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  • Fascism and Theatre: Comparative Studies on the Aesthetics and Politics of Performance in Europe, 1925–1945, and: Staging Fascism: 18bl and the Theater of Masses for Masses
  • Klaus Van Den Berg
Fascism and Theatre: Comparative Studies on the Aesthetics and Politics of Performance in Europe, 1925–1945. Edited by Günter Berghaus. Providence, R.I.: Berghahn Books, 1996; pp. vi + 315. $59.95 cloth, $24.50 paper.
Staging Fascism: 18bl and the Theater of Masses for Masses. By Jeffrey T. Schnapp. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996; pp. xix + 234. $49.50 cloth, $16.95 paper.

Jeffrey Schnapp notes in the opening chapter of his book Staging Fascism that ever since Benedetto Croce declared fascism and culture to be incompatible concepts in 1925, the roles and functions of performance in fascist culture have attracted little interest among theatre historians. Instead, scholars of Western European theatre have focused their attention on such issues as the fascist states’ transformation of the arts and media into instruments of propaganda, the survival tactics and opportunism of prominent artists during the fascist era, and the [End Page 254] work of anti-fascist artists. As recently as 1995, Glen Gadberry implied that the main work of historians examining the theatre of the Nazi period should be to describe the “functioning theatre” during the Nazi regime rather than to engage in “critical or historiographical discourse” (Theatre in the Third Reich, the Prewar Years [Westport: Greenwood, 1995], 2).

In contrast, the two present books turn our attention to the theatricality at the heart of fascist culture. Each offers an analysis of the roles and functions of performance—what Günter Berghaus calls the “performative aspect”—not only in the fascist theatre, but also in such unconventional performance sites as party rallies and cultural festivals. Both books engage their object with the insight—based on research in areas such as sociology, anthropology and cultural studies—that culture and theatre are not separate realms, but stand in a reciprocal relationship and may be read as interwoven cultural texts. These books also contribute to the historiographical debate about periodization, resisting the common tendency to treat fascist culture merely as an artistic aberration, a dark age following on the heels of the theatrical revolution at the beginning of the century.

The fifteen essays in Fascism and Theatre originate from a collaborative international research project first presented in 1993 at a symposium at the Universidad Euroárabe in Granada. The book has an interdisciplinary scope, with contributors from political science, history, literary theory, literature, theatre, and music. The authors address aspects of fascist theatre in Germany, Italy, France, and Spain between, roughly, 1925 and 1945, and probe the performative aspects of fascist culture with varying degrees of success. Traditional case studies of theatres under fascist regimes, such as Bettina Schültke’s analysis of the municipal theatre in Frankfurt, Doug Thompson’s sketch of theatre management in Italy, and Barbara Pause’s essay on the German Propaganda Ministry’s control over theatre directors and actors, make the familiar point that, in fascist culture, theatre was subordinated to politics. In these essays, Walter Benjamin’s notion of “the aesthetisation of politics” appears as a theme, but does not inform methodology or content. For example, Schültke observes that many leading Nazis were unsuccessful artists without examining the rich implications of her observation for the notion of the fascist state as a site of performance.

Another group of essays more directly addresses the fusion of ideology and aesthetics in fascist culture. Historian Roger Griffin examines the dramatic underpinning of fascism’s core myth of the rebirth of a collective community from modern decadence; he portrays the fascist attempt to theatricalize politics as a “profound confusion” between the inner logic of a fascist utopia and the outer world of politics (23). Günter Berghaus refers to the ritual theories of Freud and Jung to explain the power fascist culture exercised over its followers, but, surprisingly, he does not draw on more recent ritual theories such as Foucault’s notions of ritual as formalized social strategy. Finally, Emilio Gentile and Hans-Ulrich Thamer point to the connections among theatre, religion, and politics in fascist culture. Drawing...

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