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Anselm Heinrich: Entertainment, propaganda, education. Regional theatre in Germany and Britain between 1918 and 1945, Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press 2007, XVI + 271 S., ISBN 978-1-902806-75-4, EUR 29,95
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Rezension von:
Nadine Rossol
Centre for Historical Research, University of Limerick, Limerick
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Nadine Rossol: Rezension von: Anselm Heinrich: Entertainment, propaganda, education. Regional theatre in Germany and Britain between 1918 and 1945, Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press 2007, in: sehepunkte 9 (2009), Nr. 12 [15.12.2009], URL: http://www.sehepunkte.de
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Anselm Heinrich: Entertainment, propaganda, education

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The claim that British and German theatre differed substantially, with the first focusing on popular entertainment and the latter on cultural education, does not surprise. In fact, it fits to common perceptions on British and German national identity. Anselm Heinrich's study takes this premise, dominating research on theatre, as starting point. He outlines the organisational and structural differences between German and British theatre from 1918 to 1945. Despite these differences, however, Heinrich presents striking similarities relating to state interventions, repertoire, and popular taste in regional theatres of both countries. In so doing, he offers a nuanced approach to the topic challenging predominant research trends. Furthermore, Anselm Heinrich provides fascinating insight into the relationship between the state and the theatre. It becomes clear that the National Socialists were less successful in dominating the stages with Nazi plays, while the British state was keener on including the theatre in its war effort than often presumed.

Divided into four chapters, the first two of the study explore the history of the theatre in Yorkshire and Westphalia. Focusing on Yorkshire first, Anselm Heinrich examines the theatrical infrastructure of the region. British theatre remained privately owned and commercially run until the Second World War. However, occasional financial help by city councils was far from an exception in the early twentieth century. The Second World War in which the British government started to fund theatres and other cultural institutions constituted a revolutionary change in pervious policy. It boosted regional theatre. But state subsides went hand in hand with the demand to actively support the war effort leading, for example, to a stress on British plays and composers. Furthermore, the focus on the provinces by state organisations was not just aimed at keeping up morale during the Second Word War; it should also provide 'better' entertainment. As Heinrich shows, this educational aim, generally linked to German theatre, had its impact on Britain too.

Examining Westphalia for the same period, Anselm Heinrich illustrates that it took German city councils until the late nineteenth century to subsidise regional theatres. This contrasts the common image of the heavily funded German theatre. The National Socialist take-over in 1933 meant the replacement of theatre managers for most Westphalian playhouses. But it also becomes clear that the Nazi affiliation of the new men in charge needed to be accompanied with successful ticket sales. Rising attendance figures were crucial as they served as justification for the importance Nazi propaganda allocated to the theatre and for the sums the Third Reich spent on it. Cultural conservative repertoires, occasionally linked to Nazi festivals, and entertaining comedies dominated the stages and kept audiences happy. In fact, Anselm Heinrich shows how the National Socialists, when refraining from a concentration on völkisch plays, received credits for spending more money on the theatre than previous administrations had done.

Chapters three and four focus on the theatre repertoires in Yorkshire and Westphalia. While Yorkshire playhouses were for a long time dominated by comedies and light entertainment, this changed with the increased state intervention during the Second World War. Interestingly, pieces that would have been considered too high brow before the war were produced after 1939. The revival of British classics - above all Shakespearean plays - was part of forging a British identity. The outbreak of the Second World War, as Anselm Heinrich illustrates, moved the repertoire of regional theatres in Yorkshire closer to the educational and cultural notions linked to the role of the theatre in Germany.

For Westphalia, Heinrich's analysis of the repertoires exemplifies the cultural conservatism that prevailed in regional theatres throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Left-wing avant-garde plays were largely absent and right-wing völkisch pieces were performed well before 1933. Furthermore, Anselm Heinrich finds a high number of light comedies contrasting the claim of the great seriousness of German theatre. After 1933 the Nazis failed to reshape the repertoires of regional theatres with their own völkisch plays. Nevertheless, the National Socialists strongly influenced theatrical policy by excluding Jewish directors, actors, playwrights and composers. Similarly to theatres in Yorkshire, Westphalian theatre relied on comedies and the classics in the Second World War.

Having convincingly illustrated the similarities between regional theatres in Germany and Britain, Anselm Heinrich seems to undersell the importance of his findings for other areas. The structure of the study, in which the British and the German examples alternate and readers are repeatedly reminded of the main focus, occasionally limits its scope when the findings presented offer much more. This certainly creates a concisely argued book but sometimes unnecessarily diminishes the framework of Heinrich's meticulously researched study. Difficulties of altering popular taste, the success of Nazi policy in excluding Jewish actors and playwrights, the regional identification created in both areas through theatre as well as the importance of theatre as expression of national identity in times of war are areas worth foregrounding more forcefully. The very informative references, going far beyond only indicating secondary literature and primary sources, show the depth of Heinrich's knowledge on this topic.

Anselm Heinrich's study illustrates the benefits of a comparative approach and opens up new research fields relating to the development of regional theatre in Germany and Britain. Furthermore, he demonstrates the importance of the provinces for Kulturpolitik and identity formation. For Germany, works on 'Weimar culture' still mainly focus on the urban centres examining avant-garde theatre, left-wing journalism or expressionist films. The cultural conservative repertoire, lightened up by comedies, Heinrich has outlined for Westphalian theatres challenges the conventional image of Weimar modernity. [1] Read carefully Anselm Heinrich's book offers more than a close analysis of regional theatre in Britain and in Germany from 1918 to 1945. He looks at important issues of theatrical repertoires in the provinces, state intervention in cultural activities and popular taste. Challenging conventional assumptions in theses areas, his book provides an exciting and original read for those interested in the relationship between culture and politics.


Note:

[1] Similarly challenging this image Karl Christian Führer: German cultural life and the crisis of national identity during the depression 1929-1933, German Studies Review 24 (2001), 461-486; and Karl Christian Führer: High brow and low brow culture, in: Anthony McElligott (ed.): Weimar Germany, Oxford 2009, 260-281.

Nadine Rossol