donal mclaughlin

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The Reader (the play)

Thomas Mullins and Carol BrannanThomas Mullins & Carol Brannan in THE READER, August 2000


At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2000, Borderline Theatre Company presented the world premiere of The Reader, a stage version of Bernhard Schlink’s bestselling novel, Der Vorleser. The play, directed by Leslie Finlay, with Thomas Mullins, Daniel Brown and Alastair Cording playing Michael Berg (at different stages in his life) and Carol Brannan playing Hanna Schmitz, went on to tour Scotland that autumn, closing with a week at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in October. After the matinee performance on the final day, about 80 members of the audience waited a good half hour to attend a Post-Show Round Table – a measure, perhaps, of the impact made by the play.

The novel was adapted for the stage by prize-winning Scottish writer Chris Dolan, who, in the Spring of 2000, asked Donal to collaborate with him on the project. Chris and Donal had worked together at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the summer of 1999 – at which point a play version of The Reader existed only in the small print of details on Chris given to the chair (Donal!) of a Book Festival discussion on democracy. By that summer, Donal, then in academia, had already taught the novel to two cohorts of students of German. Chris was keen to discuss the novel with him. In time, Donal met Chris and Leslie – on the eve of their departure for Berlin to meet Bernhard Schlink – to help them prepare for that meeting. Donal subsequently offered feedback and comments on the different versions of the script, translating as necessary. The material reproduced below aims to offer some insight into how the play was adapted, and to report on its reception when staged.


UPDATE: Katy Derbyshire, a translator based in Berlin whose always lively blog is, has written of Donal’s material:

“You may recall David Hare’s article on adapting Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader for the recent film, which I for one found slightly less revealing than it could have been.
Back in the year 2000, the Scottish Germanist, writer and translator Donal McLaughlin was closely involved in the first adaptation of The Reader – for the stage. Now he’s finally had a heart and posted some of the real nitty-gritty stuff Hare didn’t share, on his website. It’s a fascinating read, as Donal explores all the many difficulties of transporting the novel from the pages of a German book to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Part of his job as advisor to the production was to provide the background information to the novel that your average English-language readers just don’t have, specifically the German student movement, which plays an unspoken role all of its own. You can also find out how the press reacted, what other challenges the novel posed for stage adaptation – and how there should have been more nudity.” (

Daniel Brown and Carol Brannan

Carol Brannan & Daniel Brown in THE READER, August 2000


Material on The Reader (the play)


The following is the closing section of an academic paper given by Donal at the University of Coleraine just days after 9-11 in 2001. The bulk of Donal’s paper on responses in recent Scottish writing to the Third Reich and the Holocaust was devoted to the stage version of The Reader in which he himself had been so involved. (‘Donal half-wrote it’, Chris commented, in Edinburgh, at the time!)

[…] The play was premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2000. Directed by Leslie Finlay for Borderline Theatre Company, with Thomas Mullins, Daniel Brown and Alastair Cording playing Michael Berg (at different stages in his life) and Carol Brannan playing Hanna Schmitz, it went on to tour Scotland in the autumn, closing with a week at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in October. In May 2001, Finlay directed a second production – for New Stage Theatre – at the prestigious Ciitizens’ Theatre in Glasgow. An entirely new cast saw Darren Cheek, Steven Leach and Kern Falconer playing the three Michaels; Juliet Prew playing Hanna; and Marjory Hogarth on stage as The Survivor (video footage had been used in the original production).
Both these versions required author Dolan, director Finlay, and the actors and actresses involved to engage seriously with aspects of the Third Reich and its aftermath as they sought to portray the relationship between Michael and Hanna (depicted in Part 1 of the original novel); the trial in the 1960’s at which five defendants face charges relating to their time as guards in a concentration camp (Part 2 of the novel, in which Michael, now a student of law, sees Hanna again – on trial as a former guard); and the impact of that past on lives even in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s (as reflected in Part 3 of the novel). Dolan involved the present author to advise on the history and literature of the period; and to help interpret the novel, and to translate, as required. By 1999/2000, of course, Schlink’s novel, had already made an impact internationally not achieved by most of post-war German fiction. Dolan’s stage adaptation was to allow audiences in Scotland – more accustomed to less than enlightened depictions of Germans in our media – an additional opportunity to access the German’s continuing engagement with their past – and to learn from it.
I have spoken elsewhere on the challenges involved in adapting this novel for the stage. Here, I shall focus on the need of the different artists involved to inform themselves about the German past and feed any insights into their work. While various drafts of the play were being produced in the Spring of 2000 and at the first rehearsal, I was able to assist the writer, director and cast by informing them about the historical background to the novel; especially about the student movement and how the German past came to be revisited at that time. This dimension of Schlink’s novel cannot be obvious or familiar to the average English-speaking reader. It was especially important for those involved to note that the novel focuses not merely on Michael’s relationship with Hanna, and the internal struggle that triggers within the character; rather, the novel also reflects a public debate in the Germany of the 1960’s and 1970’s, a debate which would also impact on the reasoning of Michael himself. It was important, too, to raise awareness of postwar German writing, generally; of the importance of the theme of ‘Bewältigung der Vergangenheit’; of the different demands of literature of the student movement (ie Michael’s generation).
Increased awareness and a better understanding of the historical period involved had practical consequences for the production. At the level of text production, care was taken with all formulations. The implications of lines to be spoken by characters were weighed to ensure their guilt or accountability was reflected adequately (and not inadvertently trivialised). It was appreciated that we were dealing with sensitive material; sensitive issues; and that this should not in any way be compromised by less precise language in English. At the level of staging (set / costumes), as well as in publicity produced for the production (posters, programmes, fliers etc), clichéd and sensationalist images were avoided. Audiences were not fed what they have come to expect from the mainstream media. The actors, too, faced special challenges. The actresses playing Hanna had to embody on stage a character whom, in the novel, we only ever perceive filtered through Michael. Actress Carol Brannan told me she had first to work out whether or not Hanna is guilty in order to play the role; she also had to live with this character for the duration of the run. Daniel Brown, who played Student Michael in the original production, faced the challenge of playing this role though any student movement in Britain in the 1960’s was very different in character and extent from what was experienced in Germany (Brown, in any case, is much too young to remember).
Both casts rose to the challenge of imagining and staging these aspects of the German past with great success, as many very positive reviews reflect. The presence of all three Michaels on stage at all times and their sometimes non-verbal dialogue seems to have been a particularly successful way of reflecting the more analytical and essayistic chapters which punctuate Schlink’s book. That said, the overall achievement did not prevent some reviewers from reproducing those clichés which continue to plague Anglo-German relations: The Scotsman referred to Hanna as ‘Mrs Robinson with a swastika’; the free newspaper Metro, in its eagerness to present the play as the best production on the Fringe, gave its review the heading ‘fatherland wins über alles’.
With the above, I hope to have offered an overview of, and some insight into, responses to the Third Reich in recent Scottish writing. It has been underlined how these differ in quality and approach from those images and depictions which continue to surface in the mainstream media fifty and more years after the war. Rather than merely continue to employ images involving swastikas and leather, or to present the Nazi as a comic – almost joke – figure, these Scottish writers, more recently, have been displaying a willingness and capacity to imagine the other; to think and feel their way into German experience of the time, and to present that in their writing. In doing so, ultimately, they offer their readers an opportunity to learn from the German past; to identify in themselves, in their own society, any such tendency towards violence and persecution; an opportunity to address that question brilliantly formulated by the poet Stella Rotenberg in her poem ‘Auschwitz’ – ‘Das Un-Menschliche, / wie find ich es / in mir?’ (‘The in-human, / how can I find it / in me?’) . Not just with this aspect of their work, such writers call us all – and not just the Germans – to account as human beings.


The critical response to THE READER

See it and weep
Forbes Masson (actor)
Sunday Herald, 27.8.2000


Before you realise it,
The Reader has broken your heart.
The List, 24.8.2000


an inspired adaptation
Alan Taylor
The Scotsman, 9.8.2000


a compelling show for the real connoisseurs
of substantial drama on the Fringe
Joyce McMillan
The Scotsman, 10.8.2000


a powerful dramatisation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel of transgressive love and revelation in post-war Germany
Mark Brown
Scotland on Sunday, 13.8.2000


a harrowing but extremely thought-provoking hour and a half
The List, 17-24.8.2000


a reader’s, and watcher’s, delight
Michael Coveney
Daily Mail, 16.8.2000


The Scottish writer has worked a marvel  with Schlink’s novel. He has distilled an almost epic first-person narrative into three characters to represent the three ages of Michael, and it is a device which renders the broad sweep of history comprehensible as a psychological drama. He has resolved the dilemma of relying on one response to the moral conundrum Hanna represents – and it works well on stage.
Tim Abrahams
Sunday Herald, 20.8.2000


a powerful stage account of a relationship between a boy and an older woman which becomes a metaphor for post-war Germany’s relationship with the crimes of its past .
Schlink’s examination of collective and individual guilt and the fear that makes us both human and capable of appalling inhumanity is complex and multifaceted. [This adaptation] cleverly keeps it that way, splitting the character of Michael in three so that the young, old and middle-aged man are always present.
Carole Brannan as Hanna, and Thomas Mullins as the teenage Michael, are outstanding, and you can hardly fail to be moved.
Lyn Gardner
The Guardian, 9.8.2000


a tour de force that has a Fringe First prize written all over it .
Cleverly employing three Michaels on stage at the same time – young, middle and old – questioning each other and reflecting on emotions past, present and future, the production brings to life remembrances of things past with clarity and precision
The Reader is compelling and challenging, a love story and the story of a nation told with fluency, style and a true sense of the dramatic
If there’s a better show at the Fringe then this must be a bumper year indeed. I’d pay to see this show again. And you can’t get much higher praise from a critic than that.
Alan Chadwick
Metro, 10.8.2000


chrisdolan 001

Author Chris Dolan, 2008



At the request of Borderline Theatre Company, Donal wrote the following text for the programme sold at performances of THE READER in Edinburgh & around Scotland in 2000. A slightly abridged version was used.

Bernhard Schlink’s best-selling novel, Der Vorleser, first published in 1995, represented the first work of ‘literary fiction’ by the (then) 51-year-old author. Schlink, also a Professor of Law in Berlin, had previously published three thrillers. The Reader – as the book is known in English, in Carol Brown Janeway’s translation – very soon became an international success. By January 1998, the rights had been sold for translations in 23 languages; the novel had won major literary prizes internationally; and film studios in Hollywood were vying for the film rights. This Borderline production of Chris Dolan’s theatre adaptation of the novel is further evidence of the impact the novel has made beyond German-speaking Europe.
Schlink’s novel is divided into three parts. Part 1 recalls a relationship in the Germany of the 1950’s between 15-year-old Michael Berg and 36-year-old tram conductress, Hanna Schmitz. Part 2 has as its central focus a trial in the 1960’s, with the five defendants all facing charges relating to their time as guards in a concentration camp. Michael, now a student of law, observes this trial within the framework of his university studies, but soon finds himself personally affected by what he sees and hears. Part 3 looks back, from the perspective of the 1990’s, on the intervening years and reflects how the Nazi past continues to affect lives in the decades which follow the war. All three parts of the novel – it is worth emphasising – are narrated in the first person by Michael. (The German title of the book, unlike that of the English translation, leaves no doubt that The Reader is male; the prefix Vor- also underlines that he reads aloud.)
The Reader is worth considering seriously as a German novel, published five years after Unification, and fifty years after World War II. In those fifty (and now more) years, Bewältigung der Vergangenheit – or ‘coming to terms with the past’ – has been a recurring theme in German fiction – and, indeed, poetry, drama and cinema. Many writers who emerged after the war – Böll, Andersch, Lenz, Grass (to name but four) – established their reputations by revisiting the German past time and time again. Their work was / is regarded as a serious contribution to attempts to ensure that the recent German past is never repeated.
Interestingly, in the context of The Reader, the literary writings of these authors, often members of the Group 47 (formed in 1947), were criticised in the Germany of the late 1960’s by the generation associated with the student movement – that is, the generation of Michael Berg, and of Bernhard Schlink. This generation was to proclaim The Death of Literature; to demand less literary, more politically overt writing of authors. Documentary Literature was preferred. Soon, texts defined as New Subjectivity approached the German past differently again – with sons and daughters publishing books on the lives of their fathers and mothers based on documents and papers often discovered after the parent’s death.
Schlink, writing not in the late 1960’s but in the mid 1990’s, offers a critical view of his own generation. Initially, his protagonist, Michael Berg, identifies very strongly with his peers, with the self-appointed ‘radical avantgarde’ of the time, determined ruthlessly to expose the crimes of the past and to call the previous generation to account. By the time, however, of his postgraduate work – which coincides with the height of the student movement – Michael distances himself from the students. Schlink, through Michael, asks critical questions of this ‘second generation’ – the generation too young to have lived through the Third Reich. Their arrogance, their blanket condemnations, their very handling of the issues at stake, are all placed in question. What is more, an older Michael highlights for us how perceptions of the Third Reich and the Holocaust were to develop in the decades that followed. In one important passage, he stresses how, for many people, the television series Holocaust and films such as Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List supplement, or even replace, images familiar from Allied photographs and the testimony of survivors. In this way, Schlink’s depiction of Germany’s responses to its past reaches up almost to the present day. Ironically, he chooses the vehicle of literary fiction, so scorned by his peers in the 1960’s, to achieve this. In his stage adaptation, Chris Dolan reflects these shifting viewpoints and attitudes by having three Michaels interact on stage.
A detail of plot also sets this novel apart. In the trial at the centre of the book, Schlink takes the risk of introducing a mitigating circumstance which means that one of the defendants cannot possibly be guilty as charged. When Michael hits upon that (unspoken) circumstance, he struggles to come to terms with his realisation, and to act accordingly. This aspect of the plot has no doubt gripped many readers. It has also attracted criticism – mainly in Britain, and notably from Frederic Raphael (writing in Prospect). Schlink, however, has stated unequivocally that, in his view, the mitigating circumstance does not make the defendant ‘less culpable’ or ‘any less responsible’. The defendant is guilty, but not in the way those present in the courtroom assume. Readers, no doubt, will grapple in their own ways with this aspect of the plot. Those in danger of mis-reading the novel might usefully return to its title: The Reader (and not ‘The Defendant’).
It may be that, despite its very considerable international success, the jury is still ‘out’ on The Reader. Readers who approach the text from different story-telling traditions may baulk slightly, for example, at the more analytical or essayistic passages that punctuate the novel. Readers more accustomed to literary treatments of the German past by Andersch, Böll, Grass, Lenz et al may have their own – different – reservations. Schlink’s approach differs, too, from that of writers more or less his own age, who produced documentary literature and Neue Subjektivität in the late 1960’s / early 1970’s. All of that said, the fact should not be overlooked that Schlink is being read by the children of his own generation, some of whom have found through this text a way of beginning to address their country’s past. We should recognise, too, that internationally, The Reader has made an impact not achieved by most of post-war German fiction. Chris Dolan’s stage adaptation, meanwhile, allows British audiences – more accustomed to less than enlightened depictions of Germans in our media – an additional opportunity to access the Germans’ continuing engagement with their past, and to learn from it. – Donal McLaughlin



In March 2001, Donal gave an informal talk on how the play was adapted and staged both to the German Circle in Edinburgh, and to staff and students of the Department of German at the University of Aberdeen. The DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) also invited him to address their LektorInnen employed at British universities – who gathered at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor in December that year. On each occasion, Donal’s introduction drew on the programme note reproduced above.  The following notes formed the basis of the remainder of his talk.



* 200 pages in 90 mins

* love story of Part 1 and trial of Part 2 offer selves to dramatisation – but how to stage Part 3 (Michael’s life between Hanna’s imprisonment & imminent release (18yrs)? Part 3 “ragged”; less focused

* how to deal with more abstract, analytical essayistic chapters in book: long speeches?

* having decided to have 3 Michaels on stage – Young, Student & Older Michael – how do you have them interact? how should they address each other? refer to each other?

* use of  HE   YOU and   I

* use of present / perfect tense – Young Michael; past tenses – Old Michael

* need to “create” Hanna: actress physically present on stage whereas character in the book is always filtered through Michael’s eyes

* need to inform writer, director, cast more re German history, especially the Student Movement: PUBLIC DEBATE at time; coming to terms with German past: whole dimension of book not familiar to British reader

* this is not just an INTERNAL DEBATE within Michael; not just something which matters within the relationship with Hanna

* novel “INTERPRETED BY DMcL” (phrase appeared on posters etc)

* If she hadnt been able to leave me, would she have sent me to the gas chamber, too?
– danger of Cold War imagery creeping in: issues relating to the Wall; not to the Studentenbewegung

* need to inform all involved re post-war (West) German writing: Gruppe 47, student movement, Schlink writing in 1990s – so post-Unification

* care needed with formulations: weigh implications of what characters say. no ‘letting off hook’

* sensitive material; sensitive issues – avoid causing offence through ignorance

* be true to Schlink
NB: at one point, things voiced by Hanna’s lawyer in the novel were being voiced by Young Michael in the script: appropriate?
NB some OPEN questions in novel = CLOSED statements in early versions of play

* get voices right: difference between Michael & Hanna, in terms of social background; language


* black box: 3 panels in back wall; stills to suggest bedroom / study; scales of justice for trial; film for Freibad scene (ie outdoor swimming-pool); the survivor
RED line when no image

* actress: seek a young actress who then has to age considerably – or a more mature actress who can seem younger & age when necessary?

* two of the cast in their 20s; need to be advised re historical background; even the 1960’s!

* student Michael proves to have tough role: no experience of Student Movement in Britain – how to depict?

* limited cast / budget:  use of video /  photographs

* set / costume: no Allo Allo-style Nazi uniforms


* NB first meeting / notes = how DRAMATISE

* in play, you actually HEAR what Michael reads to Hanna: passages vorgelesen!

in the book: titles,  authors are merely named / listed
readings SHARED by different Michaels :  Michael, at different ages, identifies with different things – or different aspects of same things
Old Michael can still quote texts he read; even in Greek
STUDENT Michael reads KANT / HEGEL

* we get to SEE responses of different Michaels to developments in plot; instead of analytical passages   eg Young Michael WITNESSES trial
the different perspectives of the boy in love   /   the angry student  /   the experienced older man
no need actually to WORD reactions (these can be ACTED)
we SEE how Older Michael moves beyond ANGER of student

* Human beings in front of us – without filter / distance of Michael recalling events

* Some more analytical lines fed into script; but NOT whole chapters / passages!

* Old Michael can play Michael’s father; judge
* Student Michael can take over as judge: dramatic moment

* audience sees reflections in panels: eg bed scenes

* final image: MANY victims – focus not just on Michael/Hanna (novel ends at Hanna’s grave)


* use WATER in bath scene!

* be less coy about nudity: show affair, then hit audience with trial


* audiences overhead talking: those who know book liked play; don’t-knows able to follow the play

* performances of Mullins & Brannan highly praised

* adaptation highly praised

* where the production was criticised, criticisms echoed those of ANGEL’S SHARE (Dolan’s previous play – also done by Borderline)
‘the dead hand of LF’
‘the energy of the acting, in LF’s production, sometimes sinks alarmingly towards zero’
‘frenetic furniture-shifting in plain sight’ (LIST)

* Clichés
‘Mrs Robinson with a swastika’ (SCOTSMAN)
‘fatherland wins über alles’ (METRO)


* performances possible only until Dec 2000 – thereafter, rights with Mirimax &  Anthony Minghella

* independently, in Geneva: French version staged

* Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow – May 2001  same director   different cast   no video footage   smaller space

* might our version be performed in translation in Slovenia?




The two images from the production of the play appear here courtesy of Borderline Theatre Company.

The photo of Chris Dolan was taken by Donal in 2008.


FOOTNOTE RE The Reader (the film)

Lovers of ‘goofs’ may wish to check out

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