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Ernst Dronke on Popular Theater, Bourgeois Theater, and Court Theater in Berlin (1846)

In his book Berlin (1846), the writer and socialist Ernst Dronke (1822-1891) offers a critical view of contemporary theater in the Prussian capital. According to his observations, popular and elite theater were too similar, and he expresses disappointment that the so-called elite theater of Berlin failed to live up to any high cultural and artistic standards, actually trailing behind other major German theaters for years.

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Let's turn our attention once more to Berlin's theaters. The Königstädtische Bühne,* created as an institution for "the people," should receive first mention. This institution was founded to furnish this outlying suburban area with a more convenient and less expensive opportunity to enjoy theater. The Königstädtische Bühne's license restricted it to one mission: to serve "the people," the uneducated masses. The new theater was not permitted to perform tragedies, its repertoire was limited so that it would not be in competition with other theaters. Whereas the Königliche Bühne [Royal Theater] had the great operas, serious dramas, and high comedies, the domain of the Königstädtische Bühne was vaudeville, popular comedies, and melodrama. As a result of this division, the task of the Königstädt theater was to continuously produce novelties, gags, and other light fare. The directors speculated – it could not be otherwise – that the middlebrows, the petit bourgeois, would fill the cash register. An audience consists of a first tier, a second tier, and the orchestra seats. Thus, despite all of the populist pretensions, a people's theater was out of the question under these conditions. Because of money, a theater must orient itself to the desires and wishes of the public. It cannot seek to improve them because it is not above their taste, but rather financially dependent upon it. This influence is all the more significant because it has an effect on the dramatic products. What playwright would want to have an impact on the masses if his work can only be performed when it conforms to public taste? At first, the Königstädtische Bühne appeared to want to hold on to a "popular" [volkstümliches] element, but the realities of theater today, which require deference to the wishes of the various ranks of spectators, destroy the populist ideal. At that time, the Viennese were performing some dramatic works by Raimund, which undeniably engaged and uplifted the popular spirit [Volksgeist] in an accessible way. Der Bauer als Millionär [The Millionaire Peasant], Der Alpenkönig [King of the Alps], and other plays had a deeper conception than the typical farces, which were linked to the interests of the day. But soon these more serious attempts at popular education gave way to the necessity of stuffing the public's jaws with spicy superficialities crafted from the interests of the day. The singer Sontag proclaimed her love of art in the Königstadt, which, to the credit of the audience, was at least not a popular one. Other fashionable items, including a full staging of an Italian opera, were the continuation of this tendency, which aimed to give the bad tastes of the middle- and lower-middle classes a faint glimmer of the pleasures and tastes of the idle rich in the aristocratic districts. Wherever a so-called folk sensibility came through, it was an enthrallment directed upwards rather than an education directed downwards. This people's theater, the delight of the bourgeoisie in trivial representations of the life of the people, was realized on the stage of the Königstädtische Bühne. Angely transplanted French vaudeville here with German clumsiness, [Friedrich] Beckmann followed with his farce Nante, and Holtei’s Alte Feldherrn [Old Commander] introduced the fashionable enthusiasm for Poland onto the stage with its own popular songs, followed by other fashionable causes. This was and still is the state of the Königstädt theater as "popular education": the enthrallment of the bourgeoisie to trivializations of lower middle-class life, the life of the people, and the movements and issues of the day.

*Theater in the suburb of Königstadt – trans.

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