Simpson on Kelz, 'Competing Germanies: Nazi, Antifascist, and Jewish Theater in German Argentina, 1933-1965'
Robert Vincent Kelz. Competing Germanies: Nazi, Antifascist, and Jewish Theater in German Argentina, 1933-1965. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020. xiv + 355 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-3985-9.
Reviewed by Patricia Simpson (University of Nebraska, Lincoln) Published on H-TGS (November, 2020) Commissioned by Benjamin Bryce (University of Northern British Columbia)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55928
Staging German Argentina
In this impressive study, Robert Kelz portrays the cultural landscape and rivaling constituencies of German Argentina through the lens of theater performances. With careful consideration of the differences and alignments between “phenomenal” and “performative” identities, he also draws evidence from the lives of the those who comprise parts of this story: the actors, both in the professional and agentic sense. This significantly expanded study builds on Kelz’s 2010 dissertation, “Competing Germanies: The Freie Deutsche Bühne and the Deutsches Theater in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1938-1965” and the Spanish-language Paul Walter Jacob y las Músicas Prohibibidas durante el Nazismo (2013), co-authored with Silvia Glocer. Competing Germanies trains the focus on particular stages in Buenos Aires and beyond; in the process, it makes the politics of National Socialism and its antifascist opponents, alongside the allegiances to multiple versions of plural Germanies, legible in the German-speaking communities of the Southern Cone. Though the work is grounded in exile and migration studies, its scope and depth encompass a wider range of impacts; in particular, the inflections across live performances themselves and the interactions between individuals and institutions on two continents inscribe a history of the theater as a microcosm for the politics of identity formation in the twentieth century. In accessible and nuanced scholarly prose, Kelz presents the results of impeccable and extensive research, which he conducted in public archives and private collections in Argentina, Austria, and Germany. In addition, he interviewed actors and directors who shaped and were shaped by national, regional, and municipal politics and the reach of their performance on the global stage.
In composing this narrative history of German-language theater in Buenos Aires from the 1930s through the mid-1960s, Kelz expands on research into European immigration, theater and performance history, and pre- and postwar national politics in Argentina, always with an emphasis on the itineraries of actors and directors who left German-speaking Europe and arrived for a variety of reasons in the Argentine capital. The introduction sets the stage of “Argentina’s Competing German Theaters,” which themselves implement an array of strategies to support German-language actors and their crafts in exile. The repertoires and their selection further capture political positions within German Argentina. In the 1930s, nationalist politics found expression in the German Theater (Deutsches Theater), while antifascists committed to the Free German Stage (FGS, Freie Deutsche Bühne in German), founded by German-speaking Jewish refugees. As politics polarized, it would alienate Zionist supporters for the lack of political commitment. Integral to Kelz’s history, each German-language constituency garnered support from newspapers with shared political leanings. The media coverage of productions is part of the story. Foremost among the newspapers are the Deutsche La Plata Zeitung and the Argentinisches Tageblatt, whose rivalries were subsumed into the designation Pressekrieg. In addition, the exigencies of shifting allegiances in the European and South American political landscape left their traces on municipal theater in Buenos Aires. For example, when a military conspiracy brought General Pedro Pablo Ramírez to power in 1943, the FGS came close to disbanding. At roughly the same time, the German Theater flourished; among other advantages, its ensemble was permitted to perform in the National Theater (Teatro El Nacional). Commendable in its ability to specify and convey the moments of such change and heightened competition, this study indeed constitutes the “first inclusive, book-length examination of German theater in Argentina,” arguing that “the cultural production of all Germans abroad merits study” (p. 13). Competing Germanies effectively illuminates multiple connections between local stages and global politics.
The first two chapters, “German Buenos Aires Asunder” and “Theater on the Move: Routes to Buenos Aires,” lay out the historical context and biographical information of the two major figures and proponents of German-language theater, Ludwig Ney and Paul Walter Jacob. Kelz covers emigration patterns to Argentina, the relationships between emigrants and the host society, and the pressures exerted on any consensus about “German” identity across nationalist, antifascist, and Zionist enclaves that further reflect affiliations with religious and educational institutions; and, not least, with primarily print media, which sustained and often set the tone for internecine strife between different groups. The second chapter traces the different routes taken by Ney and Jacob; it further elaborates on divergent and convergent experiences that informed their productions. Ney, for example, advocated theater as a tool to craft cultural unity, supported by local nationalists, Strength through Joy, and German-speaking communities in the provinces he reached by taking performances on the road. Jacob had to flee Nazi Germany, and made conscious efforts to help refugee performers; for him, theater was a vehicle for intercultural inclusion, but it needed a successful business model and solvency to sustain that strategy. The need for comedies to sell tickets confounded expectations from Zionists, who expected the FGS to toe the line. Both Ney and Jacob drew on their theater work in Germany, which “taught them essential survival skills for professional success and personal perseverance as emigrant thespians” (p. 90).
The political tensions in Buenos Aires were manifest in specific productions. “Staging Dissidence: The Free German Stage,” the third chapter and first in a series of four substantive case studies of the repertoires and their respective receptions, looks behind the scenes at the politics of performing comedies, Argentine plays, the German classics, religious dramas, and also Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine (1941; translated as The Unvanquished), which triggered a confrontation locally, for example, between antifascists and Zionists; this was echoed in the press. During the mid-1940s, the FGS would suffer retribution from nationalist-leaning political sponsors in Buenos Aires. Kelz points out that FGS, though there is no definitive evidence of its explicitly being targeted, lost the ability to perform in the House of Theater. Seemingly distant politics did have an impact on theater life and survival in Buenos Aires. This chapter concludes with a remarkable analysis of Jacob’s production of Franz Werfel’s Jacobowsky and the Colonel (FGS premiere 1945), ostensibly a comedy about four characters trying and succeeding to escape Nazi-occupied France. Jacob played the lead, and Kelz deftly explores the poignant parallels between the protagonist, who gains passage on a British ship, and the exilic lives of the actor and his audience.
As the narrative argument unfolds, elaborate transatlantic networks alternately complicate and polarize the German Argentine German political allegiances and theater alignments. Kelz writes at the beginning of chapter 4, “Hyphenated Hitlerism: Transatlantic Nazism Confronts Cultural Hybridity,” “Nazi officialdom wasted little time conscripting dramatic performances into their efforts to foment enthusiasm for Hitler’s regime among Germans in Argentina” (p. 170). From a performance of Schiller’s Mary Stuart (1800) with Nazi aesthetics, perfect diction, and cohesive nationalist politics in 1934, to idealized agrarian settings, to consolidating comedies, to a fascist Faust, the stage forged intellectual alliances between National Socialism and the community of German nationalists in Buenos Aires. In “Enduring Competition: German Theater in Argentina, 1946-1965,” Kelz extends the attention to theater competition into the postwar era, examining the national politics of Argentina and the rise to power of Juan Domingo Perón, who encouraged immigration to Argentina from Germany. Between 1945 and 1953, the FGS attempted reconciliation through less-political interventions, in part to cope with the need for the theater to reach audiences beyond the German refugee communities in order to survive. While some overtures yielded modest results, others alienated past supporters. Kelz cites one example: the FGS advertised in the nationalist-leaning Freie Presse; this disrupted the bonds to the German Jewish community and destabilized the relationship to the Argentinisches Tageblatt. Ultimately, the confluence of insuperable challenges in Buenos Aires led to Jacobs’s remigration. After a series of guest performances in Germany, he parlayed his experience into a position in Dortmund. In 1952, Jacob eschewed his efforts to direct the FGS from abroad. Ludwig Ney’s theater took a hit in the mid-1940s when Argentina’s official politics with Nazi Germany became adversarial. Renamed the New Stage, Ney’s repertoire of comedies appealed to his postwar audiences, to whom the idea of German cultural heritage still appealed. Crucial performances of Shakespeare’s plays and canonical European dramas in large open-air venues brought intercultural moments to the audience of German-speakers in Argentina (1956-66). In the postwar era, West Germany sent its first ambassador to Argentina in 1951. Hermann Terdenge encouraged German Argentines to overcome their differences, and supported German-language theater, though no rapprochement ensued.
Kelz’s epilogue reprises the questions and provisional answers that serve as signposts to guide the nonlinear history of Germans in Argentina and the capacity of competing theaters to exert pressure on sociopolitical themes of inclusion, exclusion, belonging, and integration through cultural hegemony, multicultural identity, and dramatic theory and performance. His invocation of Freddie Roken’s concept of theatrical energies, “the emotional, cultural, and political forces generated and unleashed by live theatrical performances,” accrues great explanatory value in the context of this study (p. 308). Among the many strengths of this book, Competing Germanies features the importance of theater performance in its multifaceted role in the German-speaking transatlantic world of the twentieth century. Kelz elevates theater above a popular discourse about its value as entertainment versus edification. Ultimately, theater plays a central role in the construction of national and cultural identities beyond the hegemony of the nation-state and stage.
. See Georg Ismar, Der Pressekrieg: Argentinisches Tageblatt und Deutsche La Plata Zeitung, 1933-1945 (Berlin: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Berlin, 2006).
Citation: Patricia Simpson. Review of Kelz, Robert Vincent, Competing Germanies: Nazi, Antifascist, and Jewish Theater in German Argentina, 1933-1965. H-TGS, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55928This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.