Women


Women
   The German theater has the unique distinction of having a woman as its founder. Without Caroline Neuber, the German theater in the 18th century would doubtless have revived somehow; there were other managers of touring troupes who by the 1730s could conceivably have reformed the German theater from its then moribund state to the heights of accomplishment as she did. Few of them, however, had her determination, ambition, competitive spirit, energy, and talent to accomplish the task. Johann Elias Schlegel and Johann Christoph Gottsched were eager to reform theater practice, though Gottsched wanted primarily to promote a Francophile repertoire toward that goal. His primary ambition was to imitate French drama, while his protégé Schlegel was more interested in Shakespeare. "Die Neuberin," however, had goals for the German theater that reached well beyond imitating another culture. She, like many others, had witnessed the miserable standards of performance prevalent among most troupes. Strolling players in other European countries were probably no worse than their German counterparts, but France, England, and Spain could boast "national" theaters by the 1730s, with audiences or courts that considered theater important enough to give it a place in the nation's cultural life. Those national theaters had produced highly accomplished playwrights, whose work solidified the importance of theater in the national consciousness.
   Neuber, unlike other reformers, realized that reforming German theater involved more than simply new plays. It demanded reforming the lives of those who created theater. She placed strict limitations on the private conduct of her actresses and demanded that all performers be literate. She established standards of enunciation and comportment that were unprecedented; only when performers adhered to specific models of decorum were they allowed to appear in public as members of her troupe. Like Gottsched, she realized that theater was a means to raise the level of social interaction among the German populace in general; unlike him, though, she understood that a specifically "German" theater was required for the task, not one based on precedents already in place or imported from somewhere else. Few women who succeeded "die Neuberin" matched her vision or influence. The practices she implemented had a wide-ranging and successful impact upon the German theater; thanks to her efforts German performers reached new heights of acceptance and affluence, and in the process she raised German audience expectations.
   The woman who comes closest to Neuber in influence is perhaps Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer. As a playwright, she completely dominated theater repertoires of the German Confederation, which included 39 states and four free cities. The Confederation was superseded in 1848 by the Frankfurt Assembly, which tried and failed to unite the German states under a liberal constitution, and the German Confederation was reestablished in 1851. It lasted until 1866. During those decades, Birch-Pfeiffer's plays appeared weekly in the policeregulated theater repertoires, both in the court and in municipal venues as well as their commercial counterparts. She had by the 1830s mastered the Rührstück, sentimental plays with strong emotional scenes and absolutely no political subject matter. Among her most frequently employed plots were treatments of the rise from poverty up the social ladder, the fulfilled longing for love, and the unexpected arrival of fortune from a long-lost relative. Birch-Pfeiffer always wrote with one goal in mind: making money. She was an actress with substantial talent, but she cultivated real genius both for writing plays the public wanted to see and for marketing them. From the receipt of her first royalty payment from the court theaters in Vienna, she belonged to the exclusive group of the highest earners among playwrights in the German theater. Her remarkable imagination, at work when adapting successful novels or creating her own original material, transformed her writing into a capital enterprise.
   Any feminist attempt to "rediscover" Birch-Pfeiffer in the cause of reevaluating female playwrights and discovering in her characters some disguised messengers of emancipation is questionable, because Birch-Pfeiffer's characters were, and were intended to be, tools in the service of maintaining the status quo, promoting a feeling of allegiance to authority within the audience, and stimulating ticket sales for the profit of both theater manager and herself the playwright. Friedrich Hebbel 's wife, the distinguished Burgtheater actress Christine Engelhaus-Hebbel, acted in several of Birch-Pfeiffer's plays, though Hebbel himself was not impressed with her talent as a playwright. He dismissed her as "Mother Birch."
   Everybody, however, was impressed with the way Birch-Pfeiffer manipulated theater directors, who often shuddered at the prospect of negotiating with her. Her talent for negotiating was second only to that for creating theatrical effect, which she united with her ability to choose appropriate material. Birch-Pfeiffer furthermore developed the beneficial aptitude of making such characters thoroughly German in character, even though many were originally characters from English or French novels. Her work, beginning in 1828, competed with that of the "Young Germany" writers such Heinrich Laube and Karl Gutzkow, whose goal was to follow the precepts of the 1830 revolution and employ theater against the forces of Restoration policies, demanding the political, religious, and moral emancipation of the average German citizen.
   Birch-Pfeiffer rejected such high-minded goals out of hand. She realized that, for heroes or heroines to be theatrically effective, they must withstand the blows of fate—not the temporary vicissitudes of politics or economics—if audiences were to appreciate them. Heroic qualities in her plays included faithfulness, good-heartedness, empathy, resoluteness, imperturbability, modesty, selflessness, charity toward mankind, love, hard work, piety, and an affinity with Nature. The pitfalls into which the hero or heroine fell seem designed specifically to test fundamental stability. That test posed an ominous, catastrophic threat that intruded upon, but at the last moment never fully succeeded in overcoming, heroic solidity. It also fell to the virtuous hero in her plays to enlighten antagonistic characters and set them on the "right path," since they are never evil but only misdirected. The hero may encounter an evildoer, but the evildoer will reveal to the hero his true self, which may be a tarnished nobility of spirit. In order to remove the tarnish, virtuous heroes often had to undergo a test of endurance, doing the right thing at the right time, always under the rubric "Who does his duty can never fail."
   Louise Dumont may well have been Birch-Pfeiffer's polar opposite in terms of how she perceived the German theater. To Dumont, using theater as a source of profit was anathema; as a result, Du-mont's influence on a subsequent generation of women theater artists was fairly substantial. Among them one must include Elisabeth Hauptmann (1897-1973), whose contributions to 20th-century German theater have long languished in the shadows and suffered in silence; Hauptmann conducted most of her work in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht—in whose shadow he hoped Hauptmann would remain. Brecht had an uncanny ability to attract talented collaborators, both male and female, and then gaining credit for their efforts.
   Hauptmann's work with Brecht began almost as soon as they met at a Berlin night school, where both were studying the works of Marx. By 1925 she had become his full-time secretary, translator (her mother was American), and companion. They began working on numerous projects together, resulting in Brecht's first major hit, Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). The next year, she took the name "Dorothy Lane" to get credit for her work on the Brecht-Weill follow-up to Threepenny, titled Happy End. That year also saw Hauptmann's official enrollment as a member of the German Communist Party; she became the women's director of her party unit in the Charlottenburg section of Berlin, and when the Nazis came to power in 1933, she fled to St. Louis, Missouri, where her sister resided. She met with Brecht a year later when he came to New York for work on The Mother, and after his settlement in the United States as a refugee, she moved to New York. There and elsewhere they continued collaborative efforts on plays, adaptations, essays, and other activities. Among her own activities were her shortwave broadcasts to Germany to assist the Allied war effort and her work for the Council for a Democratic Germany. After the war, she returned to Europe and in 1949 took up residence in Berlin, where she continued political work as a member of the Socialist Unity Party, the successor to the Communist Party in Germany, along with intensified collaborative work with Brecht. After his death, she ran the Berliner Ensemble school, which concentrated on translations and adaptations for East German theaters.
   Hauptmann remained silent about her work with Brecht until shortly before her death. She maintained she was his "left hand," an indication of not only their artistic but also their political affinities. Ruth Berlau, another of Brecht's numerous female collaborators and companions (Margarete Steffin, Hella Wuolijoki, and others) flatly stated that the collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann was the closest of the many from which Brecht clearly benefited. That he chose to withhold credit to her where credit was undoubtedly due will be a topic of debate for years to come.
   As noted elsewhere in this volume, Therese Giehse, Helene Weigel, Marianne Hoppe, and Elfriede Jelinek left impressive marks on 20th-century German theater; to their names one should make special note of Käthe Dorsch, who at substantial risk to herself helped dozens of Jews escape Nazi Germany.
   The names of several other women remain little known within the traditional annals of German theater. They include Charlotte Rissmann, whose Promise Me Nothing was among the most frequently performed of any comedy during the Third Reich. Marieluise Fleisser has become perhaps the best-known female playwright of the Weimar Republic, but she had competition from Ingeborg Andersen, Hartwig Bonner, Gabriele Eckehard, Sophie Klarss, Hanna Rademacher, and particularly Christa Winsloe, whose play Gestern und Heute (Yesterday and Today) became the basis for Leontine Sagan's film Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform). Sagan was herself a theater director of some note in Austria during the 1920s. Fleisser wrote Fegefeuer in Ingolstadt (Purgatory in Ingolstadt), which premiered in 1926 and enjoyed a rebirth in the early 1970s. Her second play was the far more interesting and comic Pioniere in Ingolstadt (Pioneers in Ingolstadt), which premiered in 1929 under Brecht's direction. It likewise enjoyed a revival in the early 1970s, thanks to the "new VolksstiicJc" movement of that period, which rediscovered in the Volksstück a previously overlooked "authenticity."
   The contributions of Pina Bausch have been less overlooked, since she has received numerous awards and citations for them. One should note, however, that Bausch has been in some ways as instrumental as was Neuber in creating a new way of looking at theater. Her "dance theater" has changed the way audiences perceive live performance, perhaps because Bausch reconceived what theater performances could mean.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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