Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 23. The German Theatre; New York

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXI. Non-English Writings I

§ 23. The German Theatre; New York

A concluding paragraph may well be devoted to the institution which in German-speaking communities upholds the standard of the spoken language—the theatre. The German drama has been performed in the original language continuously in New York City since 1853, though the beginnings go back as far as 1840 or earlier. When in 1866 Dawison, the greatest German actor of his day, came to the United States he received offers from two rival German theatres in New York. He accepted an extraordinarily liberal inducement from the manager of the Stadttheater, Otto Hoym, who for ten years was the leader in German theatrical ventures. Dawison’s great rôles were Wallenstein, Franz Moor, Othello, Shylock, and Hamlet, and the reputation that he established was not clouded by the successes of many subsequent visiting stars. After Hoym’s retirement Adolf Neuendorff, a man of high ideals, founded the Germania Theater, beginning in 1872. He imported a stock company of superior talent, including Heinrich Conried, Leon Wachsner, and Mathilde Cottrelly, all three destined to become prominent also as managers. Conried had a period of very great popularity in the rôles of Franz Moor, Mortimer, Just, Gringoire, and Dr. Klaus. In 1879–1880 the Thalia Theater was opened as a rival to the Germania, and for a number of years both theatres played to crowded houses, thanks to the high tide of German immigration in the early eighties. No expense was spared by the rivals in their efforts to offer superior attractions. Karl Sontag was the star of first magnitude at the Germania, Marie Geistinger at the Thalia. At this period the classical German drama, the comedy, the farce, the operetta were all performed with popular and artistic success. Then Neuendorff ventured too far. He left a theatre with a seating capacity of three thousand and leased Wallack’s on Broadway, then the largest and finest theatre available. He also entered into an expensive contract with the actor Haase, who proved a disappointment on this his second visit. Moreover, the popularity of Marie Geistinger stood in his way. Never before or after was there such a favourite in the German theatres. Her versatility was marvellous. She could fascinate with her singing in light operas, Der Seekadet or Die schöne Galatee, and on a succeeding night thrill an audience with her Kameliendama or some other tragic rôle. Neuendorff deplored the fact that she was too willing to yield to the popular taste for musical comedy, and that her great influence was leading New York audiences away from the classical drama. But the impending failure of Neuendorff was also in part his own fault, for he and the rival Thalia Theater had perverted the taste and increased the expectations of theatre-goers with an extravagant array of stars, speculating upon their curiosity and eagerness for the new and sensational. Both theatres were obliged to close their doors in spite of many striking successes. The next leader among theatrical managers was Gustav Amberg, who took over the Thalia, and subsequently in 1888 founded what was long the home of the German drama in New York, the Irving Place Theatre. Amberg started with a stock company of very indifferent merit. They could not play up to the stars (Gäste) whom he occasionally invited. Nevertheless, at the close of the season of 1887–1888 he presented a “Gastspiel” which has probably not been surpassed in the history of the German stage in America. It was the double-star cast of Barnay and Possart, when Barnay appeared in the rôles of Hamlet, Uriel Acosta, Karl Moor, Wallenstein, Tell, and Bolz, with Possart as Polonius, De Sylva, Franz Moor, Buttler, Gessler, and Schmock.

A step forward was made in the history of the German stage in New York when Heinrich Conried in 1893, on the invitation of Henry Steinway, assumed control of the Irving Place Theatre. Deeply impressed with the failures, both financial and artistic, which the starring system had produced, and an interested witness of the reforms which the Meininger company of players had brought about in Germany, Conried proceeded to build up a well-matched company of resident players, whose aim was not individual display of talent but an harmonious ensemble with the purpose of interpreting the genius of the dramatic poet. It was several seasons before he had a company that could play together well enough to satisfy him, and one large or versatile enough to vary classical drama with comedy and farce and even operetta in order to guard against annual deficits. A place had to be won also for the modern drama, which was obstructed not, as in the case of the classical drama, by the indifference but by the hostility of the general public. Conried’s theatre for many years remained an example and inspiration for all the German theatres of the United States, and its influence did not stop there. It was used by critics of the American stage as an object lesson for the propagation of certain reforms, particularly against the starring system. It is well-known that Conried’s success with the Irving Place Theatre brought him the appointment to the managership of the Metropolitan Opera, but this was not his greatest ambition. We learn from Winthrop Ames in his account of the New Theatre, that it was Conried’s great aim to help in the founding of a national American theatre, based upon the principle of the resident stock company, and that if he had lived he would have been logically its first manager. With the Metropolitan Opera on his hands, Conried was obliged to neglect his German theatre company, and as a result it declined steadily until he gave it up in 1907. There followed a meteoric rise under the management of Maurice Baumfeld, and then varying fortunes under different heads, but the Irving Place Theatre never regained its important position of influence.