A History of German Theatre
Verlag: Cambridge University Press
Herausgeber: Maik Hamburger, Simon Williams
Autor der Rezension: Paul S. Ulrich
Umfang / Preis: 464 pages / PND 33,00
This is a paperback reissue of a work which was first published in 2008 and as such is now available in a more affordable edition for the use of students.
There are very few treatments of the German theater in English and as such this work partially fills a void. It is a collection of 15 articles by renowned scholars who attempt to provide in concise form an overview of the history of the German theatre from the tenth century to the present. This method of presenting history means that each author presents a view of a specific aspect of the theatre, but the reader does not have a clear idea of how the various aspects fit together, for this the introduction does not go in enough depth. Furthermore there is considerable redundancy in the chapters. Having a timeline in the book would have helped put things into perspective for the reader.
Because of the complexity of German-language theatre, any attempt to treat it in a concise form means that not every aspect can be covered. The intended audience for this book is obviously students and the articles focus on aspects of the German theatre which are of interest to them. Consequently, discussions of dramas with recognized literary value, presentations of theatre theory and extensive treatment of the contemporary scene have been chosen as the appropiate approach by the authors. The danger with this approach is that many important aspects of the theatre are neglected and the resulting picture is lop-sided.
The first major problem with this volume is determining what the authors mean with “German”. In the Introduction the editors give the following definition: “… this volume assumes all of German-speaking Europe and the German-language theatre that was performed in this large area” (p.6). They then modify this by saying that the Austrian and Swiss theatre deserve a separate treatment. With the exception of the first two chapters, the remainder of the book deals primarily with either court theatres or theatres which were heavily subsidized on a geographic axis extending from Berlin to Vienna, with these two cities getting the most attention and there being only sporadic treatment of activites in other locations near this axis. In reality the geographic area for German-language theatre until the end of World War Two extended north to south from St. Petersburg to Sarajevo and from east to west from St. Petersburg to Amsterdam (with occassional appearances in London, Paris and Moscow), not to mention the many professional German-language theatres in the United States.
Another problem is the lack of a concise picture of the professional theatre landscape and the conditions which characterized it. In the 19th century, for example, German-language theatre was performed in over 3000 towns in Europe, most with a population under 30,000, in theatres which averaged 700 seats, most of the theatres were private, non-subsidized operations, plays were seldom performed more than one or two times in a season, there were seldom more than two rehearsals, mobility was the norm for the members of the companies, censors often made changes in even “classical” plays which drastically altered their content and the lip-service paid to “Bildung” was generally ignored in the daily practice both by the public and the theatre companies.
With the exception of the section on Richard Wagner, the treatment is exclusively on spoken, “serious” theatre. Most acting companies until the end of the 19th century performed all genres, i.e. plays, farces, vaudeville, operettas, operas, ballet and mixtures of the genres. Furthermore mixing combinations of shorter plays – and also music pieces and gymnastic presentations – was a normal practice in the 19th century. This variety in the theatre fare is not apparent in the presentation, probably because it is not reflected in the more interesting theories about what ought or could be the purpose of the theatre.
The misconceptions which prevail in histories of the German theater – including those in German – are repeated here. The idea that a “stabile theatre” developed at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century is a misconception. Granted, there existed many permanent theatre buildings – and an equal number of stages in restaurants and hotels –, but most of the professionals seldom stayed very long in one theatre or in one company (a condition which has continued up to the present). Mobility was a driving force in the theatre and most developments were short-lived. Audiences wanted to attend new plays, plays they hadn’t seen before; likewise, they wanted to see new faces on the stage.
Particularly until the end of World War One theatre professionals were concerned with attaining a socially-accepted place in society. There existed, however, a cleft between the ideas which were regularly presented to improve the situtation in the theatre, to make it “acceptable” and what was actually done in most theatres. Too many of the chapters in this history deal with theories regarding the stage and the “classical” plays which were written and occassionally performed. By focusing on the theatre as a place for “Bildung“, the role of the theatre as a place of entertainment is neglected. Only once, in the chapter by Wilhelm Hortmann, is there a very applicable statement that “the theatres were becoming part of a rapidly growing entertainment industry” (p. 275). This aspect is totally neglected in the book. The entire focus is on the “artistic” aspects of the theatre; however, artistic aspects can also be a very real part of the “entertainment industry”, a prime example being Max Reinhardt who with the assistance of his brother Edmund amassed a considerable fortune with his theatres.
Theatre histories have a tendency to focus on the presence of plays having literary quality in the repertoire. They overlook the daily fare and concentrate on highlights. This gives a very slanted and at times erroneous picture of what the theatre was and is. The plays which are mentioned as being performed are not representative of the normal repertoire: “classical” plays in the 19th century generally only drew an audience when “big name” guests were invited to perform with the local company. In such instances the guest was the reason for attending the performance, not the play. (To what extent these performances would be accepted today is another question; for example, when the Afro-American actor Ira Aldridge performed Shakespeare during guest performances at German theatres, he spoke English and the rest of the cast spoke German!) Furthermore, the directors of most public theatres reduced ticket prices when “classical“ plays were performed without a guest, otherwise very few people would attend the performance.
There also erroneous statements in the book. For example, Innes’ statement that “Intendants were instituted in almost all public theatres” (p. 174) at the beginning of the 19th century is not correct. The public theatre in Frankfurt/Main did have an intendant at various times, but most public theatres were private enterprises with a director, and when the term “Intendant” is occassionally found in the listings of companies in theatre almanachs in the 19th century, it is in a different sense and generally refers to a local citizen who headed a board of trustees overseeing the activities of the theatre. And in most court theatres the Intendant was a court functionary who generally had little or no artistic function.
That “the Meiningen repertoire was composed of Shakespearean and romantic historical drama” (p. 178) is also misleading; it is only correct when one looks at the plays which the Meininger performed during their guest performances and for which they are famous. If one looks at the repertoire of what was performed in Meiningen, then these plays make up only part of the repertoire, much of which was very similar to that found on other stages at the time, i.e. light fare, and the preparatory work for these local performances in no way matched the preparation for the productions which were taken on tour.
The Introduction concludes with the following statement: “… it is the theatrical work as experienced by audiences that is the core of this history. It does not, therefore, contain discusion of theatre management, actor training, professional regulation, and other important insitutional matters. These, we hope, will be the subject of future histories of the German theatre” (p. 7). Unfortunately the book does not really deal with what audiences experienced. Instead of what was experienced, we are treated with discourses on theory (not how it was put into practice – if at all) and drama. The focus is on a few heavily subsidised theatres. Likewise, with the exception of the chapters on the contemporary theatre, very little attention is paid to the actor.
The latter part of the book is devoted to the theatre in the 20th century. The emphasis here is on contemporary dramatists, most of whom will probably suffer the same fate as those in other periods: they are contemporary and will disappear from the theatre landscape just as most of the widely-staged playwrights in the 19th century have disappeared from the repertory of the modern theatre.
The bibliography attached at the end of the book is a strange mixture of often difficult to obtain older publications and publications by the authors of the various articles. Totally missing are the various dictionaries which someone interested in the theatre needs to consult to round out the information contained in this book.
In spite of the numerous shortcomings of this history, it is still a worthwhile book. The aspects of the German theatre which the Introductioin mention as missing in this history are very much needed in a comprehensive treatment of the German theatre. One can hope that this deficit will be the treatment of future books –both in English as well as in German.
Diese Nachricht wurde redaktionell betreut von Andreas Hudelist.
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