Jewish Theater in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna

Von Warren Rosenzweig
Jüdisches Theater Austria

Erste Veröffentlichung dieses Artikels in “Between Monarchy and Civil Society – Theater and Architectural History in Austria” in Beyond Everydayness - Theater Architecture in Central Europe (2011. Prag, TACE).

By the early 19th century, Austria had already produced such anomalies of musical genius as Mozart, Schubert, and Josef Haydn, while the popular works of Grillparzer, Raimund, and Nestroy would secure lasting stature on the Germanic stage. But the brief, astonishingly creative epoch that was to establish Austria’s prominent position on the map of western culture occurred at the turn of the 20th century.

Politically, if not socially, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy (1867–1918) was also the golden age of tolerance for Jews in central Europe, following centuries of discrimination and periodic expulsion or banning from most professions. Attracted from all reaches of the monarchy, the Jewish population in Vienna grew at an unprecedented pace (1) and predominantly assimilated Jews rose to the summits of achievement in the arts, sciences, philosophy, and beyond. The list of major contributors to the fin-de-siècle phenomenon who were Jewish or of Jewish origin is staggering: Alfred Adler, Martin Buber, Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl, Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus, Gustav Mahler, Max Reinhardt, Arnold Schönberg, Arthur Schnitzler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Stefan Zweig, to name but a few.

While assimilation often combined with atheism or conversion, especially among the ambitious, cosmopolitan intellectuals of the day, this did not preclude a lasting sense of Jewish identity, so that even Freud, in his preface to the Hebrew edition of Totem and Taboo (2) would proclaim himself someone who “has never repudiated his people – who feels that he is Jewish in his essential nature and would not wish it otherwise. Were he asked: ‘Now that you have renounced all these common traits of your people, what remains Jewish about you?’ he would reply: ‘Indeed, a great deal – probably the very essence.’” (3) But Gentile participants in the industriously creative milieu also felt a close affinity for Jewish culture. In his autobiography, Oskar Kokoschka recounts how, upon giving testimony as a witness in court, he declared his occupation: “Painter, poet, and regular of the Yiddish theater.” (4)

Beyond the walls of the synagogue, the public expression of Jewish experience was perhaps most pronounced in Vienna’s relatively small, (5) yet highly active Jewish theater scene. By the 1920s, the centrally situated Leopoldstadt (6) – the second municipal district – had become a hub of Jewish life and culture that was reflected in dramas, musical theater, operettas, and cabaret in Yiddish and German. As Austrian theater historian Brigitte Dalinger explains, “All Jewish theaters and ensembles, regardless of the language they performed in, worked to promote a conscious Jewish identity. They sought to build bridges between assimilated West-European Jewry and Jewish refugees from the East who came to Vienna, especially during and after WWI, and between Jews and Gentiles, by bringing them closer to unfamiliar aspects of Jewish life through quality dramatic productions.” (7)

For three decades, the Jüdische Bühne (8) (1908–1938) played in Leopoldstadt, (9) making themes of Jewish experience and identity accessible to a broad audience while working at one point or another with nearly all resident or traveling Yiddish actors and directors. The Freie Jüdische Volksbühne (1919–1923), which opened the intimate Jüdische Kammerspiele at Untere Augartenstrasse 8 in 1920, also performed outside the second district at mainstream houses such as Theater in der Josefstadt, Wiener Stadttheater, Neue Wiener Bühne, and Stadttheater Baden. At Praterstrasse 60, the Jüdische Künstlerkabarett (1925–1928), later renamed Neues Jüdisches Theater (1928–1931), presented mainly revues, musical comedies, and operettas.

The Jüdisch-Politische Cabaret (1927–1938) created works in German that boldly confronted the social and political challenges of Jews in Austria. The dramaturgy of the Jüdische Kulturtheater (1935–1938), which regularly performed plays by the great Yiddish writers in German translation at its small space at Franz-Josefs-Kai 3 in the first district, likewise emphasized the problems of the day, antisemitism in particular, and served as a stage for immigrants where many of the Jewish actors who had been forced to flee Germany could find work. The story of these and many other comparatively short-lived theater initiatives was halted abruptly with Austria’s Anschluss to Nazi Germany.

Today, the last significant architectural remnant of this nearly forgotten aspect of Vienna’s cultural heritage can be found at the Nestroysäle in Oskar Marmorek’s Jugendstil (10) masterpiece, the Nestroyhof, where the daring and resourceful Jüdische Künstlerspiele (1927–1938) produced a broad repertoire of dramas, musical theater, operettas, and critical revues up to the end. (11) Besides the various noteworthy features of its design, the Nestroyhof is the only structure in Vienna where the original home of a Jewish theater, including much detail, remains extant. Unlike other sites where Jewish theater was performed, the Nestroyhof was erected specifically in the interest of fostering Jewish culture.*

Copyright © Warren Rosenzweig 2010

*For more information about the history of the Nestroyhof, the question of legal justice concerning its current ownership, and the heavy-handed response of the Vienna government′s Cultural Office (Kulturamt) towards the Jewish Theater of Austria in connection with its work for "cultural restitution," please visit www.nestroyhof.com.

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Fußnoten

1. From less than 10,000 in the 1850s to more than 175,000 by 1910. See Robert S. Wistrich, The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph, Oxford 1989, pp. 41–42.

2. Sigmund Freud, Totem und Tabu: Einige Übereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker [Totem and Taboo: Similarities between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics], Leipzig and Vienna 1913. Freud wrote the preface to the Hebrew edition in Vienna in December 1930 (in German).

3. Sigmund Freud. Werkausgabe in zwei Bänden [Complete Works in Two Volumes], Anna Freud and Ilsa Grubrich-Simitis (eds.), vol. 2, Frankfurt am Main 2006, p. 203. (All translations in this text are by the author.)

4. "Karl Kraus, Adolf Loos, and I often visited the Yiddish theater in the Leopoldstadt. ... They were unforgettable performances, distinguished by their originality and fantasy…" See Oskar Kokoschka, Mein Leben, Munich 1971, pp. 92–93.

5. Compared to its counterparts in Poland, Russia, Rumania, and other parts of Eastern Europe.

6. Leopold Town (trans.). Leopold I (b. 1640) reigned from 1658 until his death on 5th May 1705. In 1670, he expelled the Jews from his realm, including 4000 Jews who lived in the area in Vienna known as "Im Werd," which was then renamed "Leopoldstadt" as a thanksgiving. Ironically, the district named after the antisemitic Holy Roman Emperor would eventually become home to one of the largest Jewish communities in pre-WWII Western Europe.

7. Brigitte Dalinger, What was, what is the role of Jewish theater in Austria?, See homepage of the Jewish Theater of Austria, 2000.

8. Translations of the names of theaters and ensembles in the order in which they appear in the text: Jüdische Bühne (Jewish Stage), Freie Jüdische Volksbühne (Independent Jewish Folk Theater), Jüdische Kammerspiele (Jewish Chamber Theater), Theater in der Josefstadt (Josefstadt Theater), Wiener Stadttheater (Vienna Municipal Theater), Neue Wiener Bühne (New Viennese Stage), Stadttheater Baden (Baden Municipal Theater), Jüdische Künstlerkabarett (Jewish Artists’ Cabaret), Jüdisch-Politische Cabaret (Jewish Political Cabaret), Jüdische Kulturtheater (Jewish Culture Theater), Nestroysäle (Nestroy Halls), Nestroyhof (Nestroy Courtyard).

9. In the Stefaniesaal (Stephanie Hall) in Hotel Stefanie (Taborstrasse 12), the Rolandbühne (Roland Stage, Praterstrasse 25), and the performance hall of the Café Astoria (Praterstrasse 60). In the early decades of the century, each of these locations frequently hosted the productions, in Yiddish or German, of diverse Jewish theater companies.

10. An artistic style that was popular in German-speaking parts of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “Jugendstil,” meaning “youth style,” is the Germanic counterpart of the “Art Nouveau” movement in France.

11. See Brigitte Dalinger, Verloschene Sterne. Geschichte des jüdischen Theaters in Wien. [Extinguished Stars. The History of Jewish Theater in Vienna.], Vienna 1998, by far the most comprehensive and authoritative account of the history of Jewish theater in Vienna.
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