Durieux, Tilla (1880–1971)

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Durieux, Tilla (1880–1971)

Grand dame of the German stage who introduced the works of George Bernard Shaw to Germany, was regarded as the best exponent of the femmes fatales found in the plays of the Expressionists, and fought as a partisan in Yugoslavia during World War II. Born Ottilie Godeffroy on August 18, 1880, in Vienna, Austria, into a family of Croatian and French ancestry; died in West Berlin on February 21, 1971; daughter of a professor at Vienna's Museum of Technology and Crafts; married Eugen Spiro (a painter), in 1904 (divorced 1906); married Paul Cassirer (1871–1926, an art dealer and publisher), in 1906 (divorced 1926); married Ludwig Katzenellenbogen, in 1930 (killed 1944).

Began to study acting (1899); made her stage debut (1901); quickly became a star of the Berlin stage; was labeled an enemy of traditional German values and therefore of the Nazis who claimed to champion conservative ideals; with third husband Katzenellenbogen, fled Germany (1933) but Nazis killed him (1944); survived in Yugoslavia, joining the partisan forces; returned to Germany (1952); despite age, resumed her acting career to great acclaim, reigning as the leading actress of the German stage to the end of her long and extraordinary life.

Tilla Durieux was born into a comfortable bourgeois family on August 18, 1880, in Vienna, the heart of the vast multinational Habsburg empire. Her background was typical of many citizens of the city. Of mixed French and Croatian-Hungarian ancestry, Durieux's heritage reflected the nature of the polyglot empire with its cultural goulash of German, Slavic, Jewish, and Magyar ingredients. Her father, a professor at Vienna's Museum of Technology and Crafts, was a remote figure who died of cancer in 1895, leaving the family in difficult financial straits. Musically gifted, Durieux planned for a career as a concert pianist, but a single event changed the course of her life forever. In 1895, Sarah Bernhardt made a guest appearance in Vienna, and young Tilla decided that she, too, would be an acclaimed actress.

The aspiring actress chose the maiden name of her paternal grandmother, becoming Tilla Durieux. Despite the precarious state of the family finances, she enrolled in the theater school of Karl Arnau, a noted actor of the day, where she studied both acting and singing. By October 1899, Durieux was considered to be sufficiently prepared to appear in a one-act musical "genre picture," Kurmärker und Picarde, by the now-forgotten Louis Schneider. The young actress, who depended more on talent than on beauty, was chosen to appear in virtually all of the plays presented by the Arnau school. When she made her last appearance in May 1901, her future seemed secure.

Tilla Durieux made her professional stage debut on September 26, 1901, at the Royal Municipal Theater in Olmütz, Austrian Moravia (present-day Olomouc, Czech Republic). She played the minor role of a Tyrolian youth in Karl Zeller's naïvely charming operetta Der Vogel-händler. Despite a tiny salary and the fierce intrigues of theater life, the 21-year-old was full of energy and enthusiasm. In the summer of 1902, she performed at two theaters in Stuttgart, one at a spa in the suburbs of the Swabian capital. The next season, Durieux appeared in Breslau, German Silesia (present-day Wroclaw, Poland), where she performed in three different theaters. For the first time, she played a number of significant roles in classic plays by Shakespeare (Richard III), Lessing (Emilia Galotti), Goethe (Goetz von Berlichingen), and Schiller (Die Piccolomini). Durieux also performed in plays by contemporary authors including Gerhart Hauptmann (Der arme Heinrich), Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Hochzeit der Sobeide) and Maxim Gorki (Nachtasyl).

By 1903, Tilla Durieux's talent was well established in theatrical circles in major German cities. Max Reinhardt, the powerful Berlin theater director, had recognized her remarkable personality and magnetic stage presence. Durieux's debut as Oscar Wilde's Salomé (Salome III ) at

Berlin's Deutsches Theater on September 8 was nothing short of sensational. Her passionate portrayal of Salomé was the talk of the town. Leading critic Alfred Kerr described her as "a doe who has swallowed paprika." Compared with Gertrud Eysoldt , a leading lady of the German stage, Durieux's presence, energy, and clear diction were universally praised. Critics raved about her powerful and original portrayals of the female protagonists in Kleist's Kätchen von Heilbronn, Hebbel's Judith, and also his Gyges und sein Ring, as well as Schiller's Don Carlos. Writing in Die Schaubühne, the influential critic Siegfried Jacobsohn praised Durieux's unique ability to portray "a mixture of serpentine spirit, of coqueterie, of erotic heat and passion, of authentic mendacity and jealousy, all without forgetting to reproduce the true tonalities and teeming emotions of the original verse."

The move to Berlin brought about significant changes in Durieux's personal life. In 1904, she married the painter Eugen Spiro, a union that lasted only two years. Not long after divorcing her first husband, she married the art dealer and publisher Paul Cassirer (1871–1926). Now Durieux lived in a sumptuous villa in Berlin's most prestigious residential area whose walls were hung with superb paintings by Cézanne and van Gogh. She presided over a salon that included some of Europe's most brilliant and creative men and women. An independent superstar able to choose virtually any role she wanted, she ended her relationship with Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater in 1910.

At barely 30 years of age, she could chart her own future. Years later in her memoirs, she reflected on what had happened to her almost overnight: "How was it that I, the little daughter of a professor who was supposed to become a piano teacher, found myself surrounded by all these beautiful things? It must have been a dream, one that I would suddenly one day find myself awakened from." Tilla Durieux moved from success to success. The poet and playwright Max Dauthendey wrote the role of Empress Catherine II the Great for her in his Spielereien einer Kaiserin, a play that opened to enthusiastic reviews in 1911. In this piece, she portrayed an energetic and ruthless Empress Catherine who rose from barracks whore to tsarina. Durieux had a unique ability to portray women with boundless willpower and surging, unbridled erotic energy. She became a symbol of the cultural and intellectual freedom in Berlin, challenging traditional concepts of the feminine role.

Her artistic connections during this period were important as well. Durieux and Cassirer entertained not only the artistic radicals of the day but the political nonconformists as well at their palatial home. She and her husband were indefatigable advocates of a new aesthetic vision, popularizing the works of the French impressionists and German modernists. Cassirer supported the Berlin Secession movement of avant-garde painters and sculptors, founding a publishing firm that issued not only books but a superbly produced art journal, Pan. His determination to overturn stuffy traditionalism in painting and sculpture was reinforced by Durieux who worked to accomplish the same goal on stage. Many of Europe's greatest artists asked Tilla to pose for them, including Renoir, Liebermann, Slevogt, Kokoschka, and Corinth. Auguste Renoir's portrait of Durieux in her Eliza Doolittle costume, entitled "Unknown Woman" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), prompted Tilla many years later to comment, "It is called 'Unknown Woman', but it is I."

Inevitably, Durieux was drawn into the artistic and political conflicts that convulsed Berlin on the eve of World War I. Two successive issues of Pan printed the first German translation of erotic passages from Gustave Flaubert's Egyptian diary. Both issues were declared obscene and banned by Berlin's police chief, Traugott von Jagow. During this time, von Jagow and the municipal censor visited a play rehearsal at a municipal theater where he met Durieux. Enchanted by the actress, the conservative police chief sent her a note suggesting a private meeting that weekend. Tilla's husband promptly challenged the police chief to a duel, declaring that "as an ancient Hebrew I believe in an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Von Jagow backed off from the challenge, sending a guards captain in dress uniform to Cassirer's office to proffer his apologies, which were accepted. The incident unleashed an avalanche of articles from the liberal press which condemned the hypocrisy of self-declared upholders of traditional morality like von Jagow who confiscated issues of Pan while at the same time seeking to initiate erotic relationships with desirable women like Durieux.

From 1911 to 1914, Durieux was the star attraction at Berlin's Lessing Theater, rarely disappointing audiences who expected an evening of powerfully projected acting. Her wardrobe was copied by the public who considered her to be the "most elegant lady" in Berlin's theatrical world. Her sharply etched portraits of complex modern women such as Ibsen's Hedda Gabler enhanced her reputation. She introduced the role of Eliza Doolittle in the German premiere of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion in 1913. The critic for the influential Berliner Tageblatt praised her for using a jargon "created in a masterly fashion from the various provinces of Austria and Germany, to provide for herself a dialect uniquely her own." The coming of war in August 1914 destroyed the stable order of European society, and Tilla quickly threw herself into humanitarian activities, working as a nurse. Politically, she and her husband found themselves strongly opposed to the regime of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the industrialist-landowning elite that had recklessly steered Germany into the cataclysm; one of Tilla's closest friends during these years, and one with whose ideas she sympathized with, was the brilliant Marxist theorist and antiwar activist, Rosa Luxemburg .

After World War I, Durieux became a champion of the innovative playwright Frank Wedekind, whose bold explorations of sexuality shocked conservative circles. Her portrayal of Countess Weidenfels in Der Marquis von Keith in 1920 received near-universal praise. Never conventionally beautiful and now no longer young, she dominated the Berlin stage through her extraordinary talent and the sheer force of her multifaceted personality. Despite the fact that she did not act in English, she appeared in New York in a German-language version of Dario Nicodemi's mediocre play The Shadow in 1923. The New York Times critic conceded that while the play was weak, the evening was a stimulating one because it contained "long scenes in which Mme. Durieux made it seem real, alive, important, a triumph of dramaturgy." When she returned the next year to appear in Victorien Sardou's Fedora, the same paper heaped more praise on the German actress' performance, describing it as "artistically beautiful throughout."

These professional triumphs were clouded by personal tragedy, however. Her husband, who had never been in good health, endured severe bouts of intense, disabling pain in the early 1920s. By late 1925, he learned he was suffering from cancer and had only months to live. Durieux, emotionally unable to witness Cassirer's physical and psychological decline at close hand, divorced him. Shattered by her abandonment, he committed suicide in 1926. For the rest of her life, Durieux regretted her decision to leave her ailing husband. Cassirer's suicide threw her into a period of despondency and guilt. One

of her close friends, the artist Käthe Kollwitz , encouraged her to begin a new life with different activities. Durieux began taking English lessons from one of Kollwitz's American friends, the writer and political radical, Agnes Smedley . In her memoirs, Durieux described Smedley wearing "a simple dress, [with] wild blondish hair and a pair of enormous blue-gray eyes."

Within a short time, the Durieux-Smedley relationship deepened. Durieux not only provided funds so that Smedley would have uninterrupted time to complete a book manuscript; she also saw to it that the aspiring young author's manuscript was circulated among influential friends in the publishing world. Ignoring Smedley's testy personality, Durieux detected her potential talent, spending considerable amounts of money to finance her writing career. She offered to support Smedley if she chose to study for a doctoral degree at the University of Berlin. With Durieux's generous backing, Smedley enrolled in courses and became active in Berlin's social life, attending the theater and countless dinner parties. Writing to a friend about her patron, Smedley said, "When I have to go anyplace, Frau Durieux sends her car these days and I feel like a princess."

Tilla Durieux's friendship with Agnes Smedley reinforced her long-established interest in the political aspects of art. Convinced that the 20th century needed new ideas in the arts as well as in politics, she experimented with emerging methods of communication. In 1925, she appeared on the Berlin Radio. She also appeared in experimental plays by Bertolt Brecht and worked with innovative directors Erwin Piscator, Erich Engel and Leopold Jessner. During the mid-1920s, Durieux began a relationship with Ludwig Katzenellenbogen, who would become her husband. His generosity enabled her to provide a subsidy of 400,000 marks for Erwin Piscator's new theater, the Theater am Nollendorfplatz, in 1927. Durieux acted in a number of new and exciting plays, including Rasputin, which were either enthusiastically praised or condemned by Berlin's lively press. Ex-Kaiser Wilhelm II joined the fray from his exile in the Netherlands, criticizing Durieux's appearance in plays that undermined German Kultur and spread "Bolshevik propaganda." Although the Piscator theater received high praise for its bold and radical experimentation, it was too costly a venture and was forced to close its doors in 1929.

Tilla married Katzenellenbogen in 1930 and difficult times lay ahead for the couple. A wealthy industrialist, his enterprises were severely affected by the Depression when he lost much of his capital. Ludwig was Jewish, so weeks after Hitler's accession to power in late March 1933, the couple fled Germany with two suitcases and 200 marks. They stayed briefly in Prague before settling in Switzerland where she earned enough money to permit them to live a modest life. For the next two decades, Durieux would live in exile. Her reputation enabled her to secure top roles in Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Alsace, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Katzenellenbogen's financial problems clouded their life, however, and soon after they settled in Switzerland, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Although Tilla could remain in Switzerland, her husband had to leave. Yugoslavia was one of the few countries that would accept them both as refugees. Fortunately, Ludwig owned significant shares of Yugoslav stock which could provide economic sustenance. Durieux's maternal grandfather had gone to school in Zagreb, the city in which they now settled, so she felt linked to her new home. By chance, she met a distant relative, Countess Zlata Lubienski , who helped the refugees settle in. Throughout the 1930s, Tilla and her husband struggled to survive. She toured countless European cities while he tried his hand at various business schemes, including part-ownership of a hotel. Durieux spent countless hours making the hotel presentable to tourists, but the venture proved to be a drawback. Since all of their funds were invested in the hotel, they were unable to flee to America after 1938 when it became obvious a war would soon break out.

The couple moved to Belgrade, where they resided when Nazi Germany attacked Yugoslavia on Easter Sunday, 1941. The German occupation of Yugoslavia was harsh, becoming even more brutal when a partisan movement under Josip Broz Tito gathered strength. Although she was German, Durieux joined the Yugoslav resistance. Not long afterward, her husband was arrested and taken to Germany where he was imprisoned at the Oranienburg concentration camp before dying at Berlin's Jewish Hospital in 1944. This personal loss made Tilla more fearless still. She established contacts with German anti-Nazis within the occupation regime and acted as treasurer for the "Red Aid" organization, keeping large sums of money in her bedroom to aid the partisans. Although capture by the Nazis would have meant death, she was determined to participate personally in the overthrow of Hitlerism.

Tilla Durieux was in her mid-60s at the end of World War II, her theatrical career in a shambles. She stayed in Yugoslavia where she worked for a number of years as a seamstress for a puppet theater in Zagreb, sewing and repairing puppets. In 1951, the aging actress was rediscovered, and she returned to Germany the following year and immediately resumed her acting career. Despite her age, she appeared on stage, in films, and on television, celebrated in both West and East Germany. Her stamina was astounding, and, at age 85, she starred in the role of Madame Karma in André Roussin's The Clairvoyant, in which she was on center stage for most of the play. Her appearance as an old peasant woman in the 1954 motion picture The Last Bridge showed Durieux at her best. In 1965, Deutsche Grammophon released her recording of selected scenes from plays long associated with her career. Five years later, the East German firm VEB Deutsche Schallplatten issued her recorded reminiscences. By the 1960s, Durieux was the undisputed doyenne of the German stage. The oldest active actress in that divided nation, she was one of the few artists equally respected and loved in East and West. On her 90th birthday in 1970, the Federal Republic of Germany awarded her the Grand Federal Cross of Merit (Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz) while her colleagues in East Berlin named her an honorary member of the Deutsches Theater ensemble. For Tilla Durieux, there was no Berlin Wall.

In late January 1971, she appeared on stage for the last time. Soon after a fall, she underwent surgery. While in the hospital, Tilla Durieux sent two telegrams, one to East Berlin, the other to Wiesbaden, assuring her colleagues that she was on the mend and would fulfill her engagements. This was not to be. She died in West Berlin on February 21, 1971, which was Paul Cassirer's 100th birthday.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia