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Otto Brahm, "The People’s Free Stage" (1890)

The Freie Volksbühne [“People’s Free Stage”] was founded in March 1890 as a proletarian theater by Bruno Wille (1860-1928). It was designed as a “social democratic” form of theater to cater to working class sensibilities and to meet the need for political organization. At the time of the theater's founding, the Social Democratic Party was outlawed – it only became legal with the expiry of the Anti-Socialist Law at midnight on September 30, 1890. Nonetheless, the following account shows that even prior to this point social democratic organizations still influenced and mobilized the German working class.

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An ample hall, completely packed; a gathering of a couple thousand men and women, persevering with devoted attention until past midnight, an enthusiastic unanimity in their goals – this was the picture to be had at the first meeting to found a People’s Free Stage on Tuesday, July 29, in the Bohemian Brewery.

The idea to establish a People’s Free Stage came from the socialists. The conference that decided to realize the plan was a socialist undertaking. And the socialists will form the majority among the members of the association. This will determine the character and meaning of the new enterprise from here on out.

The buzzword invented by the newspapers to describe the undertaking, “a social democratic theater,” was, to be sure, justifiably rejected by the founder of the People’s Free Stage, Dr. Bruno Wille. Just as the fashionable theaters that satisfy the taste of a broad spectrum of the middle class can hardly be described as progressive or nationally liberal, the notion of a social democratic theater, in the strictest sense, can hardly be imagined. And for this simple reason – while it is certainly possible to have a socialist audience, there cannot be any socialist plays. Where the political party is victorious, the work of art dies.

However, even if party politics are not supposed to dominate the repertoire of the People’s Free Stage, and even if Lassalle’s “Ferdinand von Sickingen” was rejected right at the outset, then, according to Wille, “a socially critical air” will still imbue both the audience and the plays of the People’s Stage. Ibsen and Tolstoy among the foreign playwrights, and Hauptmann, Holz, and Schlaf among the Germans, will be at the top of the repertoire – plays with a socially critical spirit. “Robespierre” by Griepenkerl and “The Death of Danton” by Büchner represent the link to the ideas of the revolution. The plays of Julius Hart, Bleibtreu, and Alberti, on the other hand, fit neither of these categories, and for this reason they occupy a rather murky position at the bottom of the repertoire.

The measured sensibility that underlies this preliminary concept has created the most auspicious conditions for this new undertaking. When the strictest socialist yardstick is applied, Ibsen is lumped into the middle class, and great effort is expended to prove how Ibsen’s poetic philosophy and Marx’ scientific philosophy are two very distinct phenomena. The People’s Free Stage, however, wants to leave plenty of room for the author of “Nora,” “The Ghosts,” “The Enemy of the People,” and “The Pillars of Society.” – Because this theater is not so fanatical as to miss the fact that this “aristocratic radical,” as he is called today, with his defiant faith in the individual, and with his

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