German theatre premières in 1922

One hundred years on, 1922 is remembered as perhaps the most important year for modernist literature, with the publication of both Ulysses by James Joyce and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Media attention around the anniversary of Ulysses earlier this year (and 16th June’s Bloomsday) prompted me to wonder what was happening in the German-speaking literary world during 1922. Focusing on drama, this post features some noteworthy first productions that theatre-goers might have seen that year, some more successful than others.

By 1922, the fashion for Expressionist drama, which had dominated the German scene for a number of years, was tailing off but expressionist elements still remained. This must have been an interesting time to work in the theatre as many of the actors and directors were also dipping their toes in the waters of cinema (many later went to the United States, either for political reasons or because of the draw of Hollywood – or both). It would also have been a challenging time economically as four years into the Weimar Republic inflation was starting to take hold. It is important to note that the premières took place in a number of different cities, not just Berlin, reflecting the importance of theatre across the whole of Germany (and Austria). I am also struck by how young some of the playwrights were – four of the six featured here were under the age of 30, Brecht being only 24.

February: Die Krönung Richards III. (in 748:35.d.95.1675) by Hans Henny Jahnn (1894-1959) in Leipzig

This was the second play that Jahnn, a somewhat unconventional figure, had written a few years earlier. (His first play, Pastor Ephraim Magnus, was awarded the Kleist Prize in 1920 but did not appear on stage until 1923.) He drew on Shakespeare’s Richard III and the play was directed by Hans Rothe, a noted Shakespeare translator. Even after being extensively cut the play was monumentally long at over four hours. It was also shocking and disturbing with graphic scenes of brutality and eroticism, and was not a success with audiences or critics. More on Jahnn’s colourful life can be found in Der gestrandete Wal: das masslose Leben des Hans Henny Jahnn by Jan Bürger (748:37.c.200.181).

Also February: Kanzlist Krehler (1922 edition S746.c.92.41) by Georg Kaiser (1878-1945) in Berlin

Kaiser, picture via Wikimedia Commons

Kaiser was a prolific and influential writer of Expressionist plays with successes under his belt. However, it is fair to say that this particular one was not his most significant. Indeed the pre-eminent theatre critic Herbert Ihering described it as Kaiser’s worst play:

Die Uraufführung auch des schlechtesten Stückes von Georg Kaiser ist als Ereignis festzustellen (in 415.d.95.121)

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the production was the design of the set and costumes. This was a collaboration between the artists John Heartfield and George Grosz.

April: Vatermord (in 747:35.c.95.69) by Arnolt Bronnen (1895-1959) in Frankfurt am Main

This play (English title, Patricide) should have been Bertolt Brecht’s first attempt at direction but after he criticised the actors they refused to work with him and Berthold Viertel was called in to take over. Bronnen first wrote the play in 1915 (both versions can be compared in 747:35.c.95.122). It was considered to be scandalous as it contained extremes of violence and perversion. The first performances caused a sensation as they were met with indignation from audiences – the police had to intervene in Berlin in May, and the Ulm first performance did not even go ahead as the local police banned it. Nevertheless critics generally praised Bronnen’s writing as well as the acting and production. For instance, Herbert Ihering thought that the play was powerful and Siegfried Jacobsohn described Bronnen’s poetic mastery as astounding: 

Seine dichterische Bändigung ist für einen Erstling verblüffend (in 746:01.c.11.85

Bronnen is a problematic figure who declared his loyalty to Adolf Hitler in 1933 but later became a communist and died in East Berlin. The Jewishness of his own father Ferdinand Bronner (also a writer under the pseudonym Franz Adamus) caused him to challenge his paternity in order to prove his Aryan status. This is explored in more detail in Meine Väter by his daughter Barbara Bronnen (C205.d.2333). A comprehensive account of his complicated life is given in Arnolt Bronnen: Biographie by Friedbert Aspetsberger (747:37.c.95.427).

June: Die Maschinenstürmer (1924 edition 9746.d.1793) by Ernst Toller (1893-1939) in Berlin

Toller wrote this play while serving five years in prison for high treason and was therefore not present at the première. The play is a historical drama about the Luddites in Nottingham. It consequently drew unfavourable comparisons with Gerhart Hauptmann’s earlier play Die Weber of which there had been a successful production at the same theatre one year earlier, directed by Karl-Heinz Martin who was also in charge here. Jacobsohn only rated the music:

Kunstwert hat an dem Abend nur Klaus Pringheims Musik (in 746:01.c.11.85

while Hermann Kienzl singled out the astounding realism of the set design, again by John Heartfield, this time working with Franz Dworsky (see 415.c.96.367). The production may not be remembered for its dramatic worth but it was certainly an event, as many of the 3000+ strong audience felt moved to demonstrate against the very recent assassination of Walther Rathenau, the German foreign minister.

This vast audience was accommodated in the Grosses Schauspielhaus, an amazing U-shaped auditorium which had been turned into a theatre from a circus building by Hans Poelzig in 1919 for the leading figure of German theatre, Max Reinhardt. Part of the new dome with twelve concentric scalloped rings hanging down like stalactites can be seen in this photograph. You can find out more about the theatre in Max Reinhardt’s Grosses Schauspielhaus: its artistic goals, planning, and operation, 1910-1933 (415:2.c.200.355).

Inside the Grosses Schauspielhaus, picture via Wikimedia Commons

August: Das Salzburger grosse Welttheater (1922 edition 1994.8.935) by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929) in Salzburg

Interior of the Kollegienkirche, picture by Böhringer Friedrich via Wikimedia Commons

In 1920 Max Reinhardt, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal set up the Salzburg Festival. It was launched with a performance outside Salzburg Cathedral of Hofmannsthal’s mystery play Jedermann (first performed in 1911 in Berlin’s Zirkus Schumann – the later Grosses Schauspielhaus – and for many years now a regular feature of the annual festival). Two years later Hofmannsthal had adapted Calderón’s 17th century play El Gran Teatro del Mundo and he and Reinhardt were granted permission by the church authorities to stage it inside the baroque Kollegienkirche. The play ran for three hours with no interval and there were 14 performances in all. The set design was by Alfred Roller and music was provided by the Swedish composer Einar Nilson. Critics agreed that Reinhardt’s production had made good use of the church as a backdrop.

September: Trommeln in der Nacht (1922 edition 747:35.d.90.155) by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) in Munich

Completed by 1920, this play was Brecht’s response to World War One and the Spartacist uprising, and it highlighted the contrast between proletarian and bourgeois characters, a common theme in his later plays. For this and two other plays he was awarded the Kleist Prize. The production by Otto Falckenberg was met with universal acclaim by critics. Julius Bab praised Brecht’s writing:

In Brechts Dialog ist eine packende und beflügelnde Energie (in 415.c.96.367)

Ihering thought that this was the advent of a new era for German literature:

Bert Brecht hat ber Nacht das dichterische Antlitz Deutschlands verändert. Mit Bert Brecht ist ein neuer Ton, eine neue Melodie, eine neue Vision in der Zeit (in 415.d.95.121)

Interestingly our 1922 copy of the play was owned by David J. Bach and dates from a time when he was writing reviews for the Arbeiter Zeitung in Vienna. More detail on Brecht and Trommeln in der Nacht can be found in the recent biography Bertolt Brecht: a literary life by Stephen Parker (747:37.c.201.9 and online). (Coincidentally Professor Parker supervised my mediocre 1980s dissertation on Johannes R. Becher who supported Arnolt Bronnen’s 1950s move to East Berlin.)

It is worth noting that several of these plays have been revived on the German stage in recent years, demonstrating that these plays from the 1920s have not been forgotten and might still be relevant to audiences today.

Katharine Dicks

Further reading

  • Von Reinhardt bis Brecht: vier Jahrzehnte Theater und Film by Herbert Jhering, vol. 1 1909-1923 (415.d.95.121)
  • Gesammelte Schriften 1900-1926 by Siegfried Jacobsohn, vol. 3 1915-1926 (746:01.c.11.85)
  • Theater für die Republik, 1917-1933, im Spiegel der Kritik by Günther Rühle (415.c.96.367)
  • The theatre of the Weimar Republic by John Willett (415.b.98.141)
  • Theater in Deutschland 1887-1945: seine Ereignisse – seine Menschen by Günther Rühle (415:2.c.200.916)
  • A history of the Salzburg Festival by Stephen Gallup (M450.c.95.46)
  • Eine Triumphpforte österreichischer Kunst: Hugo von Hofmannsthals Gründung der Salzburger Festspiele by Norbert Christian Wolf (C203.d.8397)

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