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

Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) was regarded by many as the most important German-language realist writer in the nineteenth century. But before taking up novels, he served as drama critic for the liberal Vossische Zeitung during the 1870s and 1880s. In this role, Fontane became very familiar with theater productions in Berlin. The following excerpts are from letters Fontane sent either to his son or to Friedrich Stephany, editor of the Vossische Zeitung, from 1878 to 1889. Fontane complains about the overwrought but boring emotionalism of many dramas of his time – that is, until Naturalism began to make its mark on German drama and found his approval. Fontane defends Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), the Norwegian writer and dramatist best known for his plays Peer Gynt (1876), Nora (1879), and Ghosts (1881). He also expresses admiration for Gerhart Hauptmann (1862-1946), whose Naturalist drama Before Daybreak [Vor Sonnenaufgang] received a scandalized reception by Berlin audiences in late 1889. Fontane reacts by mocking both the audience itself and the theater critics who were so outraged by this new dramatic style.

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I. Fontane’s Commentary on August Wilhelm Iffland’s Die Jäger [The Hunters] (January 30, 1878)

Fontane was annoyed by the public’s enthusiasm for the revival of August Wilhelm Iffland’s moralizing play Die Jäger [The Hunters] (1873). In a review of the performance of January 30, 1878, he wrote:

[ . . . ] The tone that sounds throughout the entire play is one of sentimentality. This was the tone of the decades in which the play originated, and that explains the great impact it had in its time; but that time is long past, and just as surely as we have left behind the witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we have certainly moved beyond the sentimentalities of the eighteenth century. [ . . . ] We have either advanced a great deal or fallen greatly behind, and either is an advantage. Only the philistine, with his eternal tendency to fall between two stools, will get his money’s worth from this play. For as good as it is in its way, it has certainly become outdated. [ . . . ]

II. Fontane’s Commentary on Ibsen’s Gespenster [Ghosts] (1889)

Fontane greeted the founding of the theater company Free Stage [Freie Bühne] and its epochal first season, which saw the production of Henrik Ibsen’s Gespenster [Ghosts] and Gerhard Hauptmann’s Vor Sonnenaufgang [Before Daybreak], among other dramas. After the premiere of Ghosts on September 29, 1889, Fontane wrote:

Yesterday, the theater company “Freie Bühne” opened a series of eight plays scheduled for this winter on the stage of the Lessing Theater. It did so with a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, a choice that seemed correct to me in two respects: first, as a tribute to Ibsen, who (at least in terms of the dramatic arts) is the oldest representative and head of the new realistic school; and second, out of appropriate prudence. Ghosts had already been performed at the royal theater one morning two or three years ago. Back then, it was directed by Anno and achieved great success, even though this success was strongly contested by opponents of the school. [ . . . ]

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