made to do that sort of thing. It doesn’t have to be restricted to acting. It could be any kind of practical activity like cabinet making - learning how to construct a cabinet in which the doors fit properly.’ In Ende’s view, practical training had the potential to be more useful than a literary degree. His time as an actor was certainly productive from a creative perspective, and he continued to read and discuss dramaturgical theories and ideas. In so doing, he couldn’t help but engage with the theoretical writings of Bertolt Brecht. There the spoken word took precedence over the written, for Brecht believed that language had to be uttered in order to come alive. Brecht’s groundbreaking theories made a lasting impression on the young actor. Ende rejected the ideological aspects of Brecht’s writing, but was profoundly influenced by the idea of an epic theatre that took a non-naturalistic, non-psychological approach. From then on he considered Bertolt Brecht to be one of the greatest writers of the age.

Much as he admired Brecht as a writer, Ende was deeply disappointed when he met him in the flesh. While at drama school he participated in a Munich production of Mother Courage and was dismayed by the playwright’s arrogant and patronising treatment of the cast. In 1951 Michael Ende returned to Munich with the comedy Sultan hoch zwei (Sultan Times Two) in his hand. He read the script to numerous dramaturges and editors, but they dismissed it: ‘as soon as I lowered the manuscript, they resumed their conversations.’ That year Edgar Ende painted his son’s portrait.