“THE PROBLEM OF the actor has disquieted me the longest,” Friedrich Nietzsche confessed in 1887. In the expanded, second edition of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science) he addresses this concern in §361, “On the Problem of the Actor.” He wonders whether the actor might give him access to the “dangerous conception of ‘artist’” (ibid.) that preoccupies him throughout the book. For Nietzsche, the actor comprises: “Falsity with good conscience; delight in dissimulation breaking forth as power, pushing aside, overflowing, and sometimes extinguishing the so-called ‘character’ (Charakter); the inner longing for a role and mask, for an appearance (Schein)” (ibid.). Establishing the actor as a problem, Nietzsche foregrounds his concern with the relationship between Charakter, that is selfhood or one's very being, and Schein, appearance, or more specifically in this case, performance. Not surprisingly, Nietzsche is also interested in how performance enables individuals to attain power. While he first frames the problem of the actor in relation to modern man generally, moreover, the question becomes more urgent when he ties the propensity for acting to those who should not be powerful: lower-class men, Jews, and, most essentially, women. Concluding §361 he asks: “If we consider the whole history of women, are they not obliged first of all, and above all to be actresses?” (ibid., 226). Nietzsche's problem of the actor thus becomes the problem of the actress.
This book borrows its title from Nietzsche; however, he was certainly not the only modern thinker to contemplate the problem of the actress or to find it disquieting. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the so-called Frauenfrage (woman question) was among the most pressing matters of the age, across the broadest spectrum of modern German and Austrian culture and thought the actress emerged as a recurring, powerful, and highly complex figure. Female performers captured public interest on and off the stage. Actresses featured prominently in modernist literary works across genres. Painters and writers frequently chose actresses as their muses, portraying them in and out of character (figure Many artists, authors, and other public figures had significant including Corinth, August Renoir, and Franz von Stuck, who produced numerous studies of the actress.