Cologne


Cologne
   Cologne (Köln) has for centuries been one of the most important cities in Europe—though it has rarely had any theatrical significance. It began as a Roman colony (colonia in Latin, from which Cologne takes its name) and military outpost in 38 b.c., and the present layout of the inner city retains the original Roman street design. In a.d. 50 it became Colonia Agrippinensis, named for the general whose troops set up the initial settlement, and since then it has remained an important juncture of commerce due first of all to its location on the Rhine, and because of the way trade routes developed over the centuries. It was home to hundreds of businesses operating in the Middle Ages, profiting from the commerce between England, Northern Europe, and Venice. Cologne by the 13th century had important links with major European commercial and banking centers, a university (the first German university, in fact, founded by a city council), and the seat of an influential Roman Catholic archbishopric.
   Cologne lacked a theater history to match its stature as a major metropolitan center. Few individuals are associated with the foundation of a theater tradition there in the same way one thinks of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing with Hamburg, Wolfgang Heribert von Dalberg with Mannheim, Karl Lebrecht Immermann with Düsseldorf, or Caroline Neuber with Leipzig. Jacques Offenbach was a native of Cologne and its Rhenish environs, but Paris made his career possible. Several factors contributed to Cologne's comparative dwarfishness as a theater center, chief among them the occupation of the city by the French in 1794, which lasted until 1815. During that period Cologne's businessmen had little interest in developing theater as a means to maintain its German identity, nor did they concern themselves with promoting theater as a worthy trademark of the city the way their counterparts in other German commercial centers had begun to do. Cologne furthermore never benefited from the presence of a court in its midst that might have fostered theater as an object of aristocratic pride. The leading lights of Cologne instead concentrated upon reorganizing the Carnival festival, along with completing the construction of the massive cathedral (construction of which had begun in 1248). They neglected the theater, and the result was a reputation for "one of the worst theater cultures in all of Germany," according to a lexicon published in 1841.
   Theater culture suffered at the hands of city leaders, whose indifference down through the centuries mark Cologne as an exception to the general rule of most major German metropolitan centers. Touring companies nearly always encountered difficulties attempting to get permission for performances, even though Cologne's large and wealthy population and its numerous market squares would have made it a desirable destination for many troupes. The first professional troupe in Cologne was an English one in 1592, and in 1648 another English troupe performed The History of the Royal Virgin and the Martyrdom of St. Ursula in the municipal ball house in Apostel Strasse. The saint of the title was the local patron, and city fathers warmed to the totally fictitious connection in the play between Queen Elizabeth I and a Catholic martyr; they granted the English troupe a lengthy residence. Troupes from Holland, France, Poland, and Italy, along with numerous German troupes, followed during the remainder of the 17th century, most performing in the city's Haymarket Square. When such troupes attempted to extend residency permits, however, city officials almost always denied their requests.
   Attempts to build permanent theater buildings likewise met with unusual impediments. Bankers were reluctant to grant loans to local entrepreneurs, though in 1784 a theater made of brick arose in what came to be known as Komödien Strasse. The city council declined to approve concessions granting monopolies to such undertakings, which would perhaps have ensured some degree of success. Performances in the Komödien Strasse facility often met with devastating reviews published in local newspapers. Critics complained about the inconvenient location of the theater building, the narrowness of the street on which the building was located, and the difficulty carriages had in arriving at the building.
   In 1827 a City Theater arose, but it burned to the ground 20 years later. Its replacement likewise burned down in 1859, followed by the destruction of yet another replacement in 1869. The numerous attempts to create permanent companies during the 19th century likewise ended mostly in failure. Cologne's population, while wealthy and conscious of the status accruing from a permanent theater company in its midst, lacked an intellectual middle class sufficiently influential to promote theater as a "moral institution," the Schillerian motto so successfully employed in other German cities to build audiences among the middle class. The University of Cologne had been closed during the French occupation, and it remained defunct until 1919.
   By the turn of the 20th century, establishments with names like "Pleasure Palace of Greater Cologne" and "Great Hall of the Reich" were enjoying a profitable business. Another City Theater had been built, this time by the city government itself, which in turn leased it to a local producer. The most successful of producers who leased the Cologne City Theater was Max Martersteig, whose productions of Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Hebbel between 1904 and 1911 were thought exceptional.
   The "theater revolution" of the 1920s largely passed by Cologne unnoticed. The innovative Gustav Hartung, who had made a name for himself directing Expressionist productions in Frankfurt, came to Cologne in 1924 and lasted only one year. He had the support of then mayor Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967), but Hartung's productions of Georg Kaiser, Fritz von Unruh, and Eugene O'Neill never found much acceptance among Cologne audiences. An attempt was made in 1930 at the municipal theater to present Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), but Adenauer felt compelled to weigh in against any play by Brecht; an abridged version was later allowed to run. That same year a production of 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore was attempted, but the producer was advised that the title had to be changed; even the benign title Giovanni und Isabella could not quiet public outrage regarding the plays's subject matter.
   Only after World War II did Cologne attempt to build a theater reputation. The attempt was largely successful, as a dozen productions staged in Cologne were invited to the BerlinerTheatertreffen between 1967 and 2000; 1981 was a particular high point, when three Cologne productions were invited. Jürgen Flimm, Hansgünther Heyme, Luc Bondy, and Jürgen Gosch have chosen to work on a regular basis in Cologne, an indication that the city's reputation has improved.
   Perhaps Cologne's most significant contribution to the German theater is its Theater Archives and Museum, located in the nearby town of Porz-Wahn. Founded by Prof. Carl Niessen in 1929, it presently houses Germany's largest theater collection, administered by Prof. Elmar Buck of the University of Cologne's Institute for Theater, Film, and Television Research.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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