The year 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of Johann Nepomuk Nestroy’s death. The sesquicentennial activities in Austria included the issuance of a commemorative postage stamp; a “Festvorstellung” of Der böse Geist Lumpazivagabundus (1833) in the Theater in der Josefstadt, preceded by Hermann Beil’s “Festrede” “Johann Nestroy—der Genius der Gemeinheit oder Österreichs größter Philosoph”; the broadcast of Wolfgang Beyer’s new TV documentary “Die ganze Welt ist ein Fußboden—Johann Nestroy”; and, in the “Nestroystadt Bad Ischl,” one could once again visit the “Nestroystube” in the Weinhaus Attwenger, where the menu features “Nestroy-Lungenbraten,” prepared just the way the actor used to like it. The sesquicentennial of Nestroy’s death also occasioned the publication of new books devoted to the life and legacy of the popular performer and playwright, including “Bin Dichter nur der Posse”: Johann Nepomuk Nestroy. Versuch einer Biographie by W. Edgar Yates.
Yates takes the title for his biography from an “Albumspruch” by Nestroy. The quotation is emblematic of the dramatist’s ironic modesty regarding his far-reaching accomplishments and underscores what Yates considers to be one of Nestroy’s most prominent characteristics. Although he spent most of his life in the public eye, entertaining audiences with his spirited stage performances and thought-provoking satires, Nestroy offstage was a largely shy and private individual. Yates appears to share his biographical subject’s modesty when, at the outset of his “Versuch einer Biographie,” he characterizes his objective as an attempt to provide “einen möglichst zusammenhängenden biographischen Überblick über Nestroys Leben und seine Laufbahn als Schauspieler, Dramatiker und schließlich als Theaterdirektor im Kontext seiner Zeit und der Arbeitsbedingungen im Theaterbetrieb” (7). Yates formulates equally clearly what his biography does not intend to do: “Das Buch will keine kritische Studie mit ausführlichen Analysen einzelner Werke sein und verzichtet auf Interpretationen der Stücke, um nur auf Aspekte einzugehen, die aus biographischer Sicht relevant sind” (7).
Few individuals are as qualified as Yates to undertake such a biography. His distinguished career as a scholar of Austrian literature and in particular Austrian drama has profoundly shaped and expanded our understanding of Nestroy and his theatrical innovations. The author of a prolific and wide-ranging body [End Page 135] of scholarship, Yates served for seventeen years as the editor of the journal Nestroyana and has been one of the four editors overseeing the historical-critical edition of Nestroy’s collected works that began appearing in 1977.
In taking stock of existing Nestroy biographies, Yates points to one of the persistent problems facing Nestroy’s biographers: “Ein grundlegendes und immer wieder aufgegriffenes Problem ist das der kargen Überlieferung von Primärquellen, die sich auf Nestroys Privatleben beziehen” (8). Given the paucity of such documents, Nestroy’s apparent wish to keep his private life private, and the relative abundance of materials relating to Nestroy’s career in the theater, it makes sense for Yates to emphasize Nestroy’s development as an actor, dramatist, and theater director. After all, as Yates states, “das Theater [war] Nestroys Leben—und er [fasste] das Leben als Theater auf” (12).
In seventeen informative and fluidly written chapters, Yates chronicles Nestroy’s life in and for the theater, beginning with his 1801 birth in Vienna and concluding with his 1862 death in Graz. Yates’s largely chronological narrative concentrates on what he considers to be four particularly important periods in Nestroy’s career: “1832 (der Anfang seines Engagements am Theater an der Wien), 1835 (der Durchbruch mit Zu ebener Erde und erster Stock), 1841–1842 (die ‘klassischen’ Meisterpossen) und 1854 (seine Übernahme der Direktion des Carltheaters)” (12–13). In the course of Yates’s highly accessible account, we learn, among other things, about Nestroy’s work habits and how he went about adapting texts for the Viennese Volkstheater; the circumstances and punishments associated with his lifelong run-ins with the imperial censor; his frequent guest appearances in such cities as Prague, Hamburg, Ofen, Pest, Berlin, Munich, Brünn, Leipzig, Lemberg, Triest, Wiener...