Blumenthal, Oskar


Blumenthal, Oskar
(1852-1917)
   Playwright. Blumenthal was among the most successful playwrights of the Wilhelmine era, but he was equally successful as a theater critic and manager. At age 20 he earned a doctorate in German literature at the University of Leipzig, and within two years he became Feuilleton (an "arts and leisure" section) editor of the Berliner Tageblatt. There he became a widely read critic, known and feared within theater circles as "Bloody Oskar." Blumenthal directed many of his most severe reviews at Henrik Ibsen, whose plays he dismissed as "psychological steeple chasing " (Theatralische Eindrücke [Berlin: Hofmann, 1909], 112).
   Blumenthal began his own playwriting career in the early 1880s under the pen name Otto Guhl, and by 1883 he enjoyed impressive success with Der Probepfeil (The Trial Balloon), which premiered at Adolph L'Arronge's Deutsches Theater. It and his other plays usually bespoke the dramatic qualities he had advocated as a critic, earning him the enmity of other critics. That enmity grew proportionally with his continued achievements, as few other playwrights in the 1880s and 1890s could match Blumenthal's total of hit plays. When he became a producer in 1888 by building his own superbly equipped and tastefully constructed theater near the new Reichstag building in Berlin, he had likewise few peers in making enormous sums of money.
   After The Trial Balloon, which became the second most frequently performed comedy throughout Germany during the 1883-1884 season, Blumenthal subsequently wrote or cowrote a dozen hit comedies. Some of them were so successful that they often competed with each other in several theaters in the same German city. His most successful season came in 1897-1898, when three of his plays were among the top five most frequently produced on German stages. One of them, Im weiss'n Rössl (The White Horse Inn), remained one of the German theater's most frequently performed comedies for years after it initially premiered. When songwriter Ralph Benatzky transformed it into a musical in 1930, it was so popular that it ran for another decade, not only in Germany but in New York as well. Another of his comedies, adapted by David Belasco in 1900 as Is Marriage a Failure?, ran for 366 performances during the 1909-1910 season on Broadway.
   Blumenthal's playwriting success was based on supremely well-crafted superficiality, formulaic plots, and a whole-hearted embrace of aphorism and badinage. His characters lacked gravity and, as Siegfried Jacobsohn noted, were little more than "husks full of effective witticisms" ("Hülsen wirkungsvoller Bonmots," Die Schaubühne, 13:415). Jokes "came out of the character's mouth and did not emanate from the character's inner dramatic being, while the characters themselves had only a loose connection to the plot," complained Rudolph Lothar (Das deutsche Drama der Gegenwart [Munich: Müller, 1905], 282). One could have anticipated such playwrit-ing, however, having read Blumenthal's theater reviews. Blumenthal had always prized facile exchanges over internal development. He realized that most audience members in Berlin during the 1890s did not understand internal development in characters, and if they did understand it, they did not care about the niceties of a character's "inner dramatic being."
   Oskar Blumenthal personified what Max Martersteig claimed was a collusion among the Berlin press, its commercial interests, and its middlebrow literary circles. Blumenthal's beginnings as a newspaper theater critic led him to write the "new German Gesellschaftsstück," a middlebrow society play he felt was an antidote to the "social play" of Ibsen. In the process, Blumenthal attracted substantial attention from theater professionals in Berlin, who like most theater professionals were afraid to confess the fact that literary plays dealing with social problems rarely attract audiences for an entire season. Blumenthal had no such fear, agreeing with fellow critic and successful playwright Paul Lindau that "in modern [theater] art, reality seems to begin where soap leaves off" (Max Martersteig, Das deutsche Theater im neunzehnten Jahrhundert [Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1924], 640).
   Yet Blumenthal is important for writing plays that captured the ethical consciousness of his day. The Trial Balloon, Die grosse Glocke (The Big Bell), and Ein Tropfen Gift (A Drop of Poison) were far less pretentious than the flimsy comedies of predecessors such as Hugo Lubliner, Gustav von Moser, L'Arronge, and Lindau. Like them, Blumenthal was convinced that people went to the theater to be entertained and to avoid thinking about the world outside. Unlike them, he wanted theater to provide not just an evening's entertainment but rather an entire experience based on accessibility and what he later called the "theater of the living."

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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