Theatre and Film, Johnny Carson School of


Date of this Version

Fall 1999


Published in ON-STAGE STUDIES 22 (Fall 1999), pp. 39-51. Published by the Department of Theatre and Dance, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO.


The formation of the German Reich in 1871 was an occasion of unprecedented economic growth, accompanied by an equally conspicuous increase of both theatre construction and audience growth. One important aesthetic result, to paraphrase Hélène Cixous by way of Jacques Lacan, was "re-locating and un-making" the comic self in an alternative space of the Wilhelminian “Imaginary.” The victorious conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the collection of billions in war reparations from the vanquished French allowed the German economy between 1871 and 1890 to surpass that of France and soon thereafter that of Great Britain. The erstwhile Prussian capital of Berlin became the new Imperial capital and undertook an ambitious program of urban renewal, patterned in many ways after the one in Paris during the Second Empire. The literal re-locating of space involved the demolition of whole neighborhoods to make way for new construction. Boulevards were widened at the expense of street-side shops and businesses, while many new “upscale" housing structures appeared where formerly tenements had stood.

The inhabitants of these new, improved housing structures became members of a theatre audience that wanted a positive image of itself reflected onstage; as individuals, they were concomitantly conscious of their status as citizens of the newly unified German Reich. It was a "middlebrow" audience, made up of business managers, real estate brokers, and professionals such as lawyers, accountants, bankers, and entrepreneurs—in other words, the audience which experienced the most significant jump in prosperity during the Gründerjahre, or "foundation years" of the new Reich. The German word for this audience is das Bürgertum, theatre-goers unattuned to, even disdainfuI of, "aristocratic" tastes; neither did they prefer intellectual subject matter. They also rejected previously popular "folk comedies" as beneath their newly won station in German life. Theatrical entrepreneurs sought new kinds of theatrical fare to please them.

The most significant of those entrepreneurs was Theodor Lebrun (1822-1895), who created an alternative space in German comedy, a space which survived not only the collapse of the Second Reich but expanded well into the two succeeding governmental regimes in Germany (the Weimar Republic from 1918 to 1933, and the Third Reich from 1933 to 1945): The implications of Lebrun's work and the space he created became more apparent long after his passing from the German theatrical scene, as the Wilhelmine era and its successors came to inglorious ends. Yet Lebrun's impact on theatre practice in his own day and on the German theatre of succeeding generations was substantial. Since his death in 1895, the tides of war and the confluence of political forces have reduced him to a cipher in the annals of theatre history. This essay surveys and evaluates for the first time in English or German the contributions of Lebrun, which were more than simply instances of long-forgotten theatre practice. They indeed constituted an artistic force of widespread, though to date neglected, influence and vitality Lebrun's "alternative space" was the industrial comedy, a species of drama fit for an industrial age. The boulevard theatres of Paris in the Second Empire had been the mills where such comedies were first constructed; Lebrun’s Berlin of the second Reich became the forge on which they were stamped out with German precision and regularity. German industrial comedies resembled Scribe's plays to an extent, but Scribe’s works played for audiences comprised mostly of aristocrats; their plots tended to sustain dramatic tension throughout the play. They did not, as did the industrial comedy, depend upon tension created within individual situations, situations which render the central character psychologically immobile. His rigidity enhances the comic effect: "always the same doors open, and through them come ever more surprises and comic misfortunes'' (Wilms 100). This central character in the industrial comedy almost always portrayed a happy, prosperous bourgeois whom superficial dilemmas cumulatively perplexed and humorously confounded.