Jews and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Ger­man Theatre

Jeanette R. Malkin and Fred­die Rokem, eds.
  • Review
By – August 31, 2011
This is a col­lec­tion of essays describ­ing and ana­lyz­ing the remark­able con­tri­bu­tion of Jews, between 1871 and 1933, to the worl­drenowned Ger­man speak­ing the­atre. Pre­dom­i­nant­ly in Berlin, Jew­ish the­atre artists pro­duced bril­liant inno­v­a­tive work in the new gen­res of real­ism and expres­sion­ism — epit­o­mized, respec­tive­ly, in the sem­i­nal achieve­ments of Otto Brahm and Max Rein­hardt.

A major ques­tion explored in many of the essays is why so many Jews were attract­ed to the the­atre. Much of the dis­cus­sion focus­es on the aspi­ra­tions of this eman­ci­pat­ed com­mu­ni­ty of for­mer out­siders to ful­ly assim­i­late into Ger­man soci­ety. The the­atre was seen as the most pub­lic and pres­ti­gious of the arts; by achiev­ing promi­nence there a Jew might suc­ceed in dis­pelling the phys­i­cal­ly, emo­tion­al­ly, and vocal­ly repul­sive image pro­mul­gat­ed in the writ­ings and speech­es of the anti-Semi­tes.

At the same time, the Jews and their Gen­tile admir­ers regard­ed their con­tri­bu­tions to mod­ern Ger­man the­atre as dis­tinct­ly and notably Jew­ish — espe­cial­ly in their intro­duc­tion of the larg­er-than-life pas­sions of the Yid­dish The­atre, cul­mi­nat­ing in expres­sion­ism: an act­ing style that por­trayed bod­ies and char­ac­ters as warped, rest­less, dis­tort­ed, vibrat­ing with ner­vous ener­gy — mir­ror images we might say of the over-expres­sive Jew.”

To the anti-Semi­tes, of course, there was noth­ing a the­atre artist of Jew­ish ori­gins could achieve on the Ger­man stage that would make him less obvi­ous­ly and obnox­ious­ly Jew­ish— even though he was raised a Catholic and his work infused with Catholic themes and imagery, as in the case of play­wright Hugo von Hof­mannsthal. Inevitably, this era of Jew­ish the­atri­cal tri­umph came to its trag­ic end with the advent of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Jeanette R. Malkin and Fred­die Rokem are to be applaud­ed for select­ing and edit­ing such a high­ly infor­ma­tive and well writ­ten anthol­o­gy of arti­cles on a sub­ject of decid­ed val­ue to both the­atre and Jew­ish history.
Nor­man J. Fed­der, Ph.D., is dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of the­atre at Kansas State Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly on the fac­ul­ty of the Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Arts Pro­gram at Nova South­east­ern University.

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