Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Theater and Nation in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Theater and Nation in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Article excerpt

Michael J. Sosulski. Theater and Nation in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Studies in European Cultural Transition. Great Britain: Ashgate, 2007. 178 pages. $99.95 (£55) hardcover. ISBN: 9780754637196.

Exploring how national identities are constructed has become a staple of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century studies in European literature. Such scholarly inquiries typically seek to prove that literature can foster an imagined sense of community among a diverse group of people.1 From this perspective, literary works represent to an audience shared values that conjure up in individuals an idea of collective consciousness, a national identity. In Theater and Nation in Eighteenth-Century Germany, Michael J. Sosulski contends that more than a dozen German National Theaters were chartered in the last third of the eighteenth century to reflect, develop, and perform the moral identity of a culturally fragmented nation. Unlike earlier itinerant theaters, which largely staged variations of Italian operas, French and English plays, these National Theaters - located in cities from Mannheim to Berlin - primarily encouraged the development of contemporary, German language plays. While Sosulski does not claim that these theaters distinctly led to the creation of a national consciousness, he describes them as places for exploring potential ideas about German identity. Furthermore, his argument about the importance of these financially troubled, and often failed, National Theaters counters two prevailing critical notions: first, that German nationalism took shape in the nineteenth century and, second, that collectively, these National Theaters had little impact on German theater in the nineteenth century.

To support his claims, Sosulski connects the nationalistic ideals of several German theater theorists with a sweeping cultural movement in the eighteenth-century - involving the Prussian military, acting academies, and gymnastics schools - to physically discipline the body and train collective mindsets. His interdisciplinary weaving proposes that National Theaters featured contemporary plays and developed new acting styles in order to encourage audiences to empathize with, reflect upon, and internalize the German identities and values performed on stage. However, as Sosulski's last chapter on Friedrich Schiller's The Robbers suggests, these theaters did more than simply function as Enlightenment institutions of public education, holding an idealistic mirror up to culture. They also featured plays that demonstrated the problematic nature of individual and collective identity formation.

Unfortunately, Theater and Nation does not detail how successful German National Theaters were in impressing a sense of collective identity on their audiences. In the introduction, Sosulski briefly remarks that these institutions "received a lukewarm reception," and the ensuing chapters provide only scattered comments about the demographics and reactions of theater-goers (5). A separate chapter on the subject seems necessary. By the end of the book, readers still are left to wonder about the particular impact these theaters had on audiences, and the final two sentences only exacerbate this unanswered question: 'Is it possible for the individual to stand for the whole, and to what degree? This is a quandary barely conceived in the 1760s, and yet the space provided by the national theaters for exploring questions of individual and collective identities yielded exactly this" (160). Sosulski's two uses of the deictic "this" in his final sentence point to a circular weakness in the book's argument. These theaters were chartered in order to explore questions about individual and national identity. Did their existence only yield a perplexing quandary, and further questions about identity formation?

The chapters in the book muffle answers to this question because they focus on the theoretical underpinnings and cultural codes that shaped these National Theaters. …

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