Niese, Hansi (1875–1934)
Niese, Hansi (1875–1934)
Austrian actress-singer who was the darling of the Viennese stage for more than four decades. Name variations: Johanna Niese; Hansi Niese-Jarno. Born Johanna Niese in Vienna, Austria, on November 10, 1875; died in Vienna on April 4, 1934; daughter of August Niese; married Josef Jarno (1865–1932, an actor and theater director), in 1899; children: daughter, Hansi Jarno (1901–1933, an actress).
Still regarded as the most popular actress in the history of Vienna, Hansi Niese was born there into comfortable middle-class circumstances in 1875, her father being a German-born paper manufacturer. She was drawn to the stage early on and, at age ten, appeared in the role of Franzi in the long-forgotten play Hasemanns Töchter. Her debut, which took place in a tavern in the Viennese suburb of Speising, was made possible by the chance appearance of a modest touring company of actors, and by her insistence that she be allowed to act, despite her lack of stage experience. By 1890, even before she celebrated her 15th birthday, Hansi Niese was appearing on stage at the theater in the provincial town of Znaim. In 1891, she performed at the theater in Czernowitz, Bukovina, a provincial but sophisticated administrative center far from Vienna.
Over the next few years, Niese rapidly became a seasoned actress, appearing in a number of the Habsburg Empire's provincial theaters, including those in Abbazia, Gmunden, and the spa resort of Karlsbad. As her experience and reputation grew, Niese, although still in her teens, rapidly ascended the professional ladder. Theater managers soon discovered that she also possessed a pleasant singing voice, and as early as 1891 she was appearing successfully in operettas in mostly ingenue roles. In 1893, not yet 18, Niese returned in triumph to her home city of Vienna, appearing before enthusiastic audiences at the Raimundtheater. Soon, Vienna's critics were vying for superlatives to praise her. The critical consensus was that the young actress was nothing less than the worthy successor to the triumvirate of Therese Krones (1801–1830), who in the 1820s had created the role of Youth in Ferdinand Raimund's classic play Der Bauer als Millionär (The Peasant as Millionaire), Josephine Gallmeyer (1838–1884), the darling of Vienna's theatergoers for several decades, and Marie Geistinger (1833–1903), the beloved "Queen of the Viennese Operetta."
From 1893 to 1899, Niese performed with great success at the Raimundtheater. Her talent enabled her to avoid guilt by association with the theater's director, an anti-Semitic ideologue named Adam Müller-Guttenbrunn. Unlike many Viennese of her time, Niese was free of such prejudices. Her reputation continued to grow during these years, and in the summer of 1898 she performed at the Neues Theater in Berlin. The actor-director of the theater, Budapest-born Josef Jarno, invited Niese to return the next summer for another engagement. Their relationship soon became much more than a professional one, and in 1899 they were married in Budapest; the marriage would be long and happy. After two highly successful summer seasons in Berlin, Niese and her husband returned to Vienna. In February 1900, she appeared at Vienna's prestigious Theater in der Josefstadt, earning critical and popular acclaim for her performance in the title role of Radler's farce Unsere Gusti (Our Little Augusta). In 1901, the Jarno family grew by one when the couple's only child, a daughter named Hansi, was born.
Niese, by now a much-beloved and highly successful actress, was a perfect partner for Jarno, who has been described as one of the most energetic figures in the commercial theater in the early 20th century. As manager of both the venerable Theater in der Josefstadt and the considerably less prestigious Lustspieltheater, Jarno utilized his wife's acting talents and offered an overlapping program of plays. Substantial profits from light comedies gave him the funds to mount expensive and often risky new plays by controversial playwrights of the day, including Maeterlinck, Shaw, Strindberg, and Wedekind. Unlike Vienna's unadventurous establishment theaters, such as the Burgtheater and the Deutsches Volkstheater, Jarno's theaters brought the more open-minded among Vienna's theater-going public into contact with the best and newest trends in contemporary international drama. These plays, presented in what Jarno called his "literary evenings," were usually transformed into memorable experiences because of the presence on stage of Hansi Niese.
Among the more notable of Jarno's Vienna presentations in the first years of the 20th century was his production at the Lustspieltheater in 1906 of Arthur Schnitzler's Zum grossen Wurstel. In the Theater in der Josefstadt, among the many successes was the 1913 German-language premiere of Ferenc Molnár's Liliom, in a translation from the original Hungarian script by Alfred Polgar. This play, one of the last triumphs of the prewar Viennese stage, featured Jarno in the starring role and Niese in one of the major supporting roles. In the years before 1914, when Vienna's cultural life thrived as its society slid toward war, Niese enjoyed the adulation of much of Vienna. Her charm and unforced spontaneity in the roles—a number of them, like Buchbinder's 1907 operetta Die Försterchristl, specially written for her—made her extraordinarily popular. She became simply "die Niese"—a woman who embodied the simple, naive charm of old Vienna.
As time went by, Vienna's audiences became convinced that many of Niese's classic roles should be performed only by her. After she had appeared in 300 performances in one year in Die Försterchristl, it seemed inconceivable that any other actress could ever take that role. In a number of instances, this proved to be true, for as soon as she stopped performing in a play, it vanished from the stage. Playwright and novelist Arthur Schnitzler noted in his diary in November 1908, after having attended a "decent" performance in the Lustspieltheater, that her contribution to the drama had been ausserordentlich (extraordinary). Much later, in January 1923, after an evening at the Raimund theater, Schnitzler once again referred to Niese in his diary, simply describing her as one of the "great artists" he had been fortunate to experience during his lifetime.
Multifaceted, Niese performed not only in traditional Viennese operettas and farces, but by 1910 had mastered the art of dramatic acting as well. Above all, she appeared in many of the starring roles of the plays of Gerhart Hauptmann, including Rose Bernd, Frau John, Hanne Schäl, and Mutter Wolffen. After her husband bowed out of managing the Theater in der Josefstadt in 1923, Niese continued to perform in Vienna, appearing on the stages of most of the city's major theaters, including the Lustspieltheater, where she was a major drawing card from 1923 through 1927. From 1925 through 1931, Niese appeared on the boards of the Renaissancebühne, and during the 1928–29 season she also could be seen at the Carltheater. Besides making a number of phonograph recordings, Niese appeared in several silent films, but neither she nor the critics were completely pleased with her performances.
In the early 1930s, when the world was in an economic depression and brown-shirted hordes marched menacingly in Vienna's streets, Niese found herself facing the greatest challenges of her life. In January 1932, her husband died, leaving behind substantial debts. Niese felt obligated to repay them and appeared in films to earn money. This time, the films were talkies, and her performances in such productions as Kaiserwalzer (Emperor Waltz) and Purpur und Waschblau (Purple and Wash Blue) were among the best of her entire career, once again delighting her fans and creating many new ones as well. But life now would be filled with few triumphs, only tragedies, the worst of which was the death of her daughter Hansi. The young Hansi, who had herself become a successful actress of stage and screen, died in Vienna in March 1933. Her mother attempted to carry on, but the burden became too heavy to bear. Hansi Niese died suddenly of heart failure in Vienna, while attending a concert, on the evening of April 4, 1934. All Vienna mourned her passing, and she has since been honored in several ways, including being interred in an Ehrengrab (Grave of Honor Gruppe 14C/4) in the city's Central Cemetery. In 1952, a monument honoring Niese was unveiled at the Volkstheater.
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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia