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Theodor Fontane on Changing Public Tastes in Theater (1878-1889)

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This was my attitude toward the young writer and his play, and thus prepared and immune (as I thought), I went to the theater yesterday. And in fact, I remained unshaken in my fundamental beliefs, though on the other hand I cannot deny that, when performed, the play had a very different impact than when read. It was by no means weaker, but it was entirely different. [ . . . ] The audience, depending on the nature of their partisanship, voiced rather intense approval or disapproval, partaking in either an assenting or a mocking laughter, and also in one of those critical impromptus at which Berliners are known to excel. [ . . . ] The audience got to see a hopeless drunk and a few imbeciles. By a stronger emphasis on the elements of brutality that the poet, in complete artistic awareness, prescribed here, this non-effect could have certainly been translated into a strong effect; in retrospect, however, I am absolutely certain that this would not have helped the spine-chilling effect get off the ground, but would have simply put a revolting aspect (with perhaps very questionable consequences for the outcome of the play) in the place of a prosaically indifferent one. Thus, the producers and stage directors chose the lesser of two evils. As a result of this performance, however, I took the following insight home with me: namely, that Realism, even the most artistically refined kind, is still subject to certain stage rules when it leaves the book and enters the theatre, and that the features of actual life, which are a credit to the realist novel even if they are ugly, appear prosaic on stage if one cuts off the locks of their strength, or repellent if one leaves to them their authenticity. [ . . . ]


[ . . . ]

Many an argument will still emerge from Hauptmann’s drama and many a long-standing friendship will enter into dangerous waters. One thing, however, that cannot possibly be subject to argument concerns the writer himself and the impression made by his appearance. Instead of a bearded, suntanned, and broad-shouldered man with a Klapphut and a Jägerschem Klapprock,* there appeared a slender, lanky young man with blond hair; he wore an impeccably cut suit and displayed impeccable manners, and bowed with a gracious modesty that was probably irresistible even to most of his opponents. Some of them will certainly find new weapons in his appearance by passing it off as diabolical deception, remembering fondly that the deceased Medical Privy Councilor Casper began his famous book on his experiences as a district doctor and forensic pathologist with the words, “All of my murderers looked like young girls.”

* A hat and coat belonging to a collection of “normal clothing” designed by Gustav Jäger (1832-1917), who used only undyed and natural fibers – trans.

Source of original German texts: Part I (on Iffland): Theodor Fontane, Sämtliche Werke [Collected Works], vol. 22, Causerien über Theater [Causeries about Theater], edited by Edgar Gross. Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1964, p. 636; Part II (on Ibsen): Theodor Fontane, Sämtliche Werke [Collected Works], vol. 22, pp. 705-09; Parts III-V (letter to Friedrich Stephany; letter to his son; letter to Friedrich Stephany): Theodor Fontane, Werke, Schriften und Briefe [Works, Writings, and Letters], edited by Walter Keitel and Helmuth Nürnberger. Twenty-one volumes in four sections. Section IV, Briefe [Letters], vol. 3, 1879-1889 © 1980 Carl Hanser Verlag: Munich, pp. 728-32; Part VI (on Hauptmann): Theodor Fontane, Sämtliche Werke [Collected Works], vol. 22, pp. 710-18.

Source of English translations: Part I: adapted from Gordon A. Craig, Theodor Fontane. Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 140-42; Parts II-VI were translated by Erwin Fink.

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