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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 288-290

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Book Review

Shakespeare on the German Stage:
The Twentieth Century

Redefining Shakespeare:
Literary Theory and Theater Practice in the German Democratic Republic

Shakespeare on the German Stage: The Twentieth Century. By Wilhelm Hortmann, with a section on Shakespeare on stage in the German Democratic Republic by Maik Hamburger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; pp. xxii + 498. $69.95.

Redefining Shakespeare: Literary Theory and Theater Practice in the German Democratic Republic. Edited by J. Lawrence Guntner and Andrew M. McLean. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998; pp. 294. $47.50.

There have been an average of over one hundred Shakespeare productions each year on German-speaking stages during the twentieth century (Hortmann, xvii). This statistic alone suggests Shakespeare's importance to the German theatre. Both books under review here make good use of this insight. They also demonstrate how incessantly and self-consciously the German theatre has been caught up in the major political and ideological turmoils that define the twentieth century--so much so, of course, that for forty-five years there were two German theatres struggling over Shakespeare.

Hortmann's book is the companion volume to Simon Williams's 1990 Shakespeare on the German Stage, which covers the period 1586-1914. Hortmann organizes his discussion chronologically: a background chapter on the early century is followed by chapters on Shakespeare in the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the postwar period, the period of social protest and generation change from 1964-1979, and the 1980s. Maik Hamburger's chapter on Shakespeare in East Germany follows, then Hortmann returns with a concluding chapter on Shakespeare in the newly reunified German theatre of the early 1990s.

Within each chapter, Hortmann begins by briefly framing the general political and cultural situation. He then builds an interrelated series of discussions around the examination of some twenty productions, only a couple of them by any one director. [End Page 288] The great strengths of Hortmann's book--and they are many--are grounded in his often brilliant selection of examples and in his ability to discuss them compellingly. Hortmann knows know to describe the dramaturgy of visual or performed detail, and he understands that this dramaturgy is ultimately what counts in the theatre, not the conceptual statements that can be restated in critical discourse. His discussions of performance also take full advantage of 125 carefully selected and beautifully reproduced illustrations.

Hortmann organizes his discussions into a kind of discursive montage. This technique allows him to suggest the full complexity of activity in each period rather than focusing on just one aspect, however predominant. His Weimar chapter, for example, compares Leopold Jessner's emphasis of acting over design with two productions that illustrate the "spatial symbolism" developed by Richard Weichert in Frankfurt. Hortmann discusses the overtly political approaches of Bertolt Brecht, Erich Engel, and Erwin Piscator. But he concludes the chapter with discussions of Saladin Schmitt's work in Bochum and Otto Falckenberg's in Munich. Their work is not political, but it is equally important to understanding the theatrical and ideological character of Weimar theatre. The range of this discussion also illustrates the book's particular importance for English-language readers, to whom it will likely first introduce the contributions of Weichert, Schmitt, and Falckenberg.

Hortmann's montage approach and performance focus help him provide some of the most complex and accurate accounts I have read of the West German theatre from 1964-1990. His discussion of the 1980s is particularly strong. Hortmann introduces all the main players, and his frame allows their diversity of approaches to be compared without being hierarchized.

Hortmann's montage approach also illuminates his chronology; he is able to show both continuities and changes. This perspective is particularly valuable in his discussion of the postwar theatre, for which the issue of continuity versus a fresh start was a pressing one, and one that tended to divide those who had kept working in Germany during the Reich from returning exiles. Hortmann's account...


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