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Performing and adapting Shakespeare on the seventeenth-century German Wanderbühne

From: Forum Modernes Theater
Volume 25, Number 2, 2010
pp. 81-90 | 10.1353/fmt.2010.0016

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Companies of English players, the so-called “English comedians”, brought English plays to the Continent from the 1590 s. They performed all over the German-speaking countries, with great success and in a large variety of venues, for the general public or at the service of a nobleman. Some of the Shakespearean playtexts that resulted from this theatrical hotbed are still extant. These texts are not translations but clearly adaptations, adjusted to the changing linguistic, theatrical, social and religious conditions. They are thus not primarily readerly works but rather by-products of stage-productions. Like the early Shakespearean quartos – which recent scholarship has re-examined in a more benevolent light – the German adaptations are thoroughly theatrical texts and should be analyzed as such. Nevertheless, these texts are often remarkably close to the Shakespearean originals.

This article first focuses on how the Shakespearean texts were adapted for the German Wanderbühne. The adaptations share a number of features, shaped by theatrical conventions and conditions; for instance, the adaptors shortened the plays, conveyed information visually and physically rather than verbally and elaborated the role of the clown. The second part of the article will stress the importance of the context of performance and show how it can help to better understand the playtexts. Both early modern and contemporary performances will be considered, mainly focusing on Romio und Julieta, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.

To start with the main features of these adaptations: First and foremost, the early German Shakespeare adaptations were shorter than the Shakespearean originals. Like the early quartos, their origins are more closely related to the stage than to the page; they are versions cut for performance. Another reason for shortening the plays was the language barrier. In fact, the English comedians first performed in English. As a contemporary observer tells us, the Germans “not vnder-standing a worde they sayde [. . .] flocked wonderfully to see their gesture and Action”. The German audiences were particularly impressed with the naturalistic acting of the English which was entirely new to them. Especially in the early days, the shows also included acrobatic feats, as well as music and dancing. The English comedians were thus “all-round entertainers”.

When such entertainers cut a play for performance, the first thing to go were probably monologues. I here assume that the playtexts were initially shortened, possibly, though not necessarily (only) due to the language constraints. Later, when German-speaking adaptors tookover, new material was added. Yet the initial cuts may still be visible in the extant German texts. In Der Bestrafte Brudermord (an adaptation of Hamlet), “To be or not to be” is thus neither “the question” (as in the Second Quarto, TLN 1710), nor “the point” (as in the First Quarto, CLN 836) but simply disappears. In fact, this German Hamlet is stripped of all but one soliloquy. Similarly, Romio und Julieta has no potion speech and no Queen Mab speech; many other monologues are also shortened or omitted. This shortening often streamlines the plot.

For instance, in Romio und Julieta the first two scenes of Shakespeare’s Act V (Romeo learns of Juliet’s supposed death and buys poison from the apothecary; Friar John tells Friar Laurence that his letter failed to reach Romeo) are wholly done away with. Whereas in Shakespeare, the Friar’s letter, explaining the sleeping-potion plot, fails to reach Romeo, in Romio und Julieta, Romio does receive a letter from the Father (Shakespeare’s Friar), but it merely asks him to hurry back: “Hier bin ich angelangt, weil mir der Pater geschriben, ich soll so schnell alss es möglich alhier anlangen” (V.iv, p. 397). Romio thus only learns that Julieta is “dead” when he arrives at the monument. He goes on to kill himself with his dagger. This neatly disposes of the first two scenes of Act V.

Alongside such changes, we find that events or actions which are narrated, summarized or alluded to in Shakespeare are often physically acted out in the plays of the Wanderbühne. One explanation might be the initial need to make things visible, to show the story to the audience. For example, in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Aaron’s first speech...


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