Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Las[Beta] mich sein, was ich bin": Karoline Schulze-Kummerfeld's performance of a lifetime

Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Las[Beta] mich sein, was ich bin": Karoline Schulze-Kummerfeld's performance of a lifetime

Article excerpt

The German actress Karoline Schulze-Kummerfeld wrote two autobiographical manuscripts: "Die Ganze Geschichte meines Lebens," begun toward the end of 1782, and "Die Geschichte meines Theatralischen Lebens," written in 1793. These two texts, edited and published by Emil Beneze in 1915 under the title Lebenserinnerungen der Komodiantin Karoline Schulze-Kummerfeld are a fascinating record of the conditions under which an actress worked and lived in the 18th century, and a rich source of information about the German theatre.1 In fact, what little scholarship exists on these memoirs tends to rely upon them as a means of accessing historical information about the state of the theatre and the working conditions of actresses in 18th-century Germany.2 In this article I focus attention away from Schulze-Kummerfeld's writing as historical record and offer instead an interpretive reading of her work. My interest in these memoirs lies in what they can tell us about how women of the 18th century negotiated their subjectivity in the face of a cultural construction of womanhood in terms of naivete and naturalness. I argue that notwithstanding Schulze-Kummerfeld's alignment of herself with that image of womanhood and her insistence upon a transparency of self in accordance with her era's culture of sensibility, the history of her life is, ironically, a chronicle of a life she was compelled to perform and a testament to the impossibility of sentimentally "being" who she "was."

Recent studies of 18th-century women's autobiography have pointed out that such texts frequently represent complex negotia-tions with hegemonic ideas about gendered subjectivity.3 In addition, poststructuralist theory has led to a questioning of the historical and "truth" value of memoirs in general: the very act of representing one's life in words renders that life to some degree fictive, no matter how closely the author approaches historical accuracy. One model of reading autobiographical texts sees the text as a (conscious, half-conscious, or unconscious) "performance" of identity produced and contoured in response to or reaction against social and discursive pressures toward a fixed and "natural" gendered identity.4 This is, of course, a 20^sup th^-century perspective: an 18^sup th^-century memoir writer Mke Karoline Schulze-Kummerfeld understood her subjectivity and her writing about that subjectivity quite differently. She claims to know herself and the "truth" of her life with a confidence that historical hindsight and current theory find quaint, at best, and suspect, at worst. Yet reading her text as a "performance"-against her specific intentions to have it stand as the "truth" of her life-is particularly compelling in the case of Karoline Schulze-Kummerfeld because it helps illuminate the contradictory subject position into which women of the late 18th century were interpellated by the culture of sentimentality.

One of the fundamental characteristics that served to distinguish bourgeois morality in 18th-century Germany was the rejection of identity as the performance of a role in favor of a sentimental, "anti-theatrical," "authentic" expression of self.5 Where in aristocratic culture of the early modern and baroque periods one'spersona was explicitly conceived and understood as a thing to be performed-as described and prescribed in courtly manuals like Machiavelli's The Prince, Castiglione's The Art of the Courtier, and Gracian's Oraculo manual-bourgeois culture of the late 18th century increasingly began to define identity and subjectivity in terms of the consistency between one's inner being and one's outer display of that inner self. The theatrical subject of the early modern and baroque periods-the political actor who controlled his performances on the public stage-yielded (theoretically in any case) to the anti-theatrical subject of the Enlightenment.6

In thinking of 18th-century subjectivity in terms of the extent to which it was not conceived of as performed, I draw on Judith Butler's understanding of gendered subjectivity as constituted by and through performative "acts. …

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