Kainz, Josef

(1858-1910)
   Actor. Kainz was perhaps the most idolized actor of his day. Many saw in him the embodiment of a completely new departure for acting on the German stage. Otto Brahm recognized in Kainz a performer who broke the grip of Johann Wolfgang Goethe's idealism, inaugurating a new age of realism. Others saw Kainz as more "impressionistic" than realistic, bringing an introspective, psychological detail to characters he portrayed. But nearly everyone agreed that he eschewed the traditional contrivances of a virtuoso, even though his acting remained thoroughly virtuotistic.
   Kainz began his career in Leipzig, but his education as an actor took place under the tutelage of Georg II and his Meiningen court troupe beginning in 1877. For the next three years, Kainz played a wide range of characters, developing skills that often enabled him to discover contradictory traits within a character. Kainz was slight of build and delicate of feature, but he had a graceful athleticism that provided him an agility and physical control on the stage far beyond that of his contemporaries. He was a natural "heroic type," but his ability to speak verse without mannerism, presenting himself almost as a contemporary to his audiences, won him unprecedented critical regard and popular acclaim.
   Kainz's numerous appearances in leading and supporting roles with the Meininger troupe led to the engagement in Munich between 1880 and 1883 (when he played leading roles only) that solidified his reputation. When Adolph L'Arronge hired him as his marquee performer at the Deutsches Theater in 1883, Kainz became the dominant actor in Berlin. He then worked briefly for Ludwig Barnay in Berlin, but a contract dispute between the two men led Kainz to take an extensive tour of the United States. He returned to L'Arronge in 1892, reprising such roles as Romeo, Richard II, Prince Friedrich of Homburg, Hamlet, Don Carlos, Egmont, and others with which he had conquered Berlin. Kainz joined Brahm's troupe at the Deutsches in 1894, but Brahm miscast him; he furthermore expected him to play classics in the Naturalist manner. Such mistakes revealed the fact that Kainz was best when playing roles close to his own personality; when he played villain parts, as he did in Brahm's first production, Friedrich Schiller's Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love), the results were unusual and often disappointing.
   In 1899 Kainz returned to his native Austria, where he joined the Burgtheater company in Vienna. With the Burg, Kainz achieved perhaps his greatest renown as an artist, prompting some critics there to describe his acting as "Nietzschean." As Goethe's Torquato Tasso, Kainz eclipsed the normal expectations of that character's visionary idealism and sent Tasso into another realm entirely, one best described as a world of "divine suffering." Few actors had convincingly played the role of Tasso before Kainz; even fewer since Kainz have left audiences, as he did, with a similar sense of shattering, sublime despair. When Kainz died, there was a general consensus in the German theater that a unique presence had departed. Hugo von Hoff-mansthal was one of many writers and poets to eulogize Kainz, noting that his acting "had measured the abyss of life and death with the eye of a poetic messenger. O thou messenger of all messengers, a spirit! Thou spirit!"

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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