Neuber, Caroline (1697–1760)

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Neuber, Caroline (1697–1760)

German actress and theater manager who played a crucial role in initiating sweeping reforms on the German stage. Name variations: Frederika Neuber; Friederike Caroline Neuber; Friedericke Karoline Neuber; Carolina Neuber; "die Neuberin." Born Friederike Caroline Weissenborn on March 9, 1697, in Reichenbach, Vogtland, Saxony; died destitute in Laubegast near Dresden on the night of November 29–30, 1760; daughter of Daniel Weissenborn and Anna Rosina Weissenborn; married Johann Neuber (1697–1759); no children.

Was the leader (Prinzipalin) of the most important troupe of traveling players in Germany (1720s–30s); raised the standards of theater by abolishing improvisation and introducing tragic drama into the repertory; though initially successful, spent final years in obscurity; today "die Neuberin" is universally honored as a towering figure in the history of the German theater.

Germany, or more properly "the Germanies," was a region of Central Europe that found itself devastated when the Thirty Years' War finally ended in 1648. In some areas, as much as one-third of the population had died of starvation and disease. Economically and culturally, the region would take generations to recover. This was a time that witnessed the flourishing of baroque drama in Spain and the onset of France's great era of tragédie classique, while in Italy and elsewhere audiences were being drawn to the Commedia dell'arte. Even warfare and its aftermath had not ended theatrical life in German-speaking areas, and everywhere jesters and strolling players followed in the train of armies. When a truce or lasting peace arrived, these acting troupes could always be certain of a welcome in towns and villages yearning for a few hours of escape. At aristocratic courts, and in urban marketplaces or fairgrounds, or even in village inns, actors and comedians found appreciative audiences. With few exceptions, these "plays" were crude affairs, knockabout farces and improvisations full of scatological language and primitive physical humor.

The brutal nature of most people's lives during this period was reflected on the stage, which was filled with such coarse characters as Bernardon or Kasperl, all of them loosely based on the somewhat more refined Harlequin figure of the Commedia dell'arte. Since audiences howled with delight over these stage antics, and were willing to part with their precious copper coins to see them, actors and theater directors in the many wandering German troupes had little incentive to upgrade their material. More often than not, these strolling players (Komödianten) presented the perennially popular Hauptund Staatsaktion. These were slapdash, partially improvised spectacles in which historical events were reenacted, customarily interspersed with comic scenes invariably dominated by the vulgar Hanswurst. By the first decades of the 18th century, a small group of German actors and intellectuals had become disgusted and began to embark on a crusade for change.

Caroline Neuber, who was to play a key role in the reform of the German stage, was born Friederike Caroline Weissenborn in 1697, in Reichenbach in the Vogtland region of Saxony. She grew up in the town of Zwickau in comfortable material circumstances, her father Daniel being a judge and lawyer. He was also a tyrant, refusing to make any concessions to his intelligent, strong-willed daughter. At the same time, he believed that she should receive a substantial humanistic education, which in future years proved to be an invaluable asset to her. Neuber was determined to assert herself, which led to further abusive behavior by her father. When she attempted to escape with her lover Gottfried Zorn, one of her father's law clerks, Daniel had his disobedient daughter arrested, and for a period of 13 months (May 1712–June 1713) she was held in prison. After her release, her home environment remained turbulent, and in 1717 Neuber was finally able to flee an intolerable situation. She ran off with Johann Neuber, a Latin student of humble origins (he was born into a peasant family in a nearby village). The penniless couple wanted above all else to escape from Zwickau, and this was accomplished when, while in the town of Weissenfels, they became members of the touring theater troupe led by Christian Spiegelberg.

In 1718, while their troupe was performing in Braunschweig, Caroline and Johann were married. Neuber displayed leadership from the start of her stage career, becoming de facto director of the Spiegelberg troupe as early as 1720. Sometime soon after, the couple joined another, better known, theatrical troupe, the Elenson-Haak Ensemble. Over the next few years, Neuber's dramatic talents would blossom as she became one of the troupe's most respected players. In 1727, the Neubers took over the direction of the Elenson-Haak troupe, and over the next few years were able to improve its artistic quality significantly, to the point that it received official recognition in the form of patents and privileges from a number of territorial rulers in North and Eastern Germany. Thus, by the mid-1730s Caroline Neuber could, if she so wished, describe herself with a Baroque flourish as director of the Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon (Polen-Kursachsen) Comedians, as well as the Principal (Prinzipalin) of the High-Princely Brunswick-Lünenburg-Wolfenbüttel German Court Players (Komödianten). Her troupe would be awarded a similar title in Schleswig-Holstein as well.

Despite these successes, Neuber remained dissatisfied with the state of German theater. The very survival of her troupe was precarious at best, for they had to be on the move much of the year, performing in Leipzig during the great Fairs, and then traveling to the lesser towns and aristocratic courts when audiences dried up in the few large cities. During these travels, the company was dependent on the largesse of the rich, and the success of Neuber's entertainments often hinged on her skill at ingratiating herself with the various lesser officials of the households of the local courts where she wished her company to perform. Often, food was scarce and accommodations primitive.

For want of better material, her troupe was usually forced to perform the popular and well-entrenched

Hauptund Staatsaktionen, which amused audiences with bloody tales of martyrdom, murder, and warfare. Unsophisticated audiences screamed with delight when stereotyped heroes and heroines appeared on stage, backed by tricks and wonders, that included devils, storms, and fire-spouting dragons. Plots barely existed, while history and myth jostled one another with a sublime disregard for either logic or plausibility. The main attractions were preceded and followed by farces and stage spectacles which were little more than buffoonery and noisemaking.

Actors led marginal lives. Generally regarded by solid burghers as outcasts from society, players were usually equated with Gypsies (Roma) and vagabonds. Actresses were universally regarded as females of low or no virtue. Neuber, determined to change this situation, resolved that her theater company would have as good a reputation offstage as on. She saw to it that young unmarried actresses lived in her house or under her maternal chaperonage. When they were not on stage acting or rehearsing, the actresses gathered in Neuber's sitting room to sew their costumes, chatting and gossiping—all under the watchful eye of "die Neuberin." Young male actors also boarded with Neuber, thus being kept away from local taverns and gambling dens. They, too, ate at her table and helped out with the countless details of managing a theater, which included the preparation of playbills, the painting of scenery, and so on.

By the late 1720s, Neuber had met Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700–1766), a professor at the University of Leipzig, who was intent on reforming German literature and drama from the ground up. The alliance they forged was to be of crucial significance not only for her own future, but for theater in Germany. She worked closely with Gottsched to improve the quality of the plays staged by her troupe, as well as the quality of their presentation. She insisted that her actors commit their lines to memory, speak them with accuracy, and give proper emphasis to measure and rhythm. Amazingly, this was the first time in the history of the German theater that what took place on stage had been worked out in such detail. She also grouped actors for the best possible effect, crafting crowd scenes designed to elicit powerful responses from the audience.

From the start of their informal partnership, Gottsched and Neuber respected each other's talents. It was from Gottsched, writing in October 1725 in his "moral weekly" Die vernünftigen Tadlerinnen (The Reasonable Fault-Finding Ladies), that Neuber's acting ability received its first enthusiastic review, indeed its first review ever. In 1731, he entrusted his play Der sterbende Cato (The Dying Cato) to the Neuber troupe. Announced to the Leipzig public as being nothing less than "the first original tragedy in German," the play was in fact a dry-as-dust academic hodgepodge, the pedantic Gottsched's rearrangement of parts taken from Deschamps and mixed with an adaptation of Addison's tragedy. The Swiss art critic Johann Jakob Bodmer's assessment of Gottsched that he had "manufactured his plays with scissors and paste" was essentially on target, but this mattered little when Neuber staged Der sterbende Cato.

Playing the role of Portia, Neuber was able to breathe life into the script, and the play was a great success with the Leipzig public. Ever the purist, Gottsched was disappointed that his play had not been presented in Roman costumes, but Neuber knew she had to respond to public tastes and expectations, and she recognized that if Gottsched's play, lacking in dramatic power, were presented "straight," it could easily have become tedious. She overcame this by transforming his pseudo-classicist treatise into an evening of entertaining, exciting theater. Generally acknowledged to be a brilliant comic actress, Neuber was able to inspire her actors with much of the stage presence and vitality that she possessed.

Caroline Neuber was in agreement with Gottsched on the necessity of taking up the battle against the ubiquitous Hanswurst. It was Martin Luther who had introduced him into the written language, noting that the name should be generally applied to "coarse, boorish persons who pretend to be wise, and yet speak in an unreasonable and clumsy way." Although the character of Hanswurst had been around for centuries, embedded in German culture, on the stage his classic portrayer was the puppet player Josef Anton Stranitzky, who in the early 1700s created the modern figure of Hanswurst. Audiences loved his bawdy irreverence as he appeared in Hauptund Staatsaktionen, delivering his off-color commentaries on the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

In 1737, a decade after Neuber and Gottsched had embarked on their joint campaign, she felt ready to engage in a final battle with the primary symbol of the national theater's backwardness. Once more established in Leipzig after having survived a setback when another troupe had challenged her supremacy, she now prepared to exorcise Hanswurst. The deed was accomplished in a solemn Vorspiel—a curtain-raiser meant to precede the main play of the day. Neuber wrote a number of these, in which she presented the gist of her reform under the guise of allegorical dialogues. On this occasion, in October 1737, performing with her troupe in the stall-like theater set up in front of the Grimmaisch Gate, she appeared as a player in her own Vorspiel, filling the role of Thalia and wearing Minerva's helmet on her powdered wig. While wielding Wisdom's spear in her right hand, Neuber attacked Hanswurst in an antique pas de charge. She was attended by an array of nymphs and Muses in looped skirts, low-necked tight-fitting bodices, and high-heeled slippers. Slaughtered by this horde, Hanswurst was mourned by Venus, the devil, a night watchman, and "a crowd of petty rhymsters and ragged ballad-mongers." While he was being carried off stage, the Muses burst into a triumphant song, but not before Hanswurst made one last defiant and indecent gesture toward the audience. Although an actor portraying Apollo pronounced a funeral oration, followed by Neuber who solemnly intoned while the curtain was being drawn, "Hanswurst is dead! There is no more Hanswurst!," this trickster would remain popular with the German public for at least another generation. Most German theatergoers preferred to have their plays interrupted by Hanswurst rather than sit through an evening of poorly translated Racine or, worse, have to endure one of Gottsched's soporific adaptations of a foreign play. Over the next few years, Neuber had to accept the reality of the situation and continue to adapt her theatrical repertory to audience desires. Although he appeared in different guises, Hanswurst remained alive and kicking on the German stage, and in Neuber's theater.

By the late 1730s, Neuber became increasingly exasperated with the lack of public support for theater reform. In 1739, after the close of an unsuccessful season with her troupe in Hamburg, she spoke out in public in another of her Vorspiele. On this occasion, she seemed to forget that actors, no matter how talented, were in fact humble servants among their social betters who chose to honor them with their patronage. Although Neuber's Vorspiel was relatively innocuous, her sentiments were revealed in the playbill for the evening's performance, in which she made less-than-complimentary references to "those who have not been able to see us, those who have not ventured to see us, or those who have not been willing to see us." In a caste-based society, this sort of talk was a sign of insolence—or worse—coming from a mere Komödiant, and a woman to boot. Not surprisingly, Hamburg's citizenry were insulted, and the city's Bürgermeister closed down Neuber's theater.

Her next independent streak led to a conflict with her ally Gottsched. Their problems began when Gottsched demanded that Neuber's company perform Voltaire's Alzire in a translation by his wife, Luise Adelgunde Gottsched. Since the troupe was already using a version she considered far superior, Neuber refused. A bitter argument permanently ruptured the friendship. Unwilling to let the matter rest, Neuber decided to poke fun publicly at her former friend, namely on the stage of her theater. Her attacks took the form of a burlesque of Gottsched's ideas concerning costume, a matter they had never been able to agree on. He had long advocated that actors wear ultra-simple and essentially "abstract" garments, including sandals, whereas Neuber's troupe continued to dress in only slightly changed versions of the latest Paris fashions. She staged the third act of her former friend's Dying Cato with the type of costumes prescribed by its author—and worse—which meant that the actors wore pink tights under flowing robes, creating the illusion that their legs and feet were bare. Critics and audiences were upset by the spectacle, some laughing with scorn but others denouncing the experiment as indecent.

Neuber continued her attacks on Gottsched. In a Vorspiel entitled The Most Precious Treasure, the main character, "the Faultfinder," appeared on stage dressed as Night wearing a star-spangled cloak, as well as bat wings on his shoulders, a dark lantern in his hand, and a crown of tinsel around his head. A huge success with audiences, the piece furthered the estrangement between Gottsched and Neuber. He now wrote polemics against Neuber, her husband, and their company, but in doing so inflicted damage on himself as well. Until this point, Gottsched had enjoyed immense authority as a virtual dictator of the German literary scene, but the display of pettiness on his part served to greatly weaken his grip over cultural life in German-speaking Central Europe.

In an attempt to restore her frayed reputation, Neuber accepted an invitation from Russian empress Anna Ivanovna and in 1740 undertook the arduous journey with her troupe in order to perform in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, the empress died soon after their arrival, and the desired patronage did not materialize from the new favorites that soon appeared in the Romanov court. On her return to Leipzig, Neuber was forced to disband her troupe. A few years later, in 1744, she reconstituted the company, in many instances luring back veteran performers, and was soon successfully touring the Germanies, garnering appreciative audiences in Dresden, Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg, and Kiel. As often as she could, she brought her players back to Leipzig. Here the Neuber troupe was particularly popular with students from the local university, some of whom appreciated tales of her satirical attacks on their stodgy professor, Herr Gottsched. Among the most enthusiastic of these young men was a theology student named Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781). Lessing had fallen in love with Fräulein Lorenz, the troupe's ingenue, but soon he was discussing more serious matters with Neuber.

Lessing's infatuation with the theater gravely weakened whatever interest he may once have had in theological matters, and caused his parents much concern, but the hours he spent in Neuber's theater taught him the essentials of stagecraft and the elements that made up a living theatrical experience. Lessing initially translated foreign dramas for the Neuber company but soon was writing his own plays. In January 1748, his comedy Der junge Gelehrte (The Young Scholar) was premiered by the Neuber troupe in Leipzig. The play's success—he was fêted by his friends as a future Molière—did much to convince Lessing that he did indeed have a future as a playwright and author; he would one day be celebrated as the first German playwright and critic of distinction.

For Neuber, assisting a brilliant young man of the theater like Lessing would be a last triumph. From this point on, her problems compounded. Much of the trouble was financial, for she had never been able to think in strictly economic terms when it came to mounting a play. Her love of fine costumes often made it impossible to achieve profits, and by 1750 she again had to disband her troupe. In what would now be a time of increasing difficulties for the aging actress and former Prinzipalin, her husband Johann remained a pillar of strength. No longer a young woman, she attempted to build a career as a solo actress, appearing for a time at Vienna's Karntnerthor-Theater, but her style struck audiences and critics alike as old-fashioned and ineffective. She and her husband wandered around Germany for a time, acting and teaching, but eventually they became destitute. In Dresden, a friend offered them a room, and it was here that Johann Neuber died in 1759.

A year later, gravely ill, penniless, and largely forgotten by her contemporaries, Caroline Neuber knocked at the door of a peasant's house in the town of Laubegast, outside Dresden. Knowing that she was an actress, and believing that Komödianten were rarely people of high moral standing, the peasant at first refused to let her in. In the end, however, the old, ill woman was given refuge. Soon, on the night of November 29–30, 1760, she died. According to long-hallowed tradition, since the Church had forbade the burial of actors in consecrated ground, the peasant (in whose home she had died and who had grown to respect her) was compelled to bury her in a remote corner of the local graveyard. He dug her grave himself at night and lowered her coffin over the graveyard wall, because it was not allowed to pass through the church gate. However, recent research argues that this story, which has been part of theater lore for generations, is not authentic. Neuber was in fact accorded a normal if modest funeral and burial.

Sixteen years after her death, a memorial to Caroline Neuber was erected on the highway at Laubegast, honoring her for having "introduced good taste on the German stage." This remarkable woman fought long and hard to liberate the German theater. Without her efforts, Germany's classic writers Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller would not have had the kind of theater that provided their works with a worthy forum. Neuber has been honored in countless ways in Germany and German-speaking areas of Europe in the generations since her death. In recent years, the postal authorities of both the German Federal Republic and German Democratic Republic issued postage stamps in her honor, the GFR with a 30-pfennig stamp depicting Neuber as Medea issued on November 16, 1976, and the GDR with a 50-pfennig portrait stamp issued on January 25, 1972. In 1995, a Neuber Museum was inaugurated in Reichenbach in the house where she had been born almost three centuries earlier.


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