Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre


 While it is common knowledge that Jews were prominent in literature, music, cinema, and science in pre-1933 Germany, the fascinating story of Jewish co-creation of modern German theatre is less often discussed. Yet for a brief time, during the Second Reich and the Weimar Republic, Jewish artists and intellectuals moved away from a segregated Jewish theatre to work within canonic German theatre and performance venues, claiming the right to be part of the very fabric of German culture. Their involvement, ...

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Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre

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 While it is common knowledge that Jews were prominent in literature, music, cinema, and science in pre-1933 Germany, the fascinating story of Jewish co-creation of modern German theatre is less often discussed. Yet for a brief time, during the Second Reich and the Weimar Republic, Jewish artists and intellectuals moved away from a segregated Jewish theatre to work within canonic German theatre and performance venues, claiming the right to be part of the very fabric of German culture. Their involvement, especially in the theatre capital of Berlin, was of a major magnitude both numerically and in terms of power and influence. The essays in this stimulating collection etch onto the conventional view of modern German theatre the history and conflicts of its Jewish participants in the last third of the nineteenth and first third of the twentieth centuries and illuminate the influence of Jewish ethnicity in the creation of the modernist German theatre.

 The nontraditional forms and themes known as modernism date roughly from German unification in 1871 to the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933. This is also the period when Jews acquired full legal and trade equality, which enabled their ownership and directorship of theatre and performance venues. The extraordinary artistic innovations that Germans and Jews co-created during the relatively short period of this era of creativity reached across the old assumptions, traditions, and prejudices that had separated people as the modern arts sought to reformulate human relations from the foundations to the pinnacles of society.

 The essayists, writing from a variety of perspectives, carve out historical overviews of the role of theatre in the constitution of Jewish identity in Germany, the position of Jewish theatre artists in the cultural vortex of imperial Berlin, the role played by theatre in German Jewish cultural education, and the impact of Yiddish theatre on German and Austrian Jews and on German theatre. They view German Jewish theatre activity through Jewish philosophical and critical perspectives and examine two important genres within which Jewish artists were particularly prominent: the Cabaret and Expressionist theatre. Finally, they provide close-ups of the Jewish artists Alexander Granach, Shimon Finkel, Max Reinhardt, and Leopold Jessner. By probing the interplay between “Jewish” and “German” cultural and cognitive identities based in the field of theatre and performance and querying the effect of theatre on Jewish self-understanding, they add to the richness of intercultural understanding as well as to the complex history of theatre and performance in Germany.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This commendable collection of essays illuminates a hitherto surprisingly neglected subject, the role of Jews in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theatre, especially their role in the major experimental movements within that theatre. This collection demonstrates that far from representing a marginal or separatist theatrical tradition, German Jewish theatre artists were at the heart of German theatre activity and innovation during this important period and were responsible in large measure for much of its most distinctive work. An excellent and informative study.”—Marvin Carlson, author, Theatre Is More Beautiful Than War: German Stage Directing in the Late Twentieth Century


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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781587298684
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 4/15/2010
  • Series: Studies Theatre Hist & Culture Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeanette Malkin is a professor in the Department of Theatre Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of Verbal Violence in Contemporary Drama: From Handke to Shepard and Memory-Theater and Postmodern Drama. Freddie Rokem is a professor in the Department of Theatre Arts at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance, Strindberg’s Secret Codes, Performing History: Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre (Iowa, 2000), and Theatrical Space in Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg: Public Forms of Privacy.

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Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2010 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-868-4

Chapter One


Break a Leg!


"Break a leg!" This traditional benediction used among actors to wish each other "good luck" before going onstage has evoked much speculation. Its provenance is unclear, but American performers have been using the expression, according to some sources, since the years following World War I. Interestingly, the phrase has a striking parallel in German theatre circles, where the expression Hals- und Beinbruch (break a neck and a leg) serves the same purpose. Although various explanations are possible, one recurrent account has it that Jewish actors in Wilhelmine Germany used to wish each other good luck with the Yiddish-inflected Hebrew blessing hatslokhe u'brokhe (success and blessing). This incomprehensible (to non-Jewish actors) phrase was eventually corrupted into the phonetically similar Hals- und Beinbruch and later transferred to the American stage via emigrant Jewish and/or German actors.

Whether true or not, this oft-repeated anecdote brings into immediate focus the ongoing interaction between Jewish and non-Jewish participants in early twentieth-century German theatre. Indeed, the ways in which modern German theatre was meaningful to German Jews and the extent of their involvement in every phase of its development are extraordinary. The goal of this book is to offer new perspectives on this theatre through a Jewish cultural lens.

Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre enters a well-tilled field: the study of Jewish participation in the creation of German culture during the Second Reich (1871-1919) and the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). It is unique in being dedicated to an understudied furrow of that field: the role of German Jews in the co-creation of modern and avant-garde theatre in Germany as well as the effect of that theatre on German Jews and their self-identity. While it is common knowledge that Jews were prominent in literature, music, cinema, and science in pre- 933 Germany, the fascinating story of the Jewish co-creation of modern German theatre is less often discussed, especially in English. And yet Jewish artists and intellectuals participated in every stage of the formation and propagation of modern theatre in the German culture realm. Jews were prominent as playwrights (for example, Carl Sternheim, Paul Kornfeld, Iwan Goll, Else Lasker-Schüler, Ernst Toller, and Walter Hasenclever), but literature was a field traditionally associated with the "people of the book."

More surprising is that they also initiated and propagated new theatre idioms: the naturalism of theatre director Otto Brahm (born Abrahamsohn), with its emphasis on physical verisimilitude; the theatrical spectacles, cabarets, and modernist productions of his famous protégé, Max Reinhardt (born Goldmann); the ecstatic physicality of expressionism, with its intentional distortions of body images and its multiple Jewish participants and originators; and the more cerebral abstractions and political reverberations of Leopold Jessner's famous stagings. These new theatre forms were often designed by Jewish artists (such as Emil Orlik and Ernst Stern) and performed by Jewish actors (such as Fritz Kortner, Elizabeth Bergner, Ernst Deutsch, Alexander Granach, and Peter Lorre), many of whom can still be seen in films from the period. As theatre critics and theoreticians (for example, Siegfried Jacobsohn, Julius Bab, Alfred Kerr, Emil Faktor, and Max Herrmann), German Jews partook in formulating an understanding of these new expressions for the public at large. A new theoretical and cultural vocabulary emerged from this. Perhaps no less importantly, Jews constituted a significant segment of the theatre audience, as was often noted.

This is verified by "F. S." in an angry article he wrote for an 899 issue of the Jewish weekly Die Welt:

Those people who, for their own seditious purposes, keep count and track of every Jewish actor and writer and never cease to publish complaints about the Verjudung [Jewification] of the theatre will not be able to deny that the Jews constitute a significant part of today's lively stagecraft.... I only want to strengthen what the anti-Semites claim: Indeed, the Jews go to the theatre more consistently and more eagerly than other people; the Jews write plays, compose operas, and some among them have even become famous for this; they are actors, sometimes even great actors, directors, conductors, in short: everything possible. This simply cannot be denied. One must even admit that the Jews have fared better in the theatre than in other professional branches.

Or, as the highly influential German Jewish dramaturg and theatre critic Julius Bab put it in his 902 article "Jewry and the Art of Acting: A Psychological Study":

It is a fairly well-known fact that an unusually large percentage of the most preeminent German actors are of Jewish lineage, a percentage not only far greater than the relative number of Jews within the German population-such a proportion is found in all the arts, in almost all the higher professions-but far higher still than the percentage of Jews in the other arts.

These are surprising commentaries and raise some intriguing questions: what drew German Jews in such numbers and with such conspicuous appetite to Germany's theatres? After all, until a little over a hundred years earlier they had lived in almost complete segregation from the German language, culture, and people. What did German-cultured Jews hope to find in the theatre? What did theatre offer or allow the often stigmatized Jewish minority? Did their activity, at least in part, imply a desire to overcome a particularistic cultural identity and be accepted and visible within the most venerated of the German arts? Was it in part a way to validate their assimilation while at the same time transforming that most valued of German Ausdrucksformen (artistic forms) so as to include them? If cultural identity is a question of positioning rather than essence, as Stuart Hall has argued, did the Jewish cultural position as co-dominant within German theatre afford an opportunity or the hope of an opportunity to influence and perhaps transform the perception of their position in the world? And what is the meaning of this for the development of German theatre during the Wilhelmine Empire and the Weimar Republic?

The major focus of this book is on the work of Jewish artists and intellectuals within canonic German theatre and performance venues, as opposed to a segregated "Jewish" theatre. In this context, a central endeavor is to think beyond the usual formulation of "contribution" history. Germany's Jews in the last third of the nineteenth and first third of the twentieth century did not see themselves as "contributing" to German culture but as part of its fabric. Their involvement (especially in the theatre capital, Berlin) was of a major magnitude numerically as well as in terms of innovations and positions of influence and power. Taken as a whole, the essays in this book etch onto the conventional view of modern German theatre the history and conflicts of its Jewish participants. Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre aims to present German theatre since the modernist cultural revolution near the end of the nineteenth century through the perspective of its leading Jewish cocreators and through the filter of the specific problematics of German Jewry.

The parameters of our inquiry require a short explication. "Modern" is periodized here, historically, as dating from German unification (1871) to the end of the Weimar Republic (1933). This is roughly the span of the renewal and opening of German art and theatre to nontraditional forms and themes, known as modernism. It is also the period during which Jews acquired full legal and trade equality, which enabled their ownership and directorship of theatre and performance venues. The modernist upheaval allowed new voices and new styles to prevail over tradition, and "newcomers" were often the carriers of those voices. Otto Brahm, for example, was the first European director to follow André Antoine in the creation of a theatre dedicated to naturalist plays and theatre aesthetics (Die Freie Bühne, 1889). Max Reinhardt rejuvenated German theatre for close to twenty years with his stagings of the new modernist drama, his innovative interpretations of the classics (especially Shakespeare and the Greeks), and his novel uses of theatre spaces. Leopold Jessner became the most lauded and most villainized director of the Weimar Republic, famous for his political stagings and abstract expressionist style.

The equivocal term "German" refers mainly though not exclusively to the pre-World War I borders of Germany but includes stopovers in Prague, Vienna, Lemberg (Lvov), and Salzburg-all areas in which German cultural dominance inspired Jewish dramatic creation. While the heart of this theatre activity was Berlin, it is not possible to demarcate German Jewish theatre artists from their cousins in the other German-speaking areas of Mitteleuropa. The easy and ongoing flow of artists from one area to another, bringing their particular cultural baggage and theatrical influences, renders such a division artificial. Some of the major theatre artists of Jewish origins came to Berlin from Galicia (Alexander Granach, Rudolf Schildkraut), Vienna (Fritz Kortner, Max Reinhardt), and Prague (Ernst Deutsch, Paul Kornfeld). Thus the Jewish influx from the Austro-Hungarian Empire becomes part of the story of the creation of modern German theatre.

Berlin, the new capital of Germany since its belated unification in 1871, was the cultural vortex that drew talent into its radius and became itself the subject of drama, prose, and melodious cabaret sketches. In its early years Berlin expanded exponentially, mainly due to its long eastern border and the outsiders it attracted from the eastern provinces, such as playwright Ernst Toller and director Leopold Jessner. By 905, 60 percent of all Berlin citizens had been born elsewhere. At the time no other large European metropolis counted as great a percentage of immigrants among its citizens. Walther Rathenau (1867-1922, the German Jewish industrialist, writer, and later foreign minister of the newly formed Weimar Republic) once quipped that "most Berliners are from Posen; the rest are from Breslau," implying that an overly large segment of the population was from the East and was Jewish. With urban growth, new theatre audiences surfaced, new theatre venues emerged, and new performance styles evolved. Jews participated in the expansion of this new industry as theatre owners and managers, as directors and actors and critics, and as avid theatregoers. As Arnold Zweig later wrote, Jews were the perfect audience for the new, urban, modernist art due to their "rich education and assimilation," their open-mindedness and curiosity free from the "rigid constraints" of traditionalists. Sustained by the "skepticism and insight" of the modern city-dweller, Jews constituted "a decisive factor in the conditions necessary for the success of modern drama." Thus the story of modern German theatre and its Jewish initiators, participants, and viewers is "Berlinocentric."

The arrangement of the essays in this volume is meant to allow a fluid reading of the book as a whole. Chapters 2 through 5 carve out historical overviews of the role of theatre in the constitution of Jewish identity in Germany; the position of Jewish theatre artists in imperial Berlin, with special emphasis on Otto Brahm; the role of theatre in German Jewish cultural education and how it was viewed within the German Jewish bourgeois family; and the impact of Yiddish theatre on German and Austrian artists and theatre forms. Chapters 6 and 7 view German Jewish theatre activity through Jewish philosophical and critical perspectives, offering a comparison between the modern German Jewish "theatromania" and eighteenth-century German Enlightenment theatre (through the prism of the German Jewish "life philosopher" Theodor Lessing's writings) and a discussion of the ideological variants of German Jewish theatre criticism, especially in the work of Arnold Zweig and Siegfried Jacobsohn. Chapters 8 and 9 examine two important genres within which Jewish artists were particularly prominent, the cabaret and the expressionist theatre. The following four chapters provide close-ups of Jewish artists: a comparison of the important German stage actor Alexander Granach with his Galician compatriot and later Habima theatre actor Shimon Finkel; Max Reinhardt's Jewish and Austrian cultural identity; the meaning of Reinhardt's productions of The Merchant of Venice; and a seminal study of the Jewish identity of the German director Leopold Jessner. The volume concludes with an epilogue that sketches the renewed input of German Jewish artists in the post-Shoah German theatre. The chapters were written by specialists in each field, producing both a modicum of inevitable overlap and the advantage of a variety of points of view. The ongoing dialogue among the essays is indicated through endnote references and listed in the index.

* * *

Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre traces the German Jewish move into that most (self-)exposing of the arts, the public sphere of theatre. By appearing "in public," in cultural venues both high and low, Jews implicitly claimed their right to represent-indeed embody and co-create-German culture and thus be considered part of its cultural weave. But they also risked paying a personal and collective price well in excess of their gains. Sander Gilman dedicated many years and many volumes to deciphering the ways in which "racial" characteristics are read into physical attributes. From feet to breasts to noses, to the sound of the Jews' voices, to their "gaze" as a "pathology of their souls," Gilman documents centuries of European obsession with appearance. In this light, theatre would seem a dangerous choice for a people whose vocal and physical "difference" was so often scrutinized and stigmatized.

Jews had in fact been "going public" in Germany even before they appeared on the stage. They were of course frequent characters in premodern theatre and iconography, usually taking the shape of comic or insidious figures. But their entrance into modern theatre discourse began with their assimilation in the eighteenth century. This entrance is famously dated to the friendship first forged in mid-eighteenth-century Berlin between two exceptional Enlightenment figures: the German philosopher, writer, and playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and the Jewish philosopher and reformer Moses Mendelssohn. The outcome of this friendship is the most famous Jewish character in German literature: Nathan, the just and wise protagonist of Lessing's 779 play Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise), who is based on Lessing's close friend Mendelssohn. Moses Mendelssohn almost single-handedly opened the door for Jewish assimilation. He created a bridge between Jewish orthodoxy and German culture and became the model for a form of German citizenship that required acceptance of German culture in its broadest sense, without relinquishing the Jewish faith. Both he and Lessing represented the lofty Enlightenment ideals of universal tolerance, humanism, pluralism, and an openness to world culture that became the moral backbone of the concept of Bildung (cultural education).


Excerpted from Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre Copyright © 2010 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments ix

1 Introduction: Break a Leg! Jeanette R. Malkin 1

2 Reflections on Theatricality, Identity, and the Modern Jewish Experience Steven E. Aschheim 21

3 How "Jewish" Was Theatre in Imperial Berlin? Peter Jelavich 39

4 Stagestruck: Jewish Attitudes to the Theatre in Wilhelmine Germany Anat Feinberg 59

5 Yiddish Theatre and Its Impact on the German and Austrian Stage Delphine Bechtel 77

6 German and Jewish "Theatromania": Theodor Lessing's Theater-Seele between Goethe and Kafka Bernhard Greiner 99

7 Arnold Zweig and the Critics: Reconsidering the Jewish "Contribution" to German Theatre Peter W. Marx 116

8 Jewish Cabaret Artists before 1933 Hans-Peter Bayerdörfer 132

9 Transforming in Public: Jewish Actors on the German Expressionist Stage Jeanette R. Malkin 151

10 The Shaping of the Ostjude: Alexander Granach and Shimon Finkel in Berlin Shelly Zer-Zion 174

11 Max Reinhardt between Yiddish Theatre and the Salzburg Festival Lisa Silverman 197

12 Theatre as Festive Play: Max Reinhardt's Productions of The Merchant of Venice Erika Fischer-Lichte 219

13 The Unknown Leopold Jessner: German Theatre and Jewish Identity Anat Feinberg 232

14 Epilogue Freddie Rokem 261

Works Cited 269

Contributors 291

Index 295

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