An exploratory drilling into the history of theatre – Peter W. Marx on „Hamlet“ in Germany

Peter W. Marx, Hamlets Reise nach Deutschland

Peter W. Marx, Hamlets Reise nach Deutschland. Eine Kulturgeschichte. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2018, 435 S. ISBN 978-3-89581-490-7, 35,- €

Theatre as a transient art has a special relationship with memory. Theatre is not only the art form of the absolute present, of the simultaneity of performance and reception, it is also the art form of memory. Without memory no critical discourse of the theatre, without discourse no art. 1. Even the casual chat after a visit to the theatre (“How did you like it?”) requires memory. And theatre criticism is also memory aid. German theatre studies, on the other hand, try rather to run ahead of current theatre practice than to chase the theatre of the past. Theatrical history seems to be something for pensioners. It is all the more astonishing that Peter W. Marx, a professor of theatre studies in Cologne, has come up with a large-scale, readable study of theatrical history: the history of German-language “Hamlet” productions 2.

German nostrification of Hamlet

At the latest since the German translation of Shakespeare by the Romantics August Wilhelm Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck, Germany claims a special relationship to Shakespeare. That he was British is dismissed as an unfortunate coincidence. That he is an author of world fame, does not interest. Shakespeare is ours! In the 19th century, fantasies about Shakespeare’s “Germanic nature” are already in vogue 3. Even in the nationalist turmoil of the First World War, Germans hold fast to the “Nostrification“ of Shakespeare. 4. And Hamlet is the decisive figure because he represents a “call for self-identification” 5. “Hamlet” is a „play of yearning“ for the Germans 6.

Peter W. Marx undertakes an exploratory drilling into German history. With “Hamlet”, which has been present on the German stages since the travelling actor groups of the early 17th century, you can drive a core into the sediments of German mentalities. What does the soil sample show?

One sees how, in the early eighteenth century, the question of the hereafter, the metaphysical “remnant of need” [“Bedürfnisrest“] of the Enlightenment, was fixed on the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. A few decades later, this question will be answered quite differently: It is no longer about the ghost itself, but about the human being, the authenticity of the actor’s physical reaction to the ghost, the relationship between the inside and the outside of man. In the 19th century, the image of a heroically desperate Hamlet or the yearning for a princely hero prevails. Freiligrath’s mocking bêtise “Germany is Hamlet” suddenly is understood as praise of German heroism, and Hamlet becomes a figure representing the nation’s yearning for a young leader. After the contrasting politicization of the figure in the Weimar Republic (Jessner) and Nazi-Reich (Gründgens), Hamlet becomes the icon of timeless art (still Gründgens), and then come the postheroic Hamlets (Zadek, Heyme), settling the accounts with the generation of their Nazi-fathers. This process leads to Steemann’s Hamlet (Hannover 2001) 7, in which this 68-generation, who were keen on taking revenge on their fathers, are fathers in power themselves and their offspring do not stand any chance to oppose because of their parents’ overarching benevolent understanding. Up to the „To be or not to be“ reciting Youtubers, as examples of the games of the information society, which no longer need spectators, only participants.

Contextualization of „Hamlet“ productions

Marx always places the individual productions in a framework, politically and culturally. Time and again, historical figures flit through the picture: Lichtenberg, Goethe, Nietzsche, Wilhelm II, Göbbels. Again and again, scenes of historic events are briefly set up: the French revolution, World War I, the fall of the Berlin Wall – and torn down again in the next chapter. So the background appears, at least sketchily, to which the productions refer. Marx also casts sideways glances at the changing popularity of other Shakespeare plays: he explains why “Coriolanus” instead of “Hamlet” becomes interesting for the early GDR and “King Lear” for the late Bonn Republic.

Even on productions well-known in the history of theatre, such as Leopold Jessner’s Berlin “Hamlet” production of 1926 8 Marx can shed new light by placing them in a wide social and intellectual context. Fritz Kortner’s blonde wig, which was mocked at in a theatre review as an „idiot’s roof” 9 caused such indignation in 1926 because it fitted into the scheme of the deceiving Jew. Marx quotes Oskar Panizza, Friedrich Nietzsche and Arnold Zweig in support of his view and refers to the insults of the Polish-Jewish Hamlet-actor Bogumil Dawison. The assimilated Jew was the worst Jew for the anti-Semites of the Weimar Republic because he was seen as a liar.

Derivations of the Hamlet cult

Not only the highlights are mentioned, but also almost forgotten versions like Felicitas von Vestvali’s female Hamlet (1913), a strangely modernized film version “The Rest is Silence” from 1959 or Heyme / Vostell’s Media-„Hamlet” in Cologne (1977). Epiphenomena of the Hamlet cult are also included, such as Gerhart Hauptmann’s annotated text edition (1928), published together with Edward Gordon Craig, Harald Schmidt’s talk show “Hamlet” (2001) or Katie Mitchell’s performance “Ophelia’s Room” (2015). While the purely text-oriented productions of the last decades (Grüber Berlin 1982 10, Steckel Bochum, 1995 11, Gosch Düsseldorf 2001 12, Bachmann Cologne 2016 13) are passed over.

Marx also opens up new sources, such as Heyme’s notes to his “Hamlet” in Cologne. Already 40 years ago, Heyme noted: “that historically fixed art or theatre work can only be experienced as filtered through the media. Everything else is a lie. Whereby this truth is, in consequence, a deadly and fatalistic one – completely un-utopian, and our yearning can of course only be aimed at […], THEATER AGAINST the media which are clinging to us and of which we consist in part.“ 14 There is nothing to add to that today.


The difficulty of every historiographical enterprise lies in the contradiction between the individuality of the productions, which one has to do justice to, and the great zigzag line, for which one undertakes all the historical mining work. Marx is guided by Hans Blumenberg’s concept of “reshuffling” [„Umbesetzung“]. He wants to show how “different statements“ can be understood „as answers to identical questions” 15. Marx thinks that “Hamlet” can be understood as a “metaphor“, in the sense of Blumenberg. That provides a field for the “trial and error process” 16 and offers answers to an underlying question. For Marx, this question which provides continuity is that of the collective identity of Germans. “Hamlet” productions are not themselves the answers, but metaphors that provide the material for testing and discarding answers to this question.

Hamlet as a collective figure of thought

This embedding of the “Hamlet” productions into the “collective figures of thought“ of their time settles the claim of writing not only a history of theatre that mentions productions for the sake of completeness but a cultural history 17. Gründgens’ post-war productions are discussed against the background of Hannah Arendt’s criticism of the claim of a collective guilt of Germans and Mitscherlich’s analysis of post-war Germany as a fatherless society. Heiner Müller’s “Hamlet” of 1990 is placed in the context of the situation of the intellectual in the GDR and its dissolution.

Peter W. Marx’s narrative model is contextualist, his narrative attitude largely ironic, but in the end, it becomes a story of decay with a warning. The culmination of every analysis of cultural history is their final look at the present. In 2018 Peter W. Marx finds hidden references to the imagery and intellectual tradition of „Hamlet” in such diverse figures as Frank-Walter Steinmeier18, Christian Lindner19, Marc Jongen 20, Simon Strauss21 and Philipp Ruch22: he interprets these references as an “awareness of crisis in a society that is saturated in a wrong way“ 23 as a dangerous self-empowerment to overcome the existing conditions in an “intoxicated desire to act” 24

No knowledge can be gained without memory anyway. If theatre represents a supra-individual consciousness and the history of the theatre a collective memory, then the history of theatre can make us see things that we could not see before, not only in the theatre but in society as a whole.

This review is the extended version of a text that appeared in the December 2018 issue of “Theater heute”.

  1. Marvin Carlson has set this out in a detailed study. „We are able to ‚read’ new works – whether they be plays, paintings, musical compositions, or, for that matter, new signifying structures that make no claim to artistic expression at all – only because we recognize within them elements that have been recycled from other structures of experience that we have experienced earlier. {…} The primary tools for audiences confronted with new paintings, pieces of music, books, or pieces of theatre are previous examples of these various arts they have experienced.“ Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage. The Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001, pp.4, 5.
  2. Peter W. Marx has already made an encyclopaedic contribution to „Hamlet“-research with the publication of the „Hamlet Handbook“, which goes far beyond the reception in Germany. Some material from the manual has also been included in the monograph. Peter W.Marx, Hamlet Handbuch. Stoffe, Aneignungen, Deutungen. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2014
  3. „urgermanische Natur“, Koberstein 1865, quoted by Marx S. 108
  4. Wilhelm Hortmann, Shakespeare und das deutsche Theater im XX. Jahrhundert. Mit einem Kapitel über Shakespeare auf den Bühnen der DDR von Mark Hamburger. Berlin: Henschel, 2001, p.19
  5. „Aufforderung zur Selbst-Identifikation“ Marx, p. 9
  6. „Sehnsuchtsstück“, Marx, p. 10
  7. see. my short critique in: Berliner Festspiele (ed.), Theatertreffen -Journal 2002, p.29
  8. See Hortmann a.a.O., p.75f; Günther Rühle (Hg.), Theater für die Republik 1917-1933 im Spiegel der Kritik. Frankfurt/M: S.Fischer 1967 p.763-773; Hugo Fetting (Hg.), Von der freien Bühne zum politischen Theater. Drama und Theater im Spiegel der Kritik 1917-1933. Bd. 2. Leipzig: Reclam, 1987 p. 314-332; Günther Rühle, Theater in Deutschland 1887-1945. Seine Ereignisse – seine Menschen. Frankfurt/M: S. Fischer, 2007 p. 503-505
  9. „Idiotendach“, Alfred Polgar cit. at Marx p.130
  10. see Hortmann, op. cit., pp. 321-325
  11. see my review in Theater heute 8 / 1995, pp. 22-25
  12. see my review in Theater heute 7/2001, p.28-30
  13. see my review in Theater heute 11 / 2016, pp. 20-23
  14. „dass historisch-fixierte Kunst bzw. Theaterarbeit schlechthin nurmehr durch Medien gefiltert erfahren werden kann. Alles andere ist Lüge. Wobei diese Wahrheit in Konsequenz eine tödliche und fatalistische – gänzlich unutopische ist, und die Sehnsucht natürlich nur darauf abzielen darf {…}, THEATER GEGEN die uns umklammernden und z.T. ausmachenden Medien zu erfahren.“ quoted by Marx, p.291f
  15. Blumenberg cit. at Marx p.14. See also: „Umbesetzung meint ebenden Prozess der Ersetzung einer epochal nicht länger befriedigenden Antwort durch eine neue. Die Frage fungiert dabei als konstantes, Zeitabschnitte oder Epochen übergreifendes Moment, das die Tiefenstruktur der Umbesetzungsvorgänge bildet. {…} Das ‚Verfahren‘ nimmt seinen Ausgang von einer als Antwort verstandenen Theorieformation, deren zugrunde liegende Frage in regressiver Analyse zu ermitteln ist.“ Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink, „Umbesetzung“, in: Robert Buch & Daniel Weiden (Hg.), Blumenberg lesen. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2014, p.359
  16. „Prozess des Erprobens und Verwerfens“, Marx p.16
  17. Marx also explicitly refers to Fischer-Lichte, who warns against a “purely chronologically proceeding factography” and postulates “In jedem Fall lässt sich Theatergeschichte nur mit einer problemorientierten Vorgehensweise betreiben.“ Erika Fischer-Lichte, Kurze Geschichte des deutschen Theaters. Tübingen: Francke, 1993, p.8f
  18. President of the Federal Public of Germany
  19. chairman of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the German liberal party
  20. right wing intellectual, member of the German parliament for the Alliance for Germany (AfD)
  21. theatre critic for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
  22. founder of the activist group Centre for Political Beauty (Zentrum für politische Schönheit)
  23. „Krisenbewusstsein einer falsch saturierten Gesellschaft“
  24. „rauschhafte Tatensehnsucht“, Marx pp.377, 380f

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