Emmy Hennings rediscovered

A poster for Cabaret Voltaire (source: Wikimedia)

The literary author and cabaret artist Emmy Hennings (or Emmy Ball-Hennings) was one of the most fascinating figures in German literary life in the first half of the 20th century. Born in 1885, she worked in a variety of jobs before becoming a cabaret artist touring Germany, performing in famous venues such as Simplicissimus in Munich or Café Grössenwahn in Berlin. While in Munich she became a contributor to the literary magazine Simplicissimus and met her future husband, Hugo Ball. The pair moved to Zurich where in 1916, together with other artists, they founded Cabaret Voltaire, one of the key institutions of the Dada movement. At Cabaret Voltaire she became the star of the evening performances. The couple married in 1920 but Hugo Ball died in 1927. After his death she devoted her energy to editing and issuing his works. She herself died in 1948 in Sorengo in Switzerland.

While Emmy Hennings is well-known as a key figure of the Dada movement it seems that she is less known as a literary author in her own right. In her lifetime she published several novels and collections of poetry as well as autobiographical writings. However, since 2016 her works have been issued again in a multivolume edition by the publisher Wallstein which allows us to rediscover and reassess her literary oeuvre. The edition is based on the papers of Emmy Hennings and Hugo Ball which are held by the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern. The edition is described as a ‘kommentierte Studienausgabe’, so not a critical edition but the extensive notes and commentary provide excellent context. So far, three volumes have been published. The first two contain her novels and short stories while the third, published this year, presents her extensive poetic oeuvre. The University Library subscribes to this edition and has just added the latest volume to its holdings (C206.d.4703-4705).

The edition is a welcome enhancement of the UL’s holdings of Emmy Hennings’ works as we have attempted to acquire copies of her works published in her lifetime. We are particularly proud to have her first published work, the volume of poems entitled Die letzte Freude (Uc.8.1023) which was published in 1913 as the fifth volume of the legendary series Der jüngste Tag. This volume is nicely complemented by her first novel, Gefängnis (748:35.d.90.315) published in 1919 and her second poetry collection Helle Nacht (9746.c.220) published in 1922.

Die letzte Freude, Gefängnis & Helle Nacht

The life of Emmy Hennings has been covered by numerous biographies, several of which the UL holds. Probably the best introduction to her life and work is the richly illustrated chronological presentation Emmy Ball Hennings 1885-1948 (748:37.b.95.27) edited by Bernhard Echte and Katharina Aemmer which was published to accompany an exhibition held in 1999.

Nicola Behrmann, one of the editors of the new Hennings edition, provides in her study Geburt der Avantgarde (748:37.c.201.242) an attempt to position Emmy Hennings’ oeuvre within the development of German literature in the 20th century.

We hope that further volumes of the Emmy Hennings edition will be published soon, enabling her to find her rightful place in the history of German literature.

Christian Staufenbiel

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