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Austro-American Cultural Transfer in the Period after World War II

Dieter Fuchs

The project outlined in this sketch seeks to investigate the role of popular drama as a medium of the American post-war re-educational programme. It focuses on the Theater in der Josefstadt which is to be found in Vienna's former US-sector and was managed by Max Reinhardt before World War, II. In the years after 1945 an increasing number of plays performed at the Josefstadt presented the American way of life as a prototype of an Austrian post-war identity. As a means of anti-fascist and anti-bolshewist propaganda, successful stage productions from Broadway or theatrical adaptations of award-winning Hollywood movies were translated into German. This cultural transfer can be subdivided into two different dramatic traditions.

Melodrama: Being a part of mass culture, this kind of theatre produces monological or single-voiced discourse. Due to its explicit didacticism, it runs the danger of being preachy and essentialist. Major representatives of this current are authors whose artistic skills did not fully match their intention to propagate what they claimed to be the best of American culture. Jean Dalrymple, for instance, an influential New York Broadway producer, who was married to an American general and war buddy of Dwight D. Eisenhower, not only worked for the re-educational programme in post-war Berlin but also contributed to the theatrical repertoire of the Josefstadt in this way. As another example Goodrich and Hackett may be mentioned, whose dramatization of Anne Frank's Diary was performed at the Josefstadt in 1957. Since the text provided for the Viennese stage was translated from an American play which was based upon the English translation of the Dutch diary by Anne Frank, it has to be asked whether this kind of cultural transfer 'improved', 'distorted' or even 'trivialized' the unique quality of the original text.

Sophisticated Comedy: As a non-essentialist part of popular culture this form of drama negotiates knowledge and power in a dialogical rather than monological way. By presenting a normative framework tongue-in-cheek, it instructs by the subtle and more effective means of satirical and ironic indirection. It is important to take into account that many plays belonging to this type of drama have a continental European rather than Anglo-American background. Quite often, an Austro-Hungarian or German pedigree can be reconstructed. Instead of sailing in a one-way direction from the USA to central Europe, these plays travelled from Vienna, Budapest and Berlin to New York and Hollywood before the war, only to return to their places of origin after the fall of fascism. As can be seen from the following examples, this twofold cultural transfer turns out to be a challenging field of investigation. In 1951, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, a Hollywood comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch, was adapted for the stage and performed at the Josefstadt. In 1954, Ninotchka, another Lubitsch production (starring Greta Garbo as a communist spy 're-educated' by an American capitalist in Paris), was turned into a drama to be played at the same theatre.

With the works of Lubitsch, who is a famous Berlin disciple of Reinhardt, the pre-war tradition of the theatre's former impressario returns to the Josefstadt. The Oscar-nominated script for Lubitsch's Ninotchka was written by the cosmopolitan Hungarian and cultural go-between Melchior Lengyel who worked with Lubitsch, Reinhardt and Eugene O'Neill on both sides of the Atlantic and deserves to be looked at as a cultural travel agent in his own right. He not only wrote drama and film scripts in the United States but also worked as a German translator of American texts, one of which was performed at the Josefstadt in 1958: Das Stille Haus, an adaptation of a novel by Jean Dalrymple1. Another example of Lengyel's and Lubitsch's dramatic cooperation is the rewriting of Shakespeare's Hamlet as a political satire on Hitler: To Be or Not to Be (1942). Apparently, this topic was considered to be politically too delicate and not put on stage in post-war Austria until 2003.2

An investigation into the two types of American popular drama mentioned above, allows us to reconstruct different currents of cultural exchange and transatlantic power relations. Whereas the 'monological' group of plays is deeply 'American' in spirit but often deficient in its artistic qualities, the 'dialogical' one propagates US-culture from an aesthetically more convincing and sophisticated point of view. In contrast to the former tradition, which defines 'Americanness' as WASP conservatism, the latter one classifies US-identity in terms of a multi-cultural melting-pot. Written by eastern and central European free-thinkers driven into exile, this type of drama affirms American culture as a dialogical act of ironic subversion. The question whether such cultural hybridity was consciously activated as a discursive strategy to provide identificatory potential and integrate post-war central Europe into the western hemisphere or mistaken as the uncanny transatlantic 'other' remains yet to be discovered.

1 As Dalrymple was identified as a 'monological' author, the rewriting of her text by Lengyel, a cultural mediator and representative of the 'dialogical' tradition, is of special interest.

2 Jürgen Hofmann, Noch ist Polen nicht verloren. Schauspiel nach Melchior Lengyel. Premiere 27.02.2003. Coproduktion von Stadttheater Klagenfurt und Metropoltheater Wien.

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