Brahm, Otto

(Otto Abrahamsohn, 1856-1912)
   Director, critic. Brahm was among the first important Berlin critics to dispute prevailing Wilhelmine practices of repertory selection. He insisted on a "theater of modern life" as an alternative to Berlin's vibrant boulevard theater culture, and he was among the first newspaper critics to become a professional director in Berlin when he assumed leadership of the Freie Bühne organization. Brahm and like-minded individuals founded the Freie Bühne to subvert police censorship and present controversial plays that dealt with social problems. Brahm and his backers objected to most contemporary German plays because "they offered absolutely no way out of the problems in our contemporary world." Brahm dismissed such popular plays as "freshly baked goods that go stale almost as soon as they hit the shelves" (Theater, Dramatiker, Schauspieler [Berlin: Henschel, 1961], 257). On the afternoon of 29 September 1889, Brahm staged Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, and subsequent afternoons saw the premieres of Gerhart Hauptmann 's Vor Sonnenaufgang (Before Sunrise), the Goncourt brothers' Henrietta Marechal, Leo Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness, Ludwig Anzengruber's Das vierte Gebot (The Fourth Commandment), August Strindberg's The Father, Zola's Therese Raquin, and Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf's Die Familie Selicke (The Selicke Family). The German theater was not, Brahm said, "a moral institution but rather one of taste cultivation." Brahm's premieres of controversial plays sought to accomplish such cultivation and bring such plays into the German mainstream.
   Brahm himself entered the German theatrical mainstream in 1894 when he took out a 10-year lease on the Deutsches Theater in Berlin and ran it successfully as a literary showplace. Between 1894 and 1904 he premiered a Hauptmann play every season, the most successful of which was Die Weber (The Weavers). Brahm had presented that play with the Freie Bühne, but his attempt to present it for public performance met with strong police resistance. Brahm and his attorneys successfully got a court order to overturn the police ban—in the process outraging Kaiser Wilhelm II, who judged the play "dangerous socialistic propaganda." Die Weber remained in the Deutsches Theater repertoire all 10 seasons, and in sum total, Brahm performed Hauptmann 1,169 times, more than a third of Brahm's total 3,000 performances at the Deutsches. One major reason he did so many of them was Hauptmann's grant to Brahm of exclusive performance rights to his plays in Berlin.
   As a critic, Brahm had adumbrated the stage director's two most important abilities as "the art of staging and the art of literary discovery." Since assistants Cord Hachmann and Emil Lessing did most of his stagings, Brahm concentrated on the latter. His greatest discoveries were Hauptmann, Max Dreyer, and Otto Erich Hartleben, but he did not abandon the task of staging altogether. Though he seldom spoke to actors during rehearsals, he wrote them brief notes, sent to them while they were onstage. Brahm paid higher salaries to actors than did anyone else in the 1890s, resulting in an outstanding ensemble that compared favorably with the Meinigner troupe in the 1870s. Brahm turned the Deutsches Theater into the German home of stage realism, but his productions were larely monochromatic.
   Brahm lost the lease on the Deutsches in 1904 but soon secured a lease on the Blumenthal's Lessing Theater, where he continued to present Naturalistic plays in largely the same manner. He refused to do plays by Frank Wedekind, Carl Sternheim, or others he considered too "modern." He likewise rejected most modernist design ideas. His planned collaboration with Gordon Craig ended with Brahm's conclusion that Craig was "a crackpot with unrealizable ideas," while Craig found Brahm "impossibly 19th century in his outlook" (Craig, Towards a New Theatre [London: Dent, 1913], 30). When Brahm died in 1912 during emergency surgery, the German theater lost a director steeped in the tradition of absolute fidelity to the playwright's text, but also one of its first directors devoted to the modern theater as an advocate of sociopolitical engagement.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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