Oskar Wilde in Deutschland und Österreich: Untersuchungen zur Rezeption der Komödien und zur Theorie der Bühnenübersetzung. By Rainer Kohlmayer. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1996. Pp. xiii + 452. DM 174,-.
Whatever one thinks about Post-modernism as a global concept, it has taught us many lessons, one of which is that any given text has multiple meanings. This particularly applies to plays, where texts may have to be filtered through the minds of censors, producers and actors before they arrive on stage, and even more to non-indigenous plays that have to be translated in order to become scripts or printed books. All of which means that the semiotics of productions will vary and may end up differing widely from those of the original, printed version. In this extraordinarily lucid, sensitive, well-documented and sophisticated study, Dr Kohlmayer, using a range of humble archival sources that the text-oriented Germanist or stratospheric theorist so often disdains - play-bills, newspaper reviews, recordings, unpublished 'Bühnenmanuskripte' with their cuts and annotations etc. - charts the history of 'über 90 Übersetzungen und 200 Inszenierungen' from 1902 to 1992 of Wilde's four social comedies (1892-1895). He compares and contrasts the various translations, showing not only how they differ in quality but also how they capture or fail to capture the wit of the originals and how, in consequence, they beamed out subtly differing messages to their German audiences. He explains why some translations and productions succeeded while others conspicuously failed. He reconstructs the impact that the various productions had on their audiences. He theorizes why one play was popular at one juncture only to be superseded by another. He shows how, for all the differences between translations and productions, certain constants run through the reception of Wilde in Germany. He is remarkably sensitive both to the differing nuances of the various German versions and to the differences in style of the actors and actresses who immortalized the best-known roles. And he shows how a play like The Importance of Being Earnest could, during the Nazi years, be deprived of its social-critical edge and turned into the celebration of a 'heile Welt'. This remarkable book, which took the best part of a decade to research and write, finally arrives at the highly significant conclusion that German translations, adaptations and productions of Wilde's comedies tend to play down the anarchic individualism of his male and female dandies whose anti-authoritarianism, in the English original, presented such a threat to the puritan establishment. But interestingly, it was just this aspect of Wilde's work that made it so popular among the generation who would come to be known as the German Expressionists. His oeuvre (which appeared in a multi-volume German edition between 1906 and 1908) was read avidly by the members of the Berlin Neuer Club and one of the best-known expressionist poets, Ernst Stadler, almost certainly became a German Rhodes Scholar at Wilde's old Oxford College, Magdalen, in the mistaken belief that it was full of Wildean aesthetes and individualists, since a recently discovered group photograph from 1910 shows him standing in a defiantly Wildean pose with a floppily centre-parted hair-do among a crowd of otherwise muscular, clean-limbed, short-haired British hearties. This is the obverse of Wilde's more public reception in Germany which Dr Kohlmayer does not discuss. But that in no way detracts from what is, methodologically, a model example of inter-disciplinary theatrical history from which anyone interested in the field will gain a deal of inspiration.