Friday, April 27, 2018


Erika Fischer-Lichte, Tragedy's Endurance: Performances of Greek Tragedies and Cultural Identity in Germany since 1800. Classical Presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xix, 398. ISBN 9780199651634. $115.00.

Reviewed by Joshua Billings, Princeton University (

Version at BMCR home site


Theater, and especially Greek tragedy, holds an outsize importance in the history of modern German culture. From the eighteenth century, theatrical performances have borne the weight of expectations that they contribute to the formation of German cultural identity. Greek tragedy (along with Shakespeare and German "classical" authors) has been at the center of this project, its importance ensured by the place of classical languages in the German education system, and by a concept of Bildung that understands cultivation (intellectual, aesthetic, moral) as an ongoing process throughout the life of the individual. In Tragedy's Endurance: Performances of Greek Tragedies and Cultural Identity in Germany since 1800, Erika Fischer-Lichte treats this intersection of aesthetic and cultural realms by tracing the importance of Greek tragedy to the Bildungsbürgertum, the educated middle or upper-middle classes of Germany, who compose the major part of the German theater audience. Tragedy's Endurance offers a historical overview of this relationship organized around significant stagings from the early nineteenth century, when performances of Greek tragedy were first explored as a means of constituting social identity, to the late twentieth century, when this possibility was for all intents and purposes foreclosed by the waning of German philhellenism and by shifts in the cultural expectations surrounding theater.

Tragedy's Endurance represents an important contribution to classical reception studies and to theater history, fulfilling a major desideratum for a history of German performances of Greek tragedy that could serve as a counterpart to Edith Hall and Fiona Macintosh's seminal 2005 Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre, 1660–1914. In comparison, Tragedy's Endurance is somewhat narrower in scope, less a survey than a series of significant glimpses, which are chosen more for their aesthetic than for their cultural significance. Fischer-Lichte synthesizes a wide range of material related to both the production and reception of these stagings in order to grasp their creators' intention (in a strong sense) to reflect on cultural identity, and then to evaluate their success in doing so. Throughout, her discussions are authoritative: thoroughly researched, thoughtfully analyzed, and clearly laid out. If there is a criticism to be made, it would be that Fischer-Lichte is either too much or too little the cultural historian here: as she explains, her selection of material is guided by aesthetic significance, those performances that "introduced a new theatre aesthetics or a new image of ancient Greece, or did both" (5). In practice, this means that the productions treated are not necessarily the ones that were the most important culturally, but the ones that were, in Fischer-Lichte's judgement, the most innovative. This is a conscious, self-reflective methodology, but it results in a kind of cultural history that largely excludes realms of culture outside the avant-garde. Within the scope of this methodology, though, the book is full of information and insight, and students and scholars of theater history, classical reception, and German culture will turn and return to the book regularly.

Following an introduction tracing the emergence of a strong nexus of philhellenism and theatrical performance in the late eighteenth century, Fischer-Lichte proceeds chronologically, which entails a much greater weight on the twentieth century, when performances of Greek theater reached critical mass. I found Fischer-Lichte's approach somewhat more congenial in treating later performances, for which extensive production material is available, than in reconstructing earlier ones, which is necessarily a more speculative endeavor. Chapter 1 traces the aesthetics surrounding Goethe's 1802 Weimar staging of A. W. Schlegel's adaptation of the Ion, a moment important as much for its failures as its successes. Fischer-Lichte describes Goethe's aims in staging a "Greek" work as grounded in his own and Friedrich Schiller's aesthetics of artistic autonomy. Fischer-Lichte then traces, through a wide engagement with contemporary sources, how this aesthetic famously fell flat in performance. The chapter's greatest strength lies in the way it shows Goethe seeking—by "authoritarian" (39) means—to impose his own aesthetic on an unwilling audience, and Fischer-Lichte's deft analysis of this clash. Despite the best efforts of the Weimar intellectuals, Greek tragedy could not yet find a place on the German stage.

Chapter 2 discusses the groundbreaking Potsdam Antigone of 1841 as an attempt to create national cohesion through philhellenism. Fischer- Lichte gives a clear and concise summary of the important developments in philhellenism in the early part of the 19th century, pointing to the way that idealization of the Greeks and the Greek language was woven into the education of the Bildungsbürgertum, and explaining the role of historicism in creating an interest in "authentic" stage practices. These impulses led to the creation of a novel theatrical and musical language for the performances, and resulted in a sensation that extended well beyond the German context in which the production originated. Chapter 3, by contrast, steps away from particular stagings of Greek tragedy to discuss the importance of Greek theater to Wagner and Nietzsche, who, Fischer-Lichte argues, create important conditions for understanding twentieth-century productions. The chapter discusses the ways in which Wagner's concept of music drama invoked the Greeks, and points especially to the importance of the idea of the festival gained from Greece to the founding of Bayreuth as a utopian social project. This is undeniably an immensely important framework for understanding later productions, but a more explicit effort at tracing Wagnerianism in the later stagings would have been valuable in integrating the argument of the chapter.

The twentieth century brings a proliferation of productions and new approaches. Chapter 4 discusses Max Reinhardt's stagings of adaptations and translations of Greek tragedies in the young German nation. Fischer-Lichte points particularly to a new corporeality entering into Reinhardt's productions, which could prove repulsive or compelling to different audiences. In discussing the staging of Hofmannsthal's Elektra, she surveys a range of critical reactions, and deftly brings out the ways that different conceptions of antiquity and theatrical decorum could lie behind their differing evaluations. When it comes to Reinhardt's mass (both in terms of audience and performance forces) performances of the Oedipus Tyrannus and Oresteia, her discussion shifts more to the social, demonstrating how Reinhardt sought to create an immersive atmosphere in which the spectators would feel themselves a part of the production, and create a new sense of community that united different classes. For his integration of an experimental sensibility with a wider cultural project, Reinhardt emerges as perhaps the most significant figure of Fischer-Lichte's history.

Though Nazi philhellenism did not substantially increase the number of performances of Greek tragedy, Fischer-Lichte shows that it did render productions particularly culturally meaningful. Examining Lothar Müthel's 1936 Berlin Oresteia, produced in the context of the Olympics, Chapter 5 describes the way that sport and theatrical spectacle became interlinked in the hosting of the games. Fischer-Lichte shows how the Oresteia was received as a work of triumphant historical transition that could legitimize the Nazi regime and provide the model for a contemporary national drama. As the culture turned increasingly militaristic, Greek tragedy became notionally allied to forms of heroic drama that flourished in the pre-war and war years. In this context, the importance of the Antigone is a bit of a puzzle, which Fischer-Lichte seeks to resolve by examining Karl Heinz Stroux's 1940 production, in which Creon was presented as an oriental despot, in contrast to the statuesquely "Greek" Antigone. This allowed for the play's anti-authoritarian potential to be directed, not against the rulers, but against a foreign other.

The OT's staging of questions of guilt and responsibility made it particularly powerful in the immediate postwar period, as Fischer-Lichte shows through a compelling, if brief, look at critical responses at the beginning of Chapter 6. She then turns to Brecht's The Antigone of Sophocles, which, despite having only a very small initial audience when it was performed in Switzerland in 1948, proved one of the most important productions for the development of Brecht's—and Germany's postwar—aesthetic. Framing the drama with a new prologue that showed unmissable parallels to the war, and placing substantial weight on the chorus, the Antigone opened questions of collective guilt in a way that was evidently unpalatable to early audiences and readers. In contrast, the stagings of Gustav Rudolf Sellner proved tremendously popular for their abstract, universalizing approach. Staging the tragedies as works of timeless poetry, Sellner avoided the thorny political questions they could raise, and sought to circumvent the Nazi legacy of philhellenism. Fischer-Lichte's contrast of Brecht and Sellner brings out unmistakably her preference for the avant-garde.

Chapter 7 turns to the 1960s and 70s and focuses on productions that sought to mobilize the Greeks for the purposes of a political reckoning with the legacy of Nazism. Though in this period the Greek texts still retained an aura of inviolability, Fischer-Lichte argues that the public showed itself to be open to experimental stagings. This dual response is exhibited with the example of Hans Neuenfels' scandalous 1976 Medea, which offered a stark feminist take on the story, speaking directly to contemporary questions of women's role in society. The controversy surrounding the production demonstrated the limits of the audience's willingness to be provoked, while the staging's popularity contributed directly to the emergence of a new, more immediately political and culture-critical theatrical aesthetic.

Chapter 8 looks in depth at the Antiquity Projects of 1974 and 1980 at the Berlin Schaubühne, which, Fischer-Lichte argues, marked an even more significant turning point. The first Project, consisting of Peter Stein's Exercises for Actors and Klaus Maria Gruber's staging of Bacchae, performed on successive evenings, mobilized Greek tragedy as part of the Schaubühne's left-wing social program. Stein's work drew heavily on Walter Burkert's theories to depict hunting and sacrifice as pre-linguistic social rites connected somehow to the origins of theater, but privileged fragmentariness and suggestion rather than direct lines of influence or descent. Gruber's Bacchae was even more enigmatic, and Fischer-Lichte describes its highly suggestive but ultimately evasive approach to the work, arguing that the strands of the performance coalesce around the idea of sparagmos. Peter Stein's monumental Oresteia followed in 1980, which, Fischer-Lichte argues, offered a highly ambiguous presentation of Greek tragedy. On the one hand, Stein emphasized the strangeness and inaccessibility of antiquity (in line with the earlier installment of the Project), but on the other, the production's scrupulous textual fidelity and concentration on Aeschylus' language highlighted the fundamental mystery of speech and communication across the ages. Stein's Oresteia thus presented Aeschylus as profoundly contemporary even while profoundly strange, provoking reflections on historicity itself.

The Schaubühne's landmark projects marked, for Fischer-Lichte, the end of Greek tragedy's contribution to the Bildungsbürgertum's cultural identity. The shift in the cultural place of tragedy disburdened stagings from the heavy weight they had previously carried and led to a substantial increase of productions from the 1980s to the present, charted in Chapter 9. The works of Einar Schleef are described as catalytic in drawing new attention to the tragic chorus. Through an innovative deployment of space and use of spoken and physical rhythm, Schleef involved the audience in the almost overpowering energy created by the actors. Fischer-Lichte argues that Schleef, though controversial in his time, contributed to the growth of choric theatre in Germany in the following decades, in which the chorus "has taken on the role of the protagonist acting as a self- organizing and self-organized collective" (345).

As is evident from this summary (which has had to be highly selective), Tragedy's Endurance synthesizes a wealth of material and interpretation that will serve as a foundation for future study. Even where one meets the limits of Fischer-Lichte's approach or differs in assessing the evidence, her analyses are fully realized and the history presented compelling. The book constitutes a major contribution to its overlapping fields of research and will prove an essential resource for understanding the powerful, productive, and troubled place of Greek theatre in the creation of German identity.

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