Berlin


Berlin
   Berlin was the undisputed center of theater activity in Germany by 1871, surpassing Vienna as the German-speaking theater's preeminent city. The city's prominence grew through succeeding decades until the post-World War II period; in the early 1970s, it began to regain that distinction, and since 1989 the process has accelerated.
   Berlin came into existence with the union of two villages in 1307. It was unimportant until 1489, when it became the seat of the Brandenburg electors (Kurfürsten). Englische Komödianten (English Comedians) arrived in Berlin sometime in the early 17th century to play before the Brandenburg court, but whatever influence they may have had on Berlin vanished during the Thirty Years' War, which devastated the city. Frederick William the Great Elector (1620-1688) rebuilt the city, and German troupes began to visit it regularly. In 1701 Berlin became the Prussian capital, and Prussian courts were generous in granting performance licenses to troupes. They played mostly in the Theater im Marstall and the Theater in der Poststrasse, though both of these facilities were temporary.
   In 1742 the Prussian court built the Royal Opera House on Unter den Linden, but it was reserved for Italian opera. Touring troupes utilized the Theater im Donnerschen Haus, the Theater am Monjoubi-platz, and the Theater in der Behrenstrasse. Carl Theophil Döbbelin bought the Theater am Monjoubiplatz for his own troupe but also rented it to others; Heinrich Gottfried Koch did the same when he bought the Theater in der Behrenstrasse in 1771. The court constructed the Französiches Komödienhaus (French Comedy Theater) in 1776, but only French troupes played there until the court granted Döbbelin a license to stage plays in German. It became the Königliches Nationaltheater (Royal National Theater) in 1787 and in 1796 August Wilhelm Iffland was named its intendant. Court officials closed the building in 1801 and moved Iffland's troupe to the Langhans-Bau am Gendarmenmarkt, but Iffland was able to retain the name Royal National Theater.
   Courtiers continued to run the troupe after Iffland's death, many of them maintaining its high quality with outstanding performers. In 1820 the Karl Friedrich Schinkel-designed Königliches Schauspielhaus (Royal Theater) was completed and the royal troupe moved in. In 1824 a group of private businessmen built the Königstädtisches
   Theater am Alexanderplatz, financed on the basis of a royal license allowing performances the royal troupe declined to produce. In the 1840s a series of private garden theaters appeared, some of them prospering enough financially to establish themselves on a permanent basis. Owners added pavilions, then roofs, then panoplies of stage machinery; Wilhelm Friedrich Deichmann's Wilhelm-Städtisches Theater was one such that grew by accretion into one of Berlin's best-known entertainment venues.
   By 1869 there were 11 full-time private theaters in Berlin, and in that year the Prussian court issued a decree removing all genre restraints on theaters and abolished the Royal Theater's patent. When the German Reich was declared in 1871 with Berlin as its capital, entrepreneurs built dozens of theater structures on the speculation that Berlin's growing population could support an increasing number of theater enterprises. Adolph L'Arronge purchased the Wilhelm-Städtisches and refurbished it as the Deutsches Theater, which has been closely identified with Berlin's theater life ever since. Otto Brahm leased the theater from L'Arronge in 1894 and ran it until 1904; Max Reinhardt bought it from L'Arronge in 1906. Theater owners like L'Arronge, Oskar Blumenthal, and others leased their buildings to directors or ran the buildings themselves, a pattern that remained largely intact until 1935. The high point of theater enterprise in Berlin was between 1900 and 1914, when approximately 40 theaters operated profitably in the city. The most notable of them was Reinhardt's, who ushered in a new era of modernist theater practice.
   By the time the city expanded its limits to become Greater Berlin in 1920, it had become the nation's largest city and indeed the fifth largest city in the world. Because it was also Germany's financial, political, commercial, and industrial center, Berlin bore immediate witness to the upheavals to befall both Germany and the German-speaking theater in the 20th century. Not all new trends or new plays began in Berlin, but nearly all theater artists wanted to establish careers there, knowing that success in Berlin usually meant success elsewhere. Compared to Berlin, most other theater centers in the German-speaking world (with perhaps the exception of Vienna) qualified only as provincial stages.
   Theater performances continued through the Spartacist uprising in Berlin in the winter of 1918-1919, largely because the decades-old police censorship had ended. Though civil war raged in the streets and scores of people were killed on a daily basis, new plays dominated repertoires, and new trends in acting and design came bursting out "lava-like" (as Fritz Kortner described it) onto Berlin's theater scene. Leopold Jessner took over the renamed Berlin State Theater and outraged traditionalists with "Jewified" treatments of William Shakespeare and Friedrich Schiller. Reinhardt continued to dazzle audiences at the Deutsches and even expanded his empire to include several other facilities in the city.
   The devastating monetary inflation in 1923 sent many theaters into bankruptcy, but when economic stabilization returned in 1924, Berlin's theater life resumed a throbbing vitality. New directors, actors, and designers matched and even exceeded the innovations of the early 1920s; playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht, Carl Zuckmayer, and Georg Kaiser found complementary directorial talents in Erich Engel, Heinz Hilpert, and Jürgen Fehling. Producers continued to make substantial profits on a booming boulevard theater culture that thrived on plays by Franz Arnold and Ernst Bach, Toni Impekoven and Carl Mathern, and Curt Goetz.
   The Wall Street crash of 1929 initiated a downward economic spiral for theaters in Berlin, and as the economic crisis worsened, politics began to affect theater practice. Joseph Goebbels had called Berlin "the reddest city west of Moscow," and by 1930 Nazi sympathizers were openly threatening Jewish-owned facilities and disrupting performances of plays they considered politically offensive.
   The National Socialist takeover in 1933 marked a profound change in Berlin's theater life, as it did on the rest of Germany. For the first time, a German national government set up an elaborate apparatus to subsidize and promote theater throughout the country; Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment assured artists of steady incomes, health insurance, and generous old-age pensions. Outwardly the German theater thrived on the regime's cultural policies; those policies, however, imposed control over all aspects of theater work. They also specified the exclusion of Jews, "cultural Bolsheviks," and others deemed undesirable. The result was an unprecedented emphasis on extravagance in design and acting, along with a burst of playwriting that accorded with the regime's philosophy. The regime refurbished most of the theaters in Berlin, many of which the Propaganda Ministry had expropriated and turned into "state theaters." Hermann Goering appointed Gustaf Gründgens to run the State Theater, while Goebbels countered with Hilpert at the Deutsches; Heinrich George ran the Schiller Theater, and Eugen Klopfer the Volksbühne on the renamed Horst-Wessel-Platz. In August 1944 the regime closed all theaters in Germany and Austria to direct resources toward the failing war effort; theaters did not open again until May 1945, when the Renaissance Theater in Berlin staged Der Raub der Sabinerinnen (The Rape of the Sabine Women).
   The postwar period in Berlin saw the repair of many theater buildings damaged in the war, including the Deutsches, the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, and the Volksbühne; others, including the Lessing and the State Theaters, had been damaged beyond rescue. Allied occupation forces fostered a desire among many Berliners to rehabilitate the city's theater life, though the city remained divided. The Soviet zone contained most of the older theaters, and there Brecht located his Berliner Ensemble. The Western zones in many instances witnessed new construction, such as the Schiller Theater. Many artists formerly identified with Berlin's theater life, however, left and settled elsewhere. When East German officials sealed off the eastern sector of Berlin in 1961, two distinct Berlin theater cultures arose, both enjoying lavish subsidies as showpieces for opposing regimes.
   The establishment in 1964 of the Berliner Theatertreffen, or "theater gathering," was a recognition that West Berlin had become an island and that Berlin itself was no longer the epicenter of German theater life; the gathering invited to Berlin outstanding productions from provincial stages which in many cases were producing work far more substantial than Berlin's anyway. Erwin Piscator had returned to West Berlin, but Gründgens was in Hamburg, Hilpert in Göttingen, and Kortner in Munich. In East Berlin, the Berliner Ensemble was rapidly becoming a Brecht museum, while the Deutsches, the Volksbühne, and other East Berlin theaters remained content to serve what amounted to captive audiences. From a material standpoint, Berlin's theater in the Cold War period ironically reproduced National Socialism's subvention extravagance while serving primarily a propa-gandistic function.
   In 1968, a new generation of theater artists began working in West Berlin, and a theatrical renaissance began to take place. At the
   Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer, Peter Stein's productions were often the most stunning anywhere, spawning a host of imitators. By the 1970s his company was probably the most distinguished in the German-speaking world, and in 1981 the city provided Stein's troupe with a new facility, the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz.
   When the Soviet Union collapsed and Berlin was reunited, opportunities for former East German artists in Berlin improved—though public funding began to shrink markedly throughout the 1990s. Several theaters (including all of the Berlin city theaters) closed, and debates intensified about Berlin's enormous public subsidies for its theaters; many struggled to maintain relations with influential members of the Berlin Senate who could enable them to continue receiving subventions. Some private theaters remained, but Berlin's theater landscape could never return to its original, pre-National Socialist contours, when most theaters could stay in business on their own.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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