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Between Text and Cultural Performance: Staging Greek Tragedies in Germany

  • Erika Fischer-Lichte


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a consensus existed among the German educated middle classes that Greek culture represented an ideal and that Greek fine arts and literature were to be regarded as the epitome of perfection. From Schiller's Briefe über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen (Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man) to Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics, the message was the same: Greek culture was unique in that it allowed and encouraged its members to develop their potential to the full so that any individual was able to represent the human species as a whole. The model it provided was, however, inimitable and its standards unattainable, but both were invaluable as objects of careful study. Thus, it is small wonder that all surviving tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were translated into German, some even several times over. Despite this, they were never staged during the eighteenth century.



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1. Xenien, No. 402–404, in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe, 51:264.

2. Bruford, Walter Horace. Theatre, Drama and Audience in Goethe's Germany (London: Routledge and Paul, 1950), 319.

3. It was translated by Johann Jakob Christian Donner.

4. On the translation and the description of the production that follows see Flashar, Hellmuth, Inszenierung der Antike. Das griechische Drama auf der Bühne der Neuzeit (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1991), 6081.

5. Genelli, Hans Christian, Das Theater zu Athen (Berlin: Rauck, 1818).

6. Review in Berlinische Nachrichten von Staats-und gelehrten Sachen vom 25.4, 1842. Rpt. in Droysen, Johann Gustav, Kleine Schriften zur Alten Geschichte II (Leipzig: Veit & Co., 1894), 146152.

7. Droysen, 146–152.

8. Devrient, Eduard, Geschichte der deutschen Schauspielkunst, Kabel, Rolf and Trilse, Christoph, eds., 2 vols., (Mūnchen/Wien: Langen Müller 1967), 2:310.

9. Barthes, Roland, Die helle Kammer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985), 41.

10. von Ranke, Leopold, Sämtliche Werke, vol. 2: Abhandlungen und Versuche (Leipzig: Duncker & Humbolt 1872), 285.

11. Cited in Kahane, Arthur, Aus dem Tagebuch des Dramaturgen (Berlin: Bruno Cassiner Verlag, 1928), 118 f.

12. Norbert Falk, BZ am Mittag, 8 November 1910.

13. Siegfried Jacobsohn, Die Schaubühne, 17 November 1910, 177.

14. Ibid.

15. Cited in Styan, John, Max Reinhardt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 85.

16. Jacobsohn, Siegfried, Das Jahr der Būhne (Berlin: Osterheld, 1912), 49.

17. Ibid., 49f.

18. Ibid., 51.

19. Alfred Klaar, Vossische Zeitung, 14 October 1911.

20. Vossische Zeitung, 14 October 1911.

21. Ibid., 51.

22. Ibid., 52.

23. In Athens, citizenship was not granted to women or slaves, of course, but it is quite likely that Reinhardt did not know this.

24. “Das Deutsche Theater,” in Das Groβe Schauspielhaus (Berlin: Verlag der Bücher des Deutschen Theaters, 1920), 11.

25. Ibid., 21.

26. Ibid., 46.

27. Ibid., 54.

28. Großmann's, Stefan review of the Oresteia, Vossische Zeitung, Berlin, 2930 December 1919. Philipp Scheidemann was a member of the Social Democratic Party. On 9 November 1918, he proclaimed the Republic. In February 1919, President Ebert appointed him as the Parliament's President. Scheidemann resigned in June 1919 in protest against the Versailles Peace Treaty. Gustav Roethe was a distinguished Professor of German literature at Berlin University who propagated nationalistic views on literature and science. Gerhard Hauptmann was a German naturalistic playwright, and Dr. Cohn was a Union leader.

29. Fischer-Lichte, Erika, Kurze Geschichte des deutschen Theaters (Tübingen and Basel: Francke 1993), 291300.

30. Joseph Goebbel's speech to German theatre directors, 8 May 1933, where he developed his idea of a new peoples' theatre, cited in Stommer, Rainer, Die Inszenierung der Volksgemeinschaft, Die “Thing-Bewegung” im Dritten Reich (Marburg: Jonas, 1985), 31.

31. For my analyses of the Antikenprojekt I and II, in particular, of Grūber's Baccchae and Stein's Oresteia, I have taken recourse not only to my own memory but also to video-recordings of both performances, reviews, and program notes.

32. For this and the following description of The Bacchae, see Jäger, Gerd, “…wie alles sich für mich verāndert hat,” in Theater heute, March 1974, 3:1220.

33. The stage design was by Gilles Aillaud and Eduardo Arroyo.

34. Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Schriften I. Tagebūcher 1914–1916 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1969), 144 and 166–168.

35. The Greek term sparagmos means the process of tearing apart the sacrificial animal.

36. omophageia is the Greek term for the sacrificial meal, during which parts of the animal, torn apart as above, are consumed.

37. Jacobsohn, 52.

38. Stein's translation was printed in the program, but is now available in book form, Die Orestie des Aischylos, trans. Stein, Peter, Seidensticker, Bernd, ed. (Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck, 1997).

39. Stein drew on the most recent archaeological knowledge of objects and actions (such as libation rituals), when working on the production. He cooperated closely with archaeologists.

40. von Becker, Peter, “Die Sehnsucht nach dem Vollkommenen. Ūber Peter Stein, den Regisseur, und sein Stück Theatergeschichte—zum sechzigsten Geburtstag,” in Der Tagesspiegel, 1 October 1997, 25.

41. Conquergood, Dwight, “Rethinking Ethnography: Towards a Critical Cultural Politics,” in Communication Monograph, vol. 58 (1991), 179190.

* Dr. Erika Fischer-Lichte is professor of theatre research, Free University of Berlin, author of The Show and Gaze of Theatre (University of Iowa, 1997), and president of the International Federation of Theatre Research.

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Between Text and Cultural Performance: Staging Greek Tragedies in Germany

  • Erika Fischer-Lichte


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