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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 510-511

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Book Review

Theatre Under The Nazis

Theatre Under the Nazis. Edited by John London. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000; pp. xii + 356. $74.95 cloth, $35.00 paper.

Almost seventy years after Nazism came to power in Germany, and nearly sixty years after it collapsed, scholars continue to devote highly focused attention to the details of the influence Nazism had on all aspects of German society and the arts. Until the 1970s, there was a general inclination to view the Nazi era in monolithic terms as a comprehensively totalitarian system that admitted almost no deviation. Gradually, however, as scholars sifted through the mountain of primary materials—the Nazis kept thorough and copious records—a more differentiated mosaic began to emerge. We learned that the Nazi state was, in many instances, a Byzantine network of competing fiefdoms and power struggles. We learned that the net of Gleichschaltung (literally "parallel switching," meaning here something like "getting everyone in tune with the program") had, in fact, occasional holes, and that various forms of disagreement with established policy and dissent against the dominant ideology were possible, even in a public forum.

John London's marvelous introduction and the six superb essays of Theatre under the Nazis contribute a wealth of new information and add substantially to a detailed grasp of the world of live stage performance in Germany from 1933 to 1945. Welcome emphasis is placed on the roots of National Socialist (NS) performance theory and stage practice in the rabidly nationalistic theatre of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), usually ignored in studies of the dominant drama by those playwrights who either fled Germany or went into what is euphemistically termed "inner emigration." While the argument has been made for decades that Nazi drama was of no literary or artistic importance and did not deserve to be examined by scholars, London and the contributors to this book realize that even these aesthetically second-rate plays are basic to understanding what was going on and do, in fact, deserve scholarly attention, which they receive in this book.

William Niven examines a bizarre, if oddly short-lived, chapter in Nazi theatre history, the Thing (pronounced "ting") plays of the first NS years, initially advocated with great zeal, only to be forbidden and forgotten a few years later. That the outdoor performance spaces (Thingplätze) built for these cultic, ritualized, large-cast pageants still exist today and function mainly as rock-concert venues is one of those peculiar ironies of the Nazi legacy like Germany's Autobahn system. Glen [End Page 510] Gadberry concentrates on history plays and makes eloquently clear the Nazis' fervent desire to locate their ideology in a greater historical European context that would bestow them with legitimacy. That many of the plays Gadberry discusses are unfamiliar—most of them have rarely been performed since the Third Reich and virtually never outside of German-speaking Europe even as oddities—makes this chapter an important instance of exposure to a dramatic mode disappearing into obscurity.

Editor John London contributes an essay on non-German drama in the Third Reich, and we learn that, surprisingly, one of the more popular playwrights of the era—and one of Hitler's favorites—was none other than George Bernard Shaw. We are also reminded of the established place that Shakespeare occupied then (and continues to occupy today) in the German theatre; indeed, many Germans regard Shakespeare as a playwright beyond nationality.

Opera in the Nazi period occupies Erik Levi, who highlights just how intent the Nazi cultural hierarchy under Propaganda Minister Goebbels and the cluster of bureaucrats responsible for artistic-ideological purity was on situating Nazi Germany within the continuum of European musical traditions. In addition to maintaining the German operatic repertoire of the past from Mozart to Wagner, the opera world made some fascinatingly conflicted attempts to come to grips with twentieth-century music despite its despised cosmopolitan, Jewish roots in atonalism and serial composition. New operas of the Nazi years left us with little that has survived into the current European repertoire. The Nazi...


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