Iffland, August Wilhelm

(1759-1814)
   Actor, manager, playwright. Iffland became for many observers by the time of his death the signal personality of German acting—the figure against whom were measured all subsequent actors. As a boy he showed promise as an actor, and at age 17 Konrad Ekhof engaged him at the Gotha Court Theater. There Ekhof trained him rigorously, impressing on Iffland the importance of concentration, mnemonic skills, and intelligent line readings. When the Gotha company disbanded in 1779 after Ekhof's death, Iffland began a lengthy and fortuitous engagement at the Mannheim Court and National Theater, where he came under the prodigious influence of Wolfgang Heribert von Dalberg, who reinforced the teachings of Ekhof while assigning Iffland a wide variety of leading roles in demanding plays. Among his most significant roles was Franz von Moor in the 1782 premiere of Friedrich Schiller's Die Räuber (The Robbers); the nationwide success this play enjoyed, along with his portrayal of characters from William Shakespeare and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, earned Iffland a national reputation. He took guest engagements at several major theaters through the 1780s and 1790s, and by the time he departed Mannheim for Berlin in 1796, he enjoyed the status of Germany's best-known actor.
   Unlike most actors of his day, Iffland was highly literate and well read. He wrote extensively on the craft of acting, insisting that an actor was to assure audiences of the "wholeness" of any performance they witnessed. He said he always strived for consistency, completeness, and beauty "in the perception of the whole." Iffland also developed play-writing skills to parallel those of his performances, and he became one of the German theater's most popular playwrights. His The Hunters and The Bachelors were highly praised and often imitated Rührstücke ("plays that move an audience"). They remained wildly popular with German middle-class audiences long after Iffland's death. Audiences saw themselves flatteringly portrayed in such plays, confronting and overcoming challenges with surprising courage and fortitude; the plays fulfilled theater's "moral imperative," upon which both Johann Christoph Gottsched and Lessing had earlier insisted. Iffland additionally assigned a kind of nationalistic mission to the actor's work, stating that the "inner nobility" of a character was essentially a German trait, one totally missing among the French. The theater also had an obligation, Iffland said, to teach audiences the moral validity of "noble" comportment in daily life. Johann Wolfgang Goethe found Iffland's acting altogether "astonishing," praising the actor's ability to concentrate on "human peculiarities" and to gather them all together so that they "constitute a whole character." Schiller, however, found Iffland too "conversational" in verse dramas, yet audiences thronged to see If-fland's productions of Schiller's verse plays at the Berlin Royal Theater.
   When Iffland premiered the new August Wilhelm Schlegel translations of Shakespeare in Berlin, audiences held Iffland in reverential awe. Iffland thereafter became the first German actor to enjoy substantial wealth and to gain standing among the Prussian nobility. He moved easily within aristocratic circles, enjoying a nationwide influence no other actor before him had attained.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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