Ethnic Drag: Performing Race, Nation, Sexuality in West Germany

Ethnic Drag: Performing Race, Nation, Sexuality in West Germany

by Katrin Sieg


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The Holocaust is considered a singularly atrocious event in human history, and many people have studied its causes. Yet few questions have been asked about the ways in which West Germans have "forgotten," unlearned, or reconstructed the racial beliefs at the core of the Nazi state in order to build a democratic society. This study looks at ethnic drag (Ethnomaskerade) as one particular kind of performance that reveals how postwar Germans lived, disavowed, and contested "Germanness" in its complex racial, national, and sexual dimensions.

Using engaging case studies, Ethnic Drag traces the classical and travestied traditions of Jewish impersonation from the eighteenth century onward to construct a pre-history of postwar ethnic drag. It examines how, shortly after World War II, mass culture and popular practices facilitated the repression and refashioning of Nazi racial precepts. During a time when American occupation authorities insisted on remembrance and redress for the Holocaust, the Wild West emerged as a displaced theater of the racial imagination, where the roles of victim, avenger, and perpetrator of genocide were reassigned.

Ethnic Drag is an accessible and sophisticated, critical and entertaining book that examines the phenomenon of cultural masquerade in order to examine racial feeling, thought, and behavior in postwar German culture. Contributing to considerations of drag in postcolonial, feminist, and queer scholarships, this book will be of interest to people in German studies, theater performance, ethnic studies, and women's/queer studies.

Katrin Sieg is Associate Professor, Department of German and Center for German and European Studies, Georgetown University.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472033621
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 01/23/2009
Series: Social History, Popular Culture, and Politics in Germany Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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Ethnic Drag: Performing Race, Nation, Sexuality in West Germany

By Katrin Sieg

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2002 Katrin Sieg
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472112821

CHAPTER 1 - A Prehistory: Jewish Impersonation

In 1779 Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) published his last play, the "dramatic poem" Nathan the Wise. It encapsulates Enlightenment thinking about the perils of orthodoxy and intolerance and holds out a vision of common humanity and loving acceptance predicated on respect for religious and cultural differences. Set in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades, the play dramatizes the double predicament of Nathan, a wealthy Jewish merchant, who faces losing not only his money to Saladin, the Muslim ruler of Jerusalem, but also his beloved daughter Recha to fanatical Christians headed by Jerusalem's patriarch. Both money and children are shown to delineate differences defined by absolutist power and by blood, but they also potentially forge bonds of allegiance by circulating across cultural boundaries: the sultan Saladin, while tempted to appropriate Nathan's money through a ruse, comes to treat him as a fellow citizen and business partner, while Recha, who learns of her mixed Christian-Muslim parentage, insists on calling the Jew Nathan her father. Both money and paternity thus double the discourse of affinity into an essentialist and an elective one; even as the former is associated with feudalism, fanaticism, and blood relations, and the latter with tradition, commerce, and adoption, they exist side-by-side. Through the famous "ring parable," Nathan insists that no one can judge one religion superior to the others; he also demands that Saladin respect his loyalty to the Jewish religion and traditions.

Yet while the "family of man" celebrated in the final tableau of the common embrace is united by chosen allegiance and blood bonds, Nathan is the only one who is not related to anyone else on stage. The money Nathan had loaned Saladin is returned to him, and Recha will presumably move into the Sultan's palace. Nathan's integration hinges on his fellows' goodwill, whereas Saladin can command love and loyalty from his newly discovered family members. Nathan's inclusion in the human community appears less secure because he is excluded from the generative metaphor of the biological family. Even as his integrity as a citizen is confirmed and his parenting praised, the common embrace cannot altogether hide his curious loneliness (Kluger, 225; Mayer, 294f.). The tensions contained in that moment have compelled generations of directors to fiddle with the blocking of that embrace. An engraving in the play's first print edition (four years before its first production) shows Nathan standing humbly in the background, gazing wistfully upon the cross-cultural family he helped to bring together. Two of the most famous productions in the play's long stage history--one performed in 1933 by an all-Jewish ensemble in the Nazi capital of Berlin, the other considered to emblematize West German philosemitism in the 1950s--close with Nathan standing apart from and quietly leaving the jubilant scene. Going where? The social resonances of his exit, at the threshold between symbolic and social space, bring into view the vicissitudes of German-Jewish relations over the past two centuries.

While plenty has been written about Lessing's drama, its casting has received little attention. Yet the question who performs what role is undoubtedly an important aspect of a play's meaning: what if nobody ever considered that Shakespeare had originally written his gender-bending female parts for boy actors, or that the sentimental, lewd, comic, and cruel antebellum "Negro" minstrel acts set on Southern plantations were first played by white actors in the industrial North? Critics have analyzed female impersonation in the classical theater in conjunction with the nascent modern gender system (Case 1985) and have described the minstrel show as consonant with slavery's investment in and exploitation of the black body (Lott). In this chapter, I want to discuss select instances of Jewish impersonation that stand in the stage tradition of classical humanism epitomized by Nathan, which has often been treated as the opposite of and remedy to the blatantly antisemitic one commonly identified with Shylock. The Shakespearean association obscures the existence of a homegrown, German antisemitic theater that can be traced through Nathan's precursors and travesties. As some critics have noted, the antisemitic stock figure of the lecherous, greedy, yet hapless Jew continued in the older, comic tradition of the itinerant players, constituting a kind of modern Hanswurst (harlequin) in Jewish clothing. J. G. Gottsched and his contemporaries had inveighed against this tradition and banned Hanswurst from the German stage, while Lessing predicated the construction of a reformed, morally elevating German national theater on the continued excision of this kind of comedy. The Jew thus figures as a linchpin of modern conceptions of the nation that German intellectuals imagined around 1800, epitomizing not only that which has no place in the moral institutions of the stage and the state but also that which points to the promise of the Enlightenment vision of human brotherhood through education. As a performance obsessively focused on the voice as the intersection of body and language, Germans' impersonations of Jews dramatized the conditions (and the double bind) of Jewish assimilation, the main strategy for attaining emancipation.

This chapter sets the stage for the remainder of this study, by pointing to the long history and diverse emplotments of ethnic drag in Germany. Unlike Lessing's Nathan, which has been part of German high school curricula since the early nineteenth century and enjoys undiminished popularity on the stage, much of this history, however, has been forgotten. Standard German theater histories and encyclopedias omit the Judenpossen (Jew farces) in early nineteenth-century Berlin, many musicologists continue to deny the antisemitic codes embedded in Richard Wagner's stage practice (as opposed to his theoretical writing), and the German government censors the most explicit documents of Nazi racism, like Veit Harlan's film Jew Suss (1940). The elision of these traditions has abetted Nathan's function to philosemitically invoke the "better Germany" after the war, suppressing the ways in which its production history ties it to a wider range of theatrical representations of and social interactions with Jews.

This chapter does not present a comprehensive, chronological history of Jewish impersonation extending from the Enlightenment to the 1990s, but addresses four main theoretical and political problematics. First, a comparison of the classical and the travestied Nathan, in addition to a close reading of one particular bourgeois salon entertainment allows me to elaborate the emergence of a racial mimesis. My analysis of the "Israelitic lady" parodied by the comedian Albert Wurm (1794-1834) allows me to trace the coding of mimesis as the prerogative of the German artist and of masquerade as the province of the Jewish impostor. The dramaturgy of his act not only predicates spectatorial pleasure on racial detection but also illustrates the German actor's conceit of universal performability, the white body's ability to transcend its gendered and racial coordinates. This mimetic capacity is radically irreversible, that is, reserved for some bodies and categorically denied to others.

Second, my examination of Jewish impersonation focuses on spectatorial address. The racist pleasures awarded by the Jew Farce and by Wurm's act hinge largely on the way it addresses the German spectator as racial detective who will not be duped by the Jew's dissimulations. This constellation climaxes in fascist drag, exemplified by the Nazi propaganda film Jew Suss, which positions German spectators as eminently gullible. By constructing a myth of German naivete and innocence vis-a-vis the Jew's machinations, fascist drag serves to legitimate powerful, antisemitic institutions dedicated to protecting that innocence against those who would corrupt it. On the diegetic level and on the level of audience address, the film spells out a division of knowledge and labor between the state and the citizen. The individual might see through the Jew's deceitful masquerade, but is portrayed as too "good" to use the appropriate defense or punishment. Instead, the racial gaze powers up the camera as a cultural technology in the service of a violent, antisemitic state.

Third, I will consider in what ways "biologically correct" casting may abet a counterhegemonic agenda by examining the 1933 all-Jewish production of Nathan at the Judischer Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural Organization, 1933-42) in Berlin. How does the play's meaning change through that casting and the institutional circumstances that surrounded it? For generations, Jewish critics had regarded the play as central to an emancipatory agenda; in what ways did the Jewish authentication of Nathan, when performed by and for Jews in the Nazi racial state, enable an embattled community to yoke the rhetorical force of the classic to their own political interests--and in what ways did their performance risk inserting them into the assimilationist/antisemitic stage traditions of a classical or burlesque Nathan?

Finally, the Jewish production of Nathan opens up another discourse of ethnic drag that no longer hinges on the practice of cross-dressing but derives from Bertolt Brecht's concept of estrangement techniques. Written in exile from Nazi Germany, "Verfremdungseffekte in der chinesischen Schauspielkunst" (Alienation effects in Chinese acting, 1936) stands as a counterpoint to fascist drag and its racial ontologies. It likewise revolves around the spectator's ability to pierce through the social gestures (Gestus) held at a distance from the actor's body, not to discern racial truth, as fascist discourse would have it, but to mark identity as a construction, to historicize it, and enjoin spectators to engage in the political labor of critique and transformation. I show that Brecht himself was not always successful in historicizing "race" in this essay, requiring later adjustments and revisions of the Brechtian paradigm (see chapters 4 and 6). Finally, I close with a brief look at Nathan in the decades following the Shoah, sketching its instrumentalization within postwar philosemitism, along with the efforts by some Jewish theater artists to work through the character of Nathan.

Impersonators and Impostors

Nathan the Wise is undoubtedly the most famous German play about the conditions of religious tolerance, a term that was closely related in the political debates of the time to the concepts of assimilation, acculturation, and emancipation--issues that to this day remain pertinent to Germans' conceptions of cultural difference, national unity, and equal rights. The configuration and meaning of these terms, however, underwent significant changes in the very decades following the play's publication, when Enlightenment precepts were supplanted by the nascent discourse of romanticism. While some critics have located the ambivalence of religious tolerance versus racial difference in the dramatic text itself (e.g., by pressing on the tension of the final scene), the divergence between assimilationist and antisemitic discourse is much more clearly visible in the stage practices that grew out of Lessing's drama on the one hand, and, on the other, the numerous sequels, variations, and travesties of Nathan that began to appear as soon as the play became part of the theatrical repertoire after 1801. Some of the latter used the figures and plots of the Jew Farce, a genre created by and for the amusement of Christian Germans. Through the practice of Jewish impersonation, Christians onstage and in the audience imagined themselves as Germans at a time when the referent of that term was purely cultural and primarily linguistic, rather than political. By lampooning Jewish assimilation, they celebrated a sense of national unity impervious to usurpations. This kind of low comedy might have enabled Germans to symbolically fortify a sense of nationality that was under extreme duress in the first decade of the nineteenth century, when the Napoleonic armies invaded Prussia. The denigration of the Yiddish language and the invention of the "Jewish voice" as deceitful and ugly complemented philosophers' assertions about the metaphysical qualities of the German language as truthful and beautiful, exemplified by Fichte's "Reden an die Deutsche Nation" (Speeches to the German nation), which he gave in French-occupied Berlin in 1807-8. While the adoption of the Napoleonic Code in the occupied German regions legalized, for a brief time, political equality for Jews, its imposition by a foreign regime wedded German nationalism to antisemitism among the German intellectual class, as scholarship on the Romantics has well documented. The German bourgeoisie's commitment to Enlightenment values and Jewish emancipation was superseded in the evolving climate of nationalism; in 1880 Theodor Fontane wrote that Nathan's call for tolerance remained as distant from social reality as ever, despite the play's hallowed status in the canon of German letters (Steinmetz, 382).

The twenty-year lag between Nathan the Wise's publication and its integration in the theatrical repertoire in the first decade of the nineteenth century coincided with the ascendancy of assimilation as the main strategy of attaining social acceptance embraced by the entire second generation of Maskilim, or enlightened Jews; the first, represented by Lessing's close friend Moses Mendelssohn, on whom many critics argue that Nathan is modeled, still viewed Prussian citizenship and loyalty to Jewish traditions as reconcilable. Critics have disagreed about the question whether the play follows an assimilationist logic: those who contest that claim often point to the ideal of sittliches Handeln (ethical practice) for which members of all three religions should strive, observing that one is not set up as a model for the other two to emulate; if anything, Nathan approximates this ideal more closely than do the Christian characters in the play. In contrast, the stage practice of the Nathan productions from 1801 onward, informed by the idealist style developed by Goethe and Schiller at the Weimar Court Theater, clearly downplayed the important tension between cultural specificity and universal humanity. On the stages of Weimar, Magdeburg, Berlin, and Hamburg, which launched Nathan into the pantheon of German classical drama, the protagonist's nobility rested on the elimination of Jewish signifiers. The first Nathan was the Berlin principal Dobbelin, who, like Gottsched and Neuber, dedicated himself to the creation of a German national theater by turning against the bawdy traditions of the itinerant players. He was schooled in classical drama and emphasized Nathan's dignity and high moralism in a stilted presentation marked by "pretentious decorum and affected declamation" (Wessels, 248).


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