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Theodor Herzl: From the Theatre Stage to The Stage of Life
By Mashav Balsam

Mashav Balsam is a PhD Student in the Theatre Studies Department of Tel-Aviv University, writing his dissertation on Theodor Herzl’s dramatic work.

Although at his time Theodor Herzl was a popular playwright, who wrote between 16 to 32 plays and sketches, still today no thorough and comprehensive research was conducted on Theodor Herzl’s dramatic work.

Herzl has an important role in the Jewish and especially the Israeli-Zionist discourse. He is regarded as the visionary of the state of Israel, the founder of political-Zionism and as the founder of several institutions, which still function, though transformed and reshaped, in the Israeli existence (for example, the congress that became the Knesset, the Anglo Palestine Company etc.).

Together with Herzl’s activities within the Zionist context, as a political figure, it is widely acknowledge that he was a journalist, feuilletonist. Some might know even that he was a doctor of Laws. The fact that Herzl was a fruitful playwright, wishing to be regarded as an important playwright, is usually not so known. Beside two plays, which were translated to Hebrew and English and are still accessible today, the core of Herzl’s most representative work is an ‘undiscovered land’.

Who was Herzl the playwright?

Herzl’s dramatic work exposes a new and different angle in his character, far from what most people might expect. Most of the plays Herzl wrote were comedies occurring within and about the bourgeois family, Salonkomödie (Salon Comedy). Herzl, as revealed in his plays, is swept with the light-headed thought, that one might identify as the Viennese Gemütlichkeit (best translated as coziness or pleasantness). This idea of Gemütlichkeit was, and in many aspects still is, a common way to describe and represent Vienna – the city of coffeehouses.

Herzl had some success as a playwright and gained popularity. Several of his plays were staged all over the German-speaking world: Germany, Czech (especially Prague) and of-course in Austria. In Vienna some plays were even staged in the most prestigious theatre in Vienna, the Burgtheater. Herzl most successful play, Wilddiebe (Poachers), a play he co-wrote with Hugo Wittmann, was part of the Burgtheater’s repertoire for fourteen years.

Herzl aimed his plays to fit what his contemporary audience expected. There is no doubt that Herzl, who was eager to be perceived as a significant playwright, tried to produce a popular loved-by-all plays. It seems that the gift Herzl had, to give the audience what they wish or consider as harmless and not so challenging comedies, gained more success in his journalistic work. Herzl became the Feuilleton editor (literary editor) in one of the most important newspaper in Austria, the Neue Freie Presse. Even though his success as a journalist, Herzl always regarded his work as a journalist in terms of an economical necessity and sometimes even slavery, an approach typical to his time and milieu. Herzl still wished to gain more success and respect within the theatre hall.

As mentioned before, most of Herzl’s plays were comedies mocking the habits and hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie. Herzl wrote about sexual conservatism and adultery, about greed and the money pursuit obsession, examining the taboos of the middle-class etc., but still he was never really undermining the basic foundation of the society. The play Wilddiebe, for example, tells the story of three men, two from the aristocracy one bourgeois, who share a unique type of sport: seducing married women. As aristocrats, they are liberated from the basic codes of behavior. But Herzl, in his attempt not to stir up his audience, soon solve this mess by letting the heroes of the play fall in love, real love, romantic and monogamous one, love that will sure make them leave their habits to fool around.

In the play Seine Hoheit (His Majesty) Herzl mock the greed. “His Majesty”, or what the characters worship in this play is the money itself. In the play Was wird man sagen? (What Will One Say?) Herzl shows the commitment of the common bourgeois to the codes and taboos of society; depriving their sexual desires according the norms of the society; being unable to maintain relationship based on unconditional love – love liberated from the criticism, judgmental and a clear definitions by the society. This view, of the ability of one to control and deprive one’s sexual urges, might remind the writing and the approach of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Indeed the connection and the thematic resemblance exist. Freud and Herzl not only lived in Vienna on the same time, they even lived for a while on the same street: Berggasse. Although there is no documentation of a personal relationship between Herzl and Freud, or even meeting each other, they both shared the same milieu and shared a close friend, the famous playwright Arthur Schnitzler (then again, Freud and Schnitzler became close long after Herzl’s death).

Herzl lived and worked during one of the most important and glorious times in theatre history: Vienna at the turn of the century (fin de siècle Vienna). Playwrights like Arthur Schnitzler, Richard Beer-Hofmann, Hugo Von Hofmannsthal and the other influential playwrights of the Jung-Wien circle (Young-Vienna) worked on that period. Due to that fact there is a tendency to compare Herzl’s writings to his Viennese contemporaries; in that case, one must take in consideration the young age that Herzl died. Theodor Herzl was 44 when he died. Furthermore, the time he devoted for writing plays was constantly decreased as his Zionist work and his devotion to promote this goal increased. Therefore, Herzl did not have the time to develop as a writer. Some of his last plays, like Das Neue Ghetto (The New Ghetto), Solon in Lydien (Solon in Lydia) and Die Glosse (The Gloss), reflect a process and progress toward mature writing and no doubt more interesting. A promise never been fulfilled.

Herzl’s importance as an esteemed literary editor and therefore as a leading figure in Vienna’s artistic forums, was considerable. For example this little forgotten anecdote: Herzl was the first one to notice young Stefan Zweig’s talent. He encouraged him and published his early writings in the important Neue Freie Presse. It might explain Zweig’s commitment to Herzl, best shown in the way Zweig, who never identified with Zionism, describes Herzl in his masterpiece The World of Yesterday.

Today the play by Herzl, which is most known and dealt, is Das Neue Ghetto, written in 1894. This is the only play, which contains Jewish characters and deals directly with the Jewish Question, the unsuccessful emancipation and the increasing anti-Semitism. This play is considered one of the most important and fundamental attempts of Herzl to discuss this issue before Zionism, and one of the major steps that led him eventually to establish Zionism.
Without claiming that the dramatic work of Theodor Herzl represents an artistic peak, still the plays are highly interesting and significant by providing us interesting new angles to understand Herzl’s character and his Weltanschauung. Furthermore, these plays provide pure joy of witty writing - the lighter sides or the escapist Herzl.

Herzl was not the only playwright among the establishers of Zionism, quite the opposite: Max Nordau wrote several plays, and used the theatre world in his culture criticism; Israel Zangwill, who was known as “the Jewish Charles Dickens”, wrote plays. It might raise the question whether there is a connection between Zionism and the stage; maybe it’s all just a tremendous performance…


Plays by Theodor Herzl that have been performed :

1885 – Tabarin - performed in New-York by Friedrich Mitterwurzer.

1888 – Seine Hoheit – Berliner Wallner-Theater, Carltheater (Vienna), Lobetheater (Breslau), Deutsches Theater (Prague);
Der Flüchtling – Burgtheater (Vienna); Wilddiebe (written with Hugo Wittmann) Burgtheater (Vienna).

1890 – Des Teufels Weib (Operette. Text by Herzl) – Theater an der Wien (Vienna);
Was wird man sagen? - Deutsches Theater (Prague), Berlin.

1891 – Die Dame in Schwarz – Burgtheater (Vienna); Prinzen aus Genieland - Carltheater (Vienna).

1895 - Tabarin– Burgtheater (Vienna).

1898 – Das neue Ghetto - Carltheater (Vienna), Berliner Theater, Hamburger Theater.

1899 – Unser Käthchen – Volkstheater (Vienna), Deutsches Theater (Prague).

1900 – Gretel – Raimundtheater (Vienna); I love you – Burgtheater (Vienna).

1903 – Solon in Lydien - Deutsches Theater (Prague)


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Related Links:

  • Herzl: Dramatic Works
  • The new Herzl Museum
  • Theodor Herzl -Links

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    There are currently 2 comments about this article:

    1.Herzl and Freud
      Reuven, Jerusalem    (6/25/2008)
    2.Freud and Herzl
      Noga, Jerusalem    (10/11/2012)

  • Mashav Balsam

    Herzl's last photograph signed by him 1904

    Theodor Herzl (1860-1904)

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