Georg II, Duke of Saxony-Meiningen


Georg II, Duke of Saxony-Meiningen
(1826-1914)
   Director, designer. Georg II was among the first aristocrats in 19th-century Germany who sought to raise fundamentally the standards of production values that were commonplace in the German theater at the time. He had extensive exposure to high-quality theater productions in England and on the Continent before succeeding his father as duke in 1866, recognizing that quality productions of William Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller, and Johann Wolfgang Goethe in most German duchies were few. By the time his company, known as "the Meininger," had finished touring in 1890, Georg had widely influenced the German theater with his acute attention to pictorial detail, historical accuracy, and ensemble acting. Many scholars recognize Georg II as the first director, a personality whose absolute authority gives a production its final form and shapes it as a work of theatrical art. The duke, however, was most interested in an accurate representation of the playwright's script, with emphasis on the milieu called for in the script. He supplied actors with all costumes required for the production, forbidding them from changing them in any way; provided materials for costumes, settings, properties, and accessories that were valid for the play's time period; required long rehearsal periods (sometimes lasting months) so that actors became accustomed to the milieu he had created; and demanded that they "act" from the first rehearsal to opening night.
   The result was an unprecedented level of illusionism—a level few audiences had ever before witnessed. The company's first performances in Berlin created a sensation, as audiences beheld settings individually styled for each play in the repertoire. The floor was part of the stage design and settings were asymmetrical because Georg found symmetry both unnatural and predictable. Crowd scenes involved every actor in the company and required the absorption of each performer. Georg in effect had created the "unified produc-tion"—one in which all aspects of the performance contribute to a total illusionistic effect.
   Georg II had numerous collaborators in this achievement, chief among them Ludwig Chronegk, whose tour management and staging of the productions put Georg's ideas into effect. Georg's wife Ellen Franz (1839-1923), whom he married in 1873, was instrumental in assisting him with casting and repertoire selection. Between 1874 and 1890 the Meiningen company put on more than 2,500 performances during 81 guest tours to 36 German cities. Julius Caesar was their most frequently performed play, followed by A Winter's Tale and Schiller's Wilhelm Tell (William Tell). The duke also introduced some contemporary playwrights to German audiences, most notably Ernst von Wildenbruch. The Wildenbruch premieres led to enormously profitable runs, allowing the company occasionally to premiere far less popular fare, such as some works by Henrik Ibsen. In late 1886 Georg II premiered Ibsen's Ghosts in the presence of the playwright, though most of his regular subscribers in Meiningen found the play indecent and boycotted the production; when the company attempted to perform it in Berlin the next spring, police censors banned the play.
   The Meininger company boasted some of the best acting talent available at the time, though Georg actively dampened any virtuoso display. Since he commissioned costumes for specific actors, actors often individualized characters they played. And because the settings were likewise constructed for individual productions, actors leaned toward conforming their speech and movement to their surroundings. As a consequence, Georg created a new standard of value for realistic acting on the German stage—one based on ensemble interaction and detailed patterns of stage activity.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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