Theater 30.3 (2000) 97-105
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Either a German or a Jew:
The German Reception of Kurt Weill's Der Weg der Verheißung
We have all grown accustomed to thinking of Kurt Weill as someone whose identity was "authentically plural": he was simultaneously or alternatively, so it seems, a German, a Jew, and an American, to name just a few of his more obvious allegiances. From our historical perspective, it even seems possible to grant Weill the culturally pluralistic identity that the historian Paul Mendes-Flohr argues was the aspiration of German Jews since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. 1
Unfortunately, however, we live in a world that is not ready to make that step. The German reception of Kurt Weill's Der Weg der Verheißung demonstrated with particular virulence that the critics were utterly unable to accept Weill's work in the generous terms of multiple identities. On the contrary, they insisted on narrowly defining it in terms of Weill's conflicting German and Jewish sides. Perhaps it is not surprising in the aftermath of the recent Holocaust memorial and Martin Walser debates in Germany that German critics would choose to polarize and judge Weill's Germanness and Jewishness in this way. It is, nevertheless, painful to witness how they proceed to define the German and Jewish identities on either side of the historical expression German Jew that defines Kurt Weill as irreconcilable and incompatible. In responding to Der Weg der Verhei- ßung they seem to be asking Peter Gay's nagging question: "Why Germans and Jews? The two now appear to be mutually exclusive categories. One is either German or Jew." 2
In the following essay, I will compare how Jewish identity was understood in The Eternal Road at its premiere in New York in 1937, and last year in Chemnitz, Germany, in order to demonstrate the difference in attitude that has led to the unfortunate polarization of the German and Jewish sides of Weill's identity in the current German reception of The Eternal Road. I would like to emphasize that I am referring to only a representative selection of the German music critics who wrote about this work, not to the German people in general and how they feel about Kurt Weill. I have chosen to critique these reviews because I am concerned about them and about the way they contribute to shaping public opinion in Germany about Kurt Weill. My comments apply only to the criticisms in question, not to the entire German press. [End Page 97]
The Eternal Road was originally received in New York in the spirit of Jewish assimilation into American life. Inspired by this dream, the production organizers and critics did not define it narrowly as a Jewish work composed, written, and staged by Jewish émigrés but rather as a story of human suffering with universal significance. The contributors to the official program reminded their readers of this universality with an urgency that betrayed what was perhaps their underlying fear about the attractiveness of the work to a broad public: "[The Eternal Road] is much truer than any play can be that deals only and exclusively with the so-called facts of life and leaves out or leaves only to the imagination the far broader and far deeper truths of which all facts are only symbols," the synopsis told its readers. "Let it not be forgotten that the meanings are universal." 3 In his contribution to the program, Ludwig Lewisohn likewise spoke of "universal and prophetic symbols" and of Weill's contribution as "the music of universal meanings." 4 In an interview for the New York Times in October 1935, Weill contributed to the impression that the work was universal by referring to the Old Testament as "a great human document belonging in its appeal, not to any particular era, but to all time," and by insisting that in order to capture its eternal messages, he intended to avoid all "local color" and instead compose his music...