Shakespeare and German Reunification

The Interface of Politics and Performance

by Emily Oliver (Author)
Monographs XIV, 292 Pages


This book explores the relationship between politics and Shakespeare performance in East Germany before, during and after reunification in 1990. Analysing a wide range of case studies from Berlin as well as more peripheral towns and cities, the author argues that the capacity for political intervention in Shakespeare performances in East Germany was limited by a number of factors, including the influence of the government and an underlying distrust of the public. However, East German theatre practitioners proved useful to the 1989 protest movement precisely because they occupied a unique position at the interface of dissidence and state power. Using Shakespeare performance as a lens, the book examines political and aesthetic censorship before reunification and the enormous financial difficulties theatre faced in its aftermath, asking what role Shakespeare played for Germans both within and beyond the theatre.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Figures
  • Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1: Introduction: Shakespeare and the Wende
  • Why Shakespeare?
  • ‘Deutschland ist Hamlet’: German Intellectuals and Political Hamletism
  • ‘Undercover Shakespeare’ and the Cold War
  • Why German Reunification?
  • What Was the Wende?
  • Theatre’s Position in the Wende
  • Towards a New History of East German Shakespeare
  • Source Material
  • Scope and Structure
  • Chapter 2: East German Shakespeare in the 1980s
  • Theatre Funding in Germany
  • How German Theatre Works, and Why
  • The GDR Funding System
  • Controlling Theatre Aesthetics
  • Theatre for the People: Socialist Realism and Volkstheater
  • Challenging Textual Fidelity
  • Chapter 3: Shakespeare and the Politics of the Wende
  • Political Shakespeare and Censorship
  • Theatre Censorship in the GDR
  • On the Edge of their Seats? Functions of GDR Shakespeare Performance
  • Theatre and the Fall of the Berlin Wall
  • Stepping out of their Roles: Artists as Political Activists
  • Hamlet/Maschine: The Paradigmatic Wende-Production?
  • A Forgotten Wende-Hamlet
  • Chapter 4: Post-Reunification Shakespeare
  • Funding Crisis, Structural Crisis
  • The 1993 Theatre Debate
  • Shakespeare on the East German Periphery
  • Berlin’s Exceptional Situation
  • Long-Term Effects of Reunification
  • Making Cultural Funding Sustainable: The 2003 Theatre Debate
  • Free Theatre Groups: Shakespeare in the ‘Ignored Sector’
  • Chapter 5: ‘Must I Remember?’: Memorializing GDR Theatre
  • Literaturstreit: The Disaster of the Interpreting Class
  • The ‘Political Shakespeare’ Legacy
  • Memory Media and Post Hoc Interpretation
  • Bibliography
  • Productions Cited
  • Index
  • Series index

| ix →


This research was made possible by a Doctoral Award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

There is insufficient space here to acknowledge all those who have supported me during the writing of this book. Above all, I am indebted to my supervisors Kate McLuskie and Nick Martin for their excellent advice, words of encouragement, and willingness to share their time and knowledge with me.

Many individuals have made my life as a researcher easier. I would like to thank the staff at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin and the Shakespeare Institute Library, particularly Karin Brown and Kate Welch, for their invaluable research support. Moreover, I would like to thank Juliet Creese, Rebecca White, and Natalie Bell at the Shakespeare Institute for being so much more than administrators. Special thanks go to Dennis Kennedy for supplying an old article of his within hours of my request. I am particularly grateful to Jill Bentley and her family for generously allowing me to stay with them during a research trip to Berlin in 2011. At Peter Lang, particular thanks must go to my editor Laurel Plapp for her patience and guidance, to Emma Clarke and Laura-Beth Shanahan for handling the publicity for this book, and to my anonymous reader for generous feedback and helpful suggestions.

Over the course of my studies, I have benefited from the expertise of wonderful teachers and academics. Thanks go to Chris Dymkowski and Dell Olsen at Royal Holloway, and to Ewan Fernie, Michael Dobson, John Jowett, Kate Rumbold, and Martin Wiggins for their expert tuition at the Shakespeare Institute. Special thanks to Erin Sullivan for asking me to be a part of her Year of Shakespeare project in 2012, and to Ben Schofield for inviting me to present my research at King’s College London, where he subsequently became the best friend and mentor I could have wished for. Moreover, I would like to thank Nick Walton at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for his insights into teaching Shakespeare. ← ix | x →

Thanks to all my friends at the Shakespeare Institute for their support: in particular to Cassie Ash, Cat Clifford, Cait Fannin-Peel, Michelle Morton, Sarah Jowett, Eoin Price, Elizabeth Sharrett, and Yolana Wassersug. Moreover, I am grateful to Sarah Wingo for helping to locate previously inaccessible resources, and to Andy Kesson for modelling good research habits. My German friends have proven steadfast and supportive despite geographical distance and long silences: Judith Mannke answered questions about the everyday workings of German theatre, Leonie Werner introduced me to fascinating corners of Berlin, and Sarah Kirscht constantly reminded me that academic work is something to be proud of.

I would like to thank my parents for equipping me with two mother tongues and encouraging me to study other languages and literatures. My late father, Terence Oliver, also advised on some of the trickier translations. I am grateful to my mother, Ellen Oliver, for instilling in me a belief in the importance of education and for reciting Shakespeare at the dinner table.

Last but not least, I would like to thank my wife, Sophie Duncan, for all the support, help, comfort, proof-reading, encouragement, and intelligent insights she has provided. I am grateful for her love and her capacity to put things into perspective, both of which I hope to enjoy for many years to come. This book is, of course, for her.

| xi →


Figure 1: Theatre practitioners demonstrating in Berlin on 4 November 1989 (Wikimedia Commons).

Figure 2: Romeo und Julia (Peter Festersen, AdK).

Figure 3: Prince Escalus enters (Peter Festersen, AdK).

Figure 4: Lady Macbeth and Macbeth (Adelheid Beyer, AdK).

Figure 5: Set for Macbeth nach Shakespeare (Adelheid Beyer, AdK).

Figure 6: View of Macbeth set from the back of the auditorium (Adelheid Beyer, AdK).

Figure 7: The murder of Lady Macduff (Adelheid Beyer, AdK).

Figure 8: ANATOMIE TITUS FALL OF ROME (Hans Ludwig Böhme, AdK).

Figure 9: Ulrich Mühe as Lancelot Gobbo (Wolfram Schmidt, AdK).

Figure 10: Der Kaufmann von Venedig (Wolfram Schmidt, AdK).

Figure 11: Lancelot Gobbo and Old Gobbo (Wolfram Schmidt, AdK).

Figure 12: Hamlet/Maschine (Wolfhard Theile / drama-berlin.de).

Figure 13: ‘Mousetrap’ scene from Hamlet/Maschine (Wolfhard Theile / drama-berlin.de).

Figure 14: Scene from Die Hamletmaschine (Wolfhard Theile / drama-berlin.de).

Figure 15: Fortinbras enters (Wolfhard Theile / drama-berlin.de).

Figure 16: ‘To be or not to be’ (Wolfhard Theile / drama-berlin.de). ← xi | xii →

Figure 17: Laertes and Hamlet (Wolfhard Theile / drama-berlin.de).

Figure 18: Richard III. (Jutta Oloff, AdK).

Figure 19: Eva Weißenborn as Richard III (Jutta Oloff, AdK).

Figure 20: LIEBE MACHT TOD (Eva Kemlein, AdK).

Figure 21: Set for LIEBE MACHT TOD (Eva Kemlein, AdK).

Figure 22: Sebastian and Olivia in Was ihr wollt (Barbara Köppe, AdK).

Figure 23: Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian in Was ihr wollt (Barbara Köppe, AdK).

| xiii →


AdK Stiftung Archiv der Akademie der Künste, Berlin
(Archives of the Academy of the Arts)

bsc bremer shakespeare company
(founded 1983; lower case preferred by the company)

CDU Christlich-Demokratische Union
(Christian Democratic Union; German Conservative Party)

DBV Deutscher Bühnenverein
(German Stage Association; representing public theatres)

DSG Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft
(German Shakespeare Society)

FDJ Freie Deutsche Jugend
(Free German Youth; GDR youth organization)

FDP Freie Demokratische Partei
(German Liberal Democratic Party)

FRG Federal Republic of Germany
(West Germany, 1949–1990; unified Germany since 1990)

GDR German Democratic Republic
(East Germany, 1949–1990)

GmbH Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung
(Limited liability company)

ID Inszenierungsdokumentation
(Documentation of individual productions; AdK, Berlin)

ITI International Theatre Institute
(German branch located in Berlin) ← xiii | xiv →

MV The Merchant of Venice

SCB Shakespeare Company Berlin
(founded 1999)

SED Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands
(Socialist Unity Party of the GDR)

Stasi Ministerium für Staatssicherheit
(Ministry for State Security; GDR Secret Police)

TiW Sammlung Theater in der Wende
(Archive material on theatre during reunification; AdK, Berlin)

TN Twelfth Night

VT Verband der Theaterschaffenden
(GDR Union of Theatre Practitioners)

| 1 →


Introduction: Shakespeare and the Wende

Thus have I, Wall, my part dischargèd so;

And being done, thus Wall away doth go.

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.1.203–4)1

The opening of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 was the worst thing that could have happened to East German theatre. Within a year of reunification, theatres were struggling to make ends meet, tackling reduced budgets and higher production costs amidst a general economic downturn. Even before this development, during the weeks and months following the opening of the border, East German theatre practitioners were forced to recognize that their institution’s political significance was rapidly diminishing. Writing in February 1990, Dennis Kennedy speculated that ‘[p]erhaps the new freedoms brought by political reform will make life better in the GDR, but it is unlikely they will make the theatre more interesting’.2 Five days before the opening of the Berlin Wall, the actor playing Hamlet in Heiner Müller’s East Berlin production had addressed crowds of protesters on Alexanderplatz, demanding free speech and uncensored press coverage in a reformed socialist state. Barely a year later, East Berlin was part of a ← 1 | 2 → unified, capitalist German state and theatre audiences had shrunk to half what they had been before the fall of the Wall.3

Shakespeare’s plays were a constant on the stages of the German Democratic Republic, and remain so in today’s unified German state. With an average of 100 to 200 new productions per year, Shakespeare is the most frequently performed dramatist in Germany, consistently ahead of Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, and Brecht.4 The GDR with its forty-seven spoken-word theatres averaged at least thirty new Shakespeare productions per year during the 1980s and Shakespeare remained in first place throughout the 1990s in reunified Germany.5

In many ways, Shakespeare’s works have proven to be more stable than the various incarnations of the German nation-state, which since 1871 (and even well before then) have been in constant flux caused by domestic and international upheaval. Before the Germans had a state, they had a national theatre tradition and a Shakespeare Society (the Deutsche Shakespeare Gesellschaft, founded in 1864). This temporal inversion of national culture and nation-state has had important consequences for the position of intellectuals and theatre practitioners in current German society and politics. It is for this reason that Shakespeare’s plays can act as a testing ground or tertium comparationis, whose ‘interpretation on the ← 2 | 3 → stage […] gives an indication of the artist’s position within history and attitude towards the times’.6 This book’s aim, then, is to examine the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed, the effects they had on theatre practitioners and audiences, and the ways in which Shakespeare interacted with both politics and theatre in East Germany, during the period known as die Wende (1989–1990).

This book does not seek to offer a comprehensive stage history of Shakespeare in the German Democratic Republic. Instead, it examines Shakespeare productions at the moment in which East German society transitioned from one form of political organization to another. David Hughes refers to German reunification as ‘a unique point in German theatre history at which macro-economic, political, and social crises simultaneously converged’.7 Shakespeare productions act as a lens through which to focus an enquiry into some of these crises’ causes and effects in the theatre. In order to analyse Shakespeare’s impact on the Wende and the Wende’s impact on Shakespeare, we need to examine the conditions under which theatre was produced prior to 1989 and after 1990. The timeframe for case studies therefore stretches from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. Moreover, the focus is limited geographically to East Germany, since this was the area most affected by the Wende. Political and theatrical developments in West Germany will be considered only where these had a significant impact on the East.

Although this study focuses on a very specific period of history, it deals with questions of increasing relevance today, which are by no means limited to East Germany: why should theatre be publicly funded? What is theatre’s purpose in society? What is the point of constantly restaging ← 3 | 4 → and reinterpreting theatrical classics such as Shakespeare? Did theatre influence events in 1989–1990 or did it react to them and interpret them with the aesthetic means at its disposal? In other words: does theatre have a capacity for intervention, as well as for interpretation and reflection? Before attempting to answer any of these questions in detail, it is necessary to situate them within the context of previous scholarship in Shakespeare studies, German studies, and the competing historiographies of the Wende.

Why Shakespeare?

This book examines theatrical performance as a mode of articulating particular preoccupations of a society, or of a minority within that society. It is not primarily concerned with matters of translation, nor with new writing for the stage. Instead, it focuses on performance choices made by directors, actors, designers, and many others involved in a production, and the ways in which these interact with social preoccupations. In this context, Shakespeare’s plays, with their status as theatrical classics written four centuries prior to the events of the Wende, enable an important distinction between theatre content (text, plot, narrative) and form (performance, design). Since they do not constitute literary responses to political developments in twentieth-century Germany, Shakespeare’s works can offer a testing ground for focusing specifically on the potential and limitations of performance as a political practice.

It would of course be possible to conduct this investigation through German theatrical classics by authors such as Goethe and Schiller, whose works were also regularly performed during the period in question.8 ← 4 | 5 → However, neither of these authors offers the same kind of scope, numerically or generically, as Shakespeare. A corpus of thirty-eight extant plays, spanning a wide variety of genres, ensures that there will usually be at least one Shakespeare play in performance at every theatre in any given season, particularly since the German system of repertoire-based theatre favours reinterpretations of canonical works.

Another reason for choosing Shakespeare as a lens through which to examine theatre during a period of political change is the long tradition of reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet as an allegory of German politics and history. At least since the nineteenth century, German intellectuals have had a propensity to see themselves and their nation in the character Hamlet.9 ‘In Germany’, writes Michael Dobson, ‘Hamlet has been central to debates about the relations between intellectuals and the state’.10 This phenomenon forms part of a larger European tradition: ‘[n]o other translated play has had such a prominent role in the formation of national theatres and national identities in Europe, nor been used there so often to denounce political complacency and oppression’.11 Although at its height during the revolutionary upheaval of the nineteenth century, national identification with Hamlet survived well into the twentieth century. Jonathan Kalb particularly ← 5 | 6 → notes an ‘Eastern European tendency […] to use Hamlet as a symbol for the modern intellectual’s prevarications, hesitations, and rationalizations in the face of tyranny and terror’.12 Since the role played by intellectuals and artists during the Wende is one of the book’s key concerns, it is worth tracing the historical development of the ‘Germany is Hamlet’-trope, in order to show how its past applications have shaped the way in which scholars and theatre practitioners discuss and conceptualize East German Shakespeare.


XIV, 292
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
Shakespeare performance German reunification political theatre
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XIV, 292 pp., 23 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Emily Oliver (Author)

Emily Oliver is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Warwick. Her research focuses on Anglo–German cultural relations in the twentieth century. She is currently heading the research project «Broadcasting Nations: A History of the BBC German Service (1938–1999)».


Title: Shakespeare and German Reunification
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