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The heat of Tennessee Williams' American South on Viennese stages: The critical reception of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire

Cornelia Kubinger

The diploma thesis will focus on Tennessee Williams' plays The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, which both constitute literary milestones in American drama. Employing performance criticism, I will investigate the public response to and critical reception of the dramatic productions of these two plays on Viennese stages and compare them to critical reactions in New York.

With The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams celebrated his first major success in 1945. Translated and directed by Berthold Viertel, the play saw its Austrian premiere in the Akademietheater on 22 January 1949, starring Helene Thimig, Käthe Gold, Curd Jürgens and Josef Meinrad. The performance, which was very conscious of the American setting, with its typical Southern atmosphere, proved a success with both the critics and the public, and served as a model of comparison for subsequent stagings. How can the positive appeal of an American family tragedy to the Viennese audience be explained, at a time when Austria was shattered by war experiences and economic hardships? Was it just the euphoria with which everything "American" was embraced as a sign of hope and re-orientation, or could the people in the "Old World" identify with certain (universal) aspects of the play? After all, the play's dismal setting in the aftermath of the Great Depression might bear resemblance to the Austrian post-war scenery.

It is striking that the popularity of the play has endured up to now, which is proved by the numerous revivals on the Viennese stages. How did the various reinterpretations of the play deviate from each other? Can a profile of changing cultural attitudes be traced among the Austrians?

In his masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams introduces us to Blanche Du Bois, the daughter of an old aristocratic plantation owner, and Stanley Kowalski, a traveling salesman of Polish origin, who represents the new American South. As such, the play can be understood as an allegory that pictures the social change in the American South, with power passing from an aristocratic hegemony to a new stratum of aspiring lower-class immigrants resolved to live the American Dream.

Four years after the play made its renowned debut on the Broadway, it premiered in the Akademietheater on 20 April 1951. Unlike the American audience, the Austrian theatre-aficionados only praised Berthold Viertel's production and the actors, but not the play itself. The content was rejected as too pathological and morbid, since "there are things happening that are - despite all aesthetic and moral freedom - not acceptable on stage. To be honest, they are offensive and shocking." (Die Presse, 1951, my translation) How can such a negative response to a play that was greeted with acclamation and cheers overseas be explained?

In the USA, black, multi-racial and cross-gendered productions challenged and revolutionized the original script from the 1950s onwards, which demonstrates that there is a universal aspect inherent in the play. Interestingly, Viennese theaters have stuck to the traditional staging, which aimed at a verbatim realization of the script. Why is it not (yet) possible in this country, to dare equally experimental stagings of the play? Does the Viennese attitude toward the play, namely that it portrays an isolated case in America which lacks any universality, link up with this fact? Or is Vienna, with its rather conservative theater-tradition, simply lagging behind the theatrical currents that surface on the American stages? And why were such different receptions accorded to Williams' two best-known plays in Vienna?

As translation always involves a process of transformation, I will also examine how typical American concepts were translated in the German scripts that were used for the Viennese stages. Were Americanisms paraphrased to fit an Austrian (cultural) context or was a certain knowledge of American society/history/lifestyle presupposed by the various directors in Vienna?

Furthermore, I will compare the various Viennese performances diachronically, examining if and how the attitudes of the Austrians towards these (American) plays have changed over time and how political, economic and intercultural relations between the two countries shaped theater-culture and the perception of it.


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