Theatre and Film, Johnny Carson School of


Date of this Version

Spring 2001


Published in Metamorphoses: A Journal of Literary Translation, vol. 9, no.1 (Spring 2001), pp. 179-196.


The two most frequently performed non-German comic playwrights on German-language stages from 1933 to 1944 were Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), whose plays served the purposes of cultural transmission both by the theatre establishment and the political regime in power at the time. Goethe had seen Goldoni productions in Venice during his "Italian Journeys" between 1786 and 1788, and he reported that never in his life had he heard such "laughter and bellowing at a theatre." It remains unclear whether he meant laughing and bellowing on the part of audiences or the actors, but since his other remarks on the experience were fairly charitable, Goldoni's status rose accordingly. Goethe himself enjoyed the exalted status of cultural arbiter with unimpeachable judgement, so Goldoni remained a solid fixture in German theatre repertoires throughout the Third Reich. Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, had been an emblem of urbane sophistication and aphoristic refinement in Germany since the premieres of his plays in the 1890s. His plays enjoyed almost cult status among sophisticated elites in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, especially Bunbury, the German title for The Importance of Being Earnest. Productions of that play outnumbered all others in the Wildean œuvre from 1919 to 1933--but after 1933, Bunbury's status changed considerably, reflecting the changes within German theatre as a whole.

The change in the German theatre was predicated on establishing a new set of aesthetics standards, based on a "triumph of the will" over reason, applicable to all matters cultural in German public life. The subsequent amplification, or at least exaggeration, of "the will" to a standard of aesthetic judgement among National Socialists has been a subject of excessive concern in the twentieth century, and one may discern expressions of this particular Nazi cultural doctrine in selected Goldoni and Wilde productions. They are the ones discussed in this essay, productions which would today qualify as somewhat bizarre yet "diverse" manifestations of cultural transmission.