- (William Adolf Karl Sternheim, 1878-1942)Playwright. Sternheim came from a prosperous banking family and grew up in privileged surroundings; he attended exclusive schools in Berlin and several German universities. As a playwright, Sternheim satirized lower-middle-class striving to achieve the prosperity he knew and enjoyed throughout his life. In Sternheim's plays, such characters lived in a fantasy world, desirous of escape from their humdrum lives through the use of disjointed and incoherent phraseology. They ultimately achieve prosperity, but in the process become utterly pompous, a result of Sternheim's keen ear for idiomatic usage. His characters frequently spoke German "officialese" common to bureaucratic pronouncements or in small-court proceedings between litigants. The result was a vicious lampoon of Wilhelmine society in which upstanding, law-abiding citizens are often deflated by their own bombast. The language Sternheim used forced actors to discipline themselves against leisurely deliberateness in speaking; they sometimes bark at each other, using verbs that are unexpected, outdated, or weirdly inappropriate.Sternheim considered himself the German Molière, though his true precedents lay in Berlin's culture of boulevard comedies. His uncle Hermann Sternheim (1849-1916) was director from 1887 to 1894 of the Belle-Alliance Theater in Berlin, where the nephew "witnessed numberless works of the lightweight muse: farces, comedies, costume pieces, along with the vitality and exuberance that . . . brought down the house with laughter I thought would never stop" (Sternheim, Vorkriegseuropa [Amsterdam: Querido, 1936], 74). As a nine-year-old, he witnessed theater artists at close range and learned the profession's jargon and the idiosyncrasies that enabled them to attract audiences.Sternheim's first playwriting success was Auf Krugdorf (In Krugdorf) in 1902 at the Königliches Schauspielhaus Dresden. Its popularity in Dresden, however, did not result in demand for his other efforts elsewhere in the country. By 1909 he secured an agreement with Max Reinhardt to produce an original treatment of Molière material titled Der Riese (The Giant), which he later changed to Die Hose (The Un-derpants)—a title rejected by police censors. With the help of Tilla Durieux's influence on Berlin police chief Traugott von Jagow, however, Reinhardt premiered the comedy under its original title in 1911. Sternheim went on to write a series of comedies he called "Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class," which included Die Kassette (The Strongbox, 1911), BürgerSchippel (Citizen Schippel, 1913), Der Snob (The Snob, 1914), 1913 (1915), and Tabula rasa (1919). Some of them had interrelated characters, for example, members of the Maske family who originally appeared in The Underpants. The central characters in most such comedies were confidence men who sought to clamber up the social ladder by assuming the trappings of success and a thoroughgoing conformism.When Sternheim was awarded the Fontane Prize in 1916, theaters began to mount stagings of his plays in greater number. His breakthrough as a popular and profitable playwright, however, had to wait until the 1920s and the dissolution of police censorship. Theaters in that decade did his plays repeatedly; in particular, his relationship with director Gustav Härtung blossomed, and Hartung's productions of Sternheim won widespread acclaim. Critics in the 1920s came to recognize Sternheim as a significant comic playwright, one whose acerbic observations of Wilhelmine manners differentiated him as both funny and merciless. The National Socialist government banned all of his plays in 1933, by which time Sternheim was living comfortably in Belgium. Upon the German invasion and occupation of Belgium in 1940, they left Sternheim unpersecuted.
Historical dictionary of German Theatre. William Grange. 2006.
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STERNHEIM, CARL — (1878–1942), German playwright. The son of a banker, Sternheim was born in Leipzig and, after university studies, lived in several German cities. His early writing showed little originality, bearing the imprint of Hauptmann, Wedekind, Wagner,… … Encyclopedia of Judaism
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