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Biography 24.1 (2001) 25-34
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"I Am Prince Jussuf": Else Lasker-Schüler's Autobiographical Performance
1. Life, or Theatre? "Prince Jussuf" and Else Lasker-Schüler
Suddenly the lights went out, and Else Lasker-Schüler stepped out onto the stage. She wore a robe made of blue silk. Loose-fitting trousers, silver shoes, a kind of baggy jacket, her hair was like silk, pitch black. . . . Jussuf was all woman, so beautiful, sensual. . . . But her words were hard, crystal clear. They glowed like metal. (Herzfelde 1307)
In this passage, Wieland Herzfelde evocatively remembers a public poetry reading Else Lasker-Schüler held in 1914. She is dressed up as the character that is the protagonist of many of her works: Prince Jussuf of Thebes, who is sometimes masculine, sometimes an androgynous youth, and sometimes identified with the biblical Joseph. Although this description relies heavily on gendered stereotypes, it captures how Else Lasker-Schüler's performance thrives on playing with gendered identities. By appearing in public as the protagonist of her written work, Else Lasker-Schüler blurs the boundaries between self and writing, "life" and "work." Many of the issues I want to explore in this article are already touched on in this quotation: the autobiographical performance as playing with gender and difference, the relationship between body and self or body and voice, and the significance of a change of clothes as a sign of an inner metamorphosis.
Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945) was a German-Jewish poet, playwright, and prose writer. As a bohemian Jewish woman poet, she has been described as an incarnation of the manifold Other (O'Brien 1). She fits uneasily into German literary history; usually she is pigeonholed as a minor player in the Expressionist movement, with roots in Jugendstil (art nouveau) and in German romanticism (see Klüsener). She is best known for her poems written [End Page 25] from the turn of the century to the 1920s, which have found their way into various anthologies. At that time she was a well-known figure in the Berlin art scene, famous for her public appearances as "Prince Jussuf," and her friendships with more famous Expressionist men, among them Gottfried Benn, Franz Marc, and Georg Trakl. However, her oeuvre also includes two collections of short stories set in a fantastic Orient, two ironically self-reflexive epistolary mini-novels, three plays, various essays, and a book-length account of her travels in Palestine. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, she had to emigrate, first to Switzerland and then to Palestine, where she died in 1945.
All her works have clearly autobiographical elements, and most of them include, as poetic I, as a protagonist, or in a supporting role, one of her many literary alter egos. They are varied, reaching from the exotic Princess Tino of Baghdad, to Amadeus, the rent-boy with a heart of glass. The alter ego she uses most frequently and importantly, however, is Prince Jussuf of Thebes. Biographers, following the widespread assumption that writing by women can only be autobiographical (see Stanton 4), have frequently used the literary texts to gain an insight into her life. However, Else Lasker-Schüler herself flies in the face of this assumption by proclaiming her fantastic biography to be more important than her real one. Asked for a short biographical entry for Menschheitsd¨ammerung [Twilight of Man], a definitive collection of Expressionist poetry, she wrote: "I was born in Thebes (Egypt), even though I came into the world in Elberfeld, in the Rhineland" ("Biographical Note").
This stance has confounded many of the literary critics who have analyzed her work: Else Lasker-Schüler writes prose texts and poems set in a fantastic Orient, but at the same time she populates them with clearly recognizable friends and acquaintances. She often uses elements of her own biography--her loves and friendships, her divorce, and the birth of her son. Critics have attempted to extract the "real" autobiographical elements and separate them from the fantastic fiction. But looking for the...