Nearly every German city had a theater, for man, harassed by fact during the day, relaxes into imagination in the evening. Some cities—Mannheim, Hamburg, Mainz, Frankfurt, Weimar, Bonn, Leipzig, Berlin—had resident theatrical companies; others relied on traveling troupes, and improvised a stage for an occasional visit. The Mannheim theater had the best reputation for performers and performances, Berlin for receipts and salaries, Weimar for classic theatrical art.
Weimar in 1789 had a population of 6,200, much of it engaged in taking care of the government and its aristocratic entourage. For a time the townspeople supported a company of players, but by 1790 this had died of malnutrition. Duke Charles Augustus took over the enterprise, made the theater part of the court, persuaded Councilor Goethe to undertake the management, and the courtiers to play all but the leading roles; for this they brought in a leading man or woman from the surrounding empyrean of floating “stars.” So the great Iffland came to Weimar, and the proud Korona Schröter (1751–1802), whose voice and form and glancing eyes nearly detached Goethe from Charlotte von Stein. The poet-statesman-philosopher himself was no mean actor, now as playing the tragic Orestes to Mlle. Schröter’s Iphigenia, and then surprisingly successful as a comic, even in farcical roles.29 He trained the actors to a Gallic style of speech, almost to declamation; it had the fault of monotony, but the virtue of clarity. The Duke strongly supported this policy, and threatened to reprove on the spot, from the ducal box, any fault of articulation.
The Weimar theater undertook an ambitious repertoire, ranging from Sophocles and Terence to Shakespeare, Calderón, Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire, even to the contemporary dramas of Friedrich and August Wilhelm von Schlegel, and reaching a proud triumph with Schiller’s Wallenstein (1798). Schiller came from Jena to live in Weimar, and, at Goethe’s urging, became a member of the company’s managing body. Now (1800) the little theater made Weimar the goal of thousands of drama-loving Germans. After Schiller’s death (1805) Goethe lost interest in the theater; and when the Duke, urged on by his current mistress, insisted on the company presenting a dramatic interlude with a dog as star, Goethe resigned his managerial post, and the Weimar theater disappeared from history.
Two actors dominated the German stage in this age. August Wilhelm Iffland (1759–1814) paralleled the triumphs of Talma, and Ludwig Devrient (1784–1832) repeated the career and tragedy of Edmund Kean. Born in Hanover, Iffland at eighteen, over parental prohibition, left home to join a theatrical company at Gotha. Only two years later he starred at Mannheim in Schiller’s Die Räuber. This radical period yielded to prosperity, and to sympathy with the French émigrés; soon he became an idol of conservatives. After an arduous career that covered most of Germany, he accepted Goethe’s invitation to Weimar (1796), and pleased his courtly audience with middle-class comedies; but he did not do well with such tragic roles as Wallenstein or Lear. He composed several plays, whose humor and sentiment won popular applause. In 1798 he reached the goal of his ambition—he was made manager of the National Theater in Berlin.
Shortly before his death he engaged an actor, Ludwig Devrient, who brought to the German stage all the sentiment and tragedy of the Romantic period. His French surname was part of his Huguenot heritage. He was the last of the three sons begotten by a Berlin draper in two marriages. His mother died in his infancy, leaving him miserable in a crowded home. He withdrew into a somber loneliness, consoled only by his handsome face and raven hair. He ran away from home and school, but was caught and returned to his father. Every attempt was made to make him a draper, but Ludwig proved so exasperatingly incompetent that he was released to follow his own bent. In 1804, aged twenty, he fell in with a theatrical troupe at Leipzig, and was given some minor part, from which he was suddenly propelled into a major role by the sickness of the “star.” Finding the role of a drunken tramp congenial to his taste, he did so well that he seemed perpetually condemned to the career of a traveling actor loving drink on and off the boards. At last, in Breslau in 1809, he found himself, not in Falstaff but in the Karl Moor of Schiller’s radical play. Into this part he poured all that he had learned of human evil, oppression, and hate; he let the robber chieftain take possession of him and find outlet in every movement of the body, in the mobile variety of facial expression, and the glare of angry eyes; Breslau had never seen anything so vivid or powerful; only Edmund Kean, in that age of great actors, could reach such heights and depths of histrionic art. All the tragic roles were now Devrient’s for the asking. He played Lear with such total surrender to that fragile mixture of wisdom and madness that, one night, he collapsed in midplay, and had to be taken home, or to his favorite tavern.
In 1814 Iffland, aged fifty-five, came to Breslau, acted with Devrient, felt his force and skill, and asked him to join the National Theater. “The only place that is worthy of you is Berlin. That place—I feel it too well—will soon be vacant. It is reserved for you.”30In September Iffland died; in the following spring Devrient took his place. There he played himself out, living on fame and wine, spending happy hours exchanging tales with E. T. A. Hoffmann at a tavern near the theater. In 1828, victim of his renown, he accepted a challenge to play in Vienna. He returned to Berlin a nervous ruin. He died on December 30, 1832, aged forty-eight. Three gifted nephews, all bearing his name, carried on his art to the end of the century.