- Littérature “d’en haut”, littérature “d’en bas”? La dramaturgie canonique allemande et le théâtre populaire viennois de Stranitzky à Nestroy by Marc Lacheny
Marc Lacheny has provided scholars of Germanophone theater in the eighteenth and long nineteenth centuries with the book that has long been needed: an extended, eloquently written, and well-documented study of the relationships between the theater cultures of Vienna and the mythical “Germany” of early nationalist fantasy. This volume provides a critical overview of the existing scholarship and a clear vision of the work that needs to be done to counter the stereotypes enshrined in many existing literary histories of Germanophone theater authors. The result sets a new standard for work on the theater landscapes of Germanophone Europe: anyone working on “German” theater in the tradition of Gottsched, Lessing, and Weimar Classicism and anyone working on the “Austrian” Volkstheater or state theaters in the long nineteenth century will run the risk of total irrelevance if Lacheny’s incisive, important map is not accounted for. Littérature “d’en haut”, littérature “d’en bas”? is written from an admirable transnational, thoroughly engaging perspective, using international scholarship on theater both “high” and “low” as well as comparative approaches to redraw our map in an important area of theater studies.
In starting from the relationship between “high” and “popular/low” literature in the day, Lacheny refutes the strict lines often drawn between “German” and “Austrian” theaters, the commonplaces in theater histories that set Weimar and the Viennese Volkstheater far apart from each other. Scholars have tended to isolate these different theater cultures on the basis [End Page 117] of nationalism and nationalist cultural politics, overestimating both Austria-Hungary’s purported cultural decadence and the cultural coherency of Prussia-turned-German-Empire. But Lacheny’s project is conceived in ways that, in research and argumentation both, squarely attack the isolation of the privileged place in literary history accorded to figures like Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller by looking at more than theater texts: this is the cultural history of theater in the German-speaking world, not the history of the poetics of plays in German.
Lacheny sets these theater cultures onto a dynamic map of European theater to recreate transnational dynamics and moments of cultural contact, thus reclaiming how the Viennese theater functioned within this extended theatrical space. Here, Lessing’s and Schiller’s genius did not necessarily point the way to “real” theater (continued through figures like Hebbel), nor was Vienna known simply for “low comedy” (Nestroy) or drama derivative of the Weimar dioscuri (Grillparzer). Instead, Lacheny shows how Vienna’s dramatic theater and the Viennese popular theater, including its love for satire, were central to European theater conceived more broadly—the charges of “coarseness” that have echoed across theater history all too often arose from aesthetic nationalism rather than judgments of quality.
To make this case, the text falls into three parts. The first aims at the myth of Weimar classicism, showing how Lessing and Goethe in particular in fact engaged with the popular theater of the sort that played in Vienna. It reconstructs both the critical debates familiar to Germanists and the dynamics between dramatic and comic theater writing that are usually familiar only to Austrianists. In so doing, he presents a notable aspect of cultural and theatrical life long ignored in scholarship but is now increasingly well documented (notably by Johann Sonnleitner and Matthias Mansky).
The second section tracks how German Classicism’s plays were received and reused in Vienna, including accounts of straight dramatic productions and parodies/satires alike. Lacheny follows Karl Kraus as defining what was original in this reception by reference to Nestroy’s theater (Nestroy had even acted Schiller roles until 1830). The third section takes up Grillparzer’s dramas and comedies as revealing specific interactions between traditions, a narrative starting from the fact that the playwright’s uncle published the first collected edition of the works of Philipp Hafner, one...