Greek Tragedy in Germany

Review of Erika Fischer-Lichte’s Tragedy’s Endurance: Performances of Greek Tragedies and Cultural Identity in Germany since 1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), in The Classical Review 68 (1), April 2018, pp. 274-6.

This monograph, based largely (but not exclusively) on material from the author’s previously- published essays, provides a salutary reminder of the ways in which every age and nation has tended to remake the ancient Greeks in its own image. Yet, in another sense, it is also ultimately a celebration of Greek tragedy’s ability to withstand all the manifold fragmentations and instances of critical or interpretative violence to which it has been subjected over the millennia.

Scholars in a variety of disciplines, from Classics and classical reception studies to German history and theatre studies, will find much to recommend in this ambitious and thought-provoking survey, which aims above all to break new ground by exploring the relationship between the history of the German Bildungsbürgertum and the history of performances of Greek tragedies from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present day.

Fischer-Lichte’s key contention is that two of the most characteristic features of the German educated middle classes, ‘philhellenism and theatromania…came together in their love of performances of Greek tragedy’, contributing to the ‘emergence, stabilisation, and transformation of [their] cultural identity’ (p. 5). Fischer-Lichte focuses on what she terms ‘transformative moments’ – productions introducing either ‘a new theatre aesthetics or a new image of ancient Greece’, or both, analysing the role and purpose of such productions over two turbulent centuries of regime change, including both the fascist and Communist dictatorships (ibid.). This intellectual programme is judiciously articulated over the course of nine chapters of varying length and depth, plus an introduction and epilogue.

Two culturally significant events which took place in the year 1755 cause Fischer-Lichte to choose this date as her starting point; namely, the publication of Winckelmann’s Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerey und Bildhauerkunst, and the premiere of Lessing’s first domestic tragedy, Miß Sara Sampson. She argues that each of these events represented a reaction against perceived French courtly imperialism, and portrays both as ‘driven by the same motivation, directed against a shared enemy, and striving for a similar goal – the perfection of human beings’, through imitation of beauty or stimulation of empathy respectively (p. 9).

The first three chapters then trace the (not always straightforward) marriage of graecophile Bildung and nineteenth-century tragic aesthetics, focusing on Goethe’s 1808 production of Ion in Weimar, the Mendelssohn-Tieck production of Antigone which took place in Potsdam in 1841, and the more unashamedly Dionysian visions of ancient theatre propagated by Wagner and Nietzsche in their respective disquisitions on the theatrical arts of the future.

While the bildungsbürgerlich inhabitants of the self-proclaimed ‘German Athens’ proved tragically unreceptive to Goethean and Schillerian attempts to reintroduce ancient Greek theatrical aesthetics (as they perceived these), and were scandalised by the Ion production’s ostensible ‘shamelessness’ and inaccessibility (such that Goethe attempted to orchestrate audience reactions himself, and suppressed or censured all hostile criticism), Fischer-Lichte argues that the outstanding success of the epoch-making Potsdam Antigone some thirty-three years later reflected a series of post-Napoleonic cultural shifts.

Firstly, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s thorough-going reform of the German educational system, with its privileging of the humanistic Gymnasium, had ensured that a philhellenic sense of cultural identity had become part of the mental furniture of any educated bourgeois. Secondly, following the French occupation, philhellenism had merged with German nationalism in an attempt to trump Napoleonic France’s self-fashioning as the ancient Rome of modernity. Finally, the emergence of historicism had led to a greater appreciation of the context and origins of ancient Greek art among the Bildungsbürgertum, such that, alongside Mendelssohn’s uplifting incidental music, the fusion of ancient ideas and contemporary theatrical conceptions in the Potsdam production now appeared pleasantly (rather than horrifically) novel.

Chapter 4 then goes on to examine Max Reinhardt’s productions of Greek tragedies during the turn-of-the-century Kulturkrise, and his ‘democratisation of tragedy’ through his ‘Theatre of the Five Thousand’ projects at the Circus Schumann in Berlin. Reinhardt’s seminal interpretation of Hofmannsthal’s Electra at Berlin’s Kleines Theater, starring Gertrud Eysoldt, arguably constituted the epitome, in tragic form, of fin de siècle Dionysian anti- positivism. However, while Eysoldt’s sensual and ecstatic performance was portrayed by critics as ‘pathological’ or ‘hysteric’ (pp. 98-9), Reinhardt’s later Oresteia productions, with their highly kinetic, frenetic and atmospheric ethos, mingling the huge cast of performers with their spectators, proved immensely popular with German and foreign audiences alike.

Meanwhile, Chapter 5 moves swiftly from the socialist-utopian ideals of Weimar Volksbildung to the racialist-utopian dreams of the Third Reich, featuring the Oresteia production which took place at the Staatliches Schauspielhaus in 1936 as part of the Berlin Olympic celebrations, the culmination of a series of carefully-choreographed National Socialist ceremonies proclaiming a special relationship between ancient Olympia and modern Germany. According to Nazi racial logic, Greek drama could no longer be considered alien; rather, its appreciation should necessarily be informed by a sense of deep blood-kinship, since both the ancient Athenians and contemporary Germans were unquestionably (and impeccably) Aryan. However, the spate of productions of Antigone which took place during World War Two, despite the ever-present danger of air raids during the performances, are interpreted in Fischer-Lichte’s reading as providing a counterbalance to this propagandistic instrumentalisation – potentially even demarcating a space of semi-resistance against the Nazi regime.

Chapters 6, 7 and 8 move on to chart postwar innovations in the staging of Greek tragedy in East and West Germany – from the surfeit of guilt-ridden productions of Oedipus which were staged shortly after the war’s end, and The Antigone of Sophocles (1948), which framed Brecht’s Sophoclean adaptation with overt references to National Socialism, ‘charging the Bildungsbürgertum with a relapse into barbarism despite their constant talk of humanism’ (p. 197), to overtly ‘topicalised’ West German productions which addressed contemporary concerns about female equality and abortion rights (Hans Neuenfels’ Medea, 1976) or the discontents of capitalist consumerism (Christoph Nel’s Antigone, 1978).

Moreover, from the 1970s onwards, the very possibility of retaining Greek tragedy ‘as a defining factor of the Bildungsbürgertum’s cultural identity’ (p. 294) was brought into question by postmodern productions such as the Berlin Schaubühne’s Antiquity Projects (1974/1980), which defied any conventional form of hermeneutics, and cast doubt upon the endeavour of translation in its entirety, both literally and metaphorically.

Yet, as Chapter 9 demonstrates, in post-wall Germany, further new readings of Greek tragedy also emphasised its egalitarian and participatory potential – using migrants or disadvantaged former East- German citizens as amateur chorus members, and ‘[addressing] the concerns of today’s democratic societies without letting audiences forget their original context’ (p. 346). All of these developments, Fischer-Lichte argues, led to the death of tragedy as a lynchpin of German bildungsbürgerlich cultural identity. Instead, in the new millennium, global theatre festivals have universalised European responses to Greek tragedy, such that Germans can no longer claim to possess an exclusive monopoly on its legacy.

All in all, Fischer-Lichte provides the reader with numerous fascinating insights, which can also shed an oblique, yet highly illuminating, light on more general aspects of German social and cultural history – showing how fruitful and revealing it can be to consider these through a philhellenist lens. From this perspective, her narrative of the complex relationship between the Bildungsbürgertum and philhellenism perfectly charts, in the theatrical sphere, the way- stations of the development and demise of philhellenism in Germany which seminal works by Suzanne Marchand and Esther Sophia Sünderhauf have already postulated in the fields of history of archaeology and history of art respectively.

Although, at times, the uneven chapter-weightings within the volume do betray its genesis as a collection of disparate articles, leading to the argument of the monograph as a whole occasionally becoming submerged, and while the later chapters do seem a little weaker in terms of embedded contextualization, focusing more readily on very detailed descriptions of modern performances (especially those which the author herself attended), such minor criticisms should in no way detract from the overall worth of this engaging and insightful work.