Kessler, Count Harry

(1868-1937)
   Diplomat, critic. Kessler occupies a unique place in the German theater, for he was never a theatrical professional but nevertheless was closely involved in the nation's cultural life, especially the theater, from the Wilhelmine period through the Weimar Republic.
   By the turn of the 20th century, the work of Edward Gordon Craig had intrigued Kessler to the point that he wanted German managers to employ him in any way possible. He brought Craig to Germany with a promise of staging an outdoor masque in Weimar during the spring of 1904, but Craig backed out of the deal because "weather changes were less susceptible to his absolute control" (L. M. Newman, "Reinhardt and Craig?" in Max Reinhardt: The Oxford Symposium, ed. Margaret Jacobs and John Warren [Oxford: Oxford Polytechnic Press, 1986], 6). Kessler brought Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Craig together, and he later persuaded Otto Brahm to commission Craig to design scenery and costumes for the world premiere of Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd at the Lessing Theater in Berlin. "Brahm found Craig a crackpot with unrealizable ideas, but he accepted two designs for the scenery and used them for two of the play's five acts. The overall results were dismal, and Hofmannsthal refused thereafter even to speak with Craig. Brahm did likewise" (Newman, 6). Kessler also attempted to interest Max Reinhardt in a Craig production, and negotiations got under way. They ended when Reinhardt concluded that Craig was both unstable and greedy.
   Kessler is often quoted in histories of the Weimar Republic for his witty, often sardonic, eyewitness accounts. He had access to the corridors of power and to personalities at the center of the action; his descriptions were flavored with the "old school" manner for which he has become justifiably admired. After looters ransacked the City Palace in Berlin, for example, Kessler noted in his diary that the furniture, objects, remaining mementos, and art objects of the Kaiser and Kaiserin are so abstemiously petty bourgeois and tasteless that you feel no need to bring charges against the vandals, only astonishment that the poor, terrified, unimaginative creatures who had once vegetated among these artifacts in the costly ambience of the palace, surrounded by lackeys and scheming toadies, could have had such an effect on world history. The world war emanated from this underworld, or at least, what guilt the Kaiser bore for the war: from this kitschy, confined sham-world of conspicuously false values issued his judgements, plans, combinations, and decisions. A sick judgment, a pathological agitation connected to an all-too-well-lubricated machinery of state! Now that dismal mentality lies strewn about like so much junk. I have no sense of compassion, but rather one of horror and guilt that this world was not destroyed long ago. (Tagebücher, 1918-1937, ed. Wolfgang Pfeiffer-Belli [Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1982], 84)

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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