‘Woeful taste’: German-language theatre in need of censorship

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The upper classes dismissed the German-language theatre as insufficiently genteel – the burlesque elements based partly on improvisation and the coarse jokes appealed mainly to less well-educated audiences.

Nevertheless, the conviction is not so common that obscene jokes and antic farces still have so many and such powerful adherents who prefer the convulsion of their lungs to the education of the nation and by stealthy means make all endeavours to smother the first burgeonings of good taste. […] Are there not more sections of the lower class of citizen which the state is obliged to provide with recreation after a day of arduous labour? Would it be a matter of indifference to send this part of the citizenry either to a mountebank’s show, where they must perforce listen with disgust to the follies of a buffoon and his bawdy sallies, or to provide a civilized entertainment where their minds may be cheered without their decency being put to the blush? The man of the middling class needs this to an even greater degree than the nobility, that the State should seek to provide him with decent entertainment.

Joseph von Sonnenfels (1732–1817) 1770 to Joseph II

Theatre censorship, which had hitherto been limited merely to improprieties against religion and state and gross violations of morality, was then extended to include nonsense, and at the same time it was stipulated that a censor was always to be present at performances who would have the power instantly to inflict a penalty in the case of any offences arising from extemporisations.

Theaterkalender von Wien für das Jahr 1772

Keen reformist critics such as Joseph von Sonnenfels complained about the ‘woeful taste’ of the Viennese. They criticized the fact that there was more ‘Hanswurst’ clowning on Viennese stages than in any other city of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. For this they squarely blamed the government, who saw the purpose of the theatres as being not in education but in ‘entertainment’. Or in ‘keeping the people from those private conventiculis or gatherings which frequently lead to dangerous notions’, as it was phrased in an official document dating from 1741.

In his fictive Briefe über die wienerische Schaubühne (Letters on the Viennese Stage) Sonnenfels urges the establishment of ‘purified theatre’ in the spirit of the Enlightenment, based on Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767–1769): a play should have a regular structure, a logical plot, proper, rational subject-matter and be written and performed in standard German. He particularly condemned extemporization and the improvised texts spoken in the ‘Hanswurst comedies’ which were coloured by vernacular forms of German and mocked those in authority.

Influenced by Church advisors in matters concerning the theatre, Maria Theresa placed fundamental strictures on the plays that were performed: religion and morality should not to be violated and Enlightenment ideas should not to result in atheism and free thought. She thus ordered the setting up of a committee on book censorship in 1749, and in 1770 a special office for theatre censorship.

The purification of the language was intended to serve the education of the nation, with drama epitomizing an ideal rather than holding up a satirical mirror to the present.

Julia Teresa Friehs