Academic journal article German Quarterly

Shakespeare on the German Stage: The Twentieth Century

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Shakespeare on the German Stage: The Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

Hortmann, Wilhelm. Shakespeare on the German Stage: The Twentieth Century (with a section on Shakespeare in the GDR by Maik Hamburger). Cambridge: Cambridge UP 1998. 497 pp. $69.95.

This book is designed to take up where Simon William's volume, Shakespeare on the German Stage, 1586-1914 (1989), leaves off. The period up to the outbreak of World War I is, however, basically covered in both William's and Hortmann's volumes.

Not surprisingly, given the enormous number of performances of Shakespeare in German-speaking countries in the 20th century (Hortmann estimates there to have been circa 9000 of these), Hortmann chooses to sample key developments rather than attempting to cover every production. The choices made by Hortmann (and Maik Hamburger who covers the GDR) are generally judicious, covering not only the stages of the largest cities and best endowed theaters, but often looking in detail at signal contributions of smaller venues, places as diverse as Bochum and Greifswald. Backing up the verbal analysis of specific productions are 125 well chosen and well reproduced black and white photographs.

At times the description pulses with a real sense of German history and we are taken in time to how a particular production struck viewers in a particular time and place. Very compelling is Hortmann's meticulous historical reconstruction of Gustav Grundgens in the title role of Hamlet in Berlin in 1936, (159-61). Grundgens, himself is shown as intensely vulnerable in the Third Reich not only because of his homosexuality, but because of the efforts he was making to protect Jewish members of his theater staff:

Similarly skilled is Maik Hamburger's description of the interaction of play and of historical circumstances with the mounting of Hamlet in Greifswald in 1964. Hamburger (388-90) traces how Adolf Dresen remembers doing the play in an atmosphere where SED party restrictions seemed to rule out anything but a stiff presentation of a recognized classic. This Dresen was unwilling to do even if his new position of artistic director in Greifswald was on the line. Dresen used as a kind of mantra for the production both Heinrich Mann's brilliant description of the Third Reich: "Die Macht war geistlos and der Geist war machtlos," and Holderlin's description of a world that he saw as "tatenarm and gedankenreich." Dresen's meditations on the play itself and on German history up to his own time became compressed for him into the slogan "Buchenwald is near Weimar." The thought is stunningly similar to Jorge Semprun's meditations (he was himself a prisoner at Buchenwald from 1943-45) in his 1964 novel Le Grand Voyage. Superbly rendered by Jurgen Holtz in the title role, Shakespeare/Hamlet became a contemporary and by so doing deeply disturbed the omnipresent SED watchdogs. Because of its huge success with audiences, this all too apt production was quickly taken ofF and the director was warned in a review that artists who wished to keep their jobs, needed to be "cleverly and prudently guided."

Though in the two instances given above, the authors of this volume manage simultaneously to illuminate both Shakespeare and the historical era, sometimes (and this is more frequent in Hortmann, who tackles the larger task, than in Hamburger), descriptions seem rather routine and lack sparkle. …

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