“Little Playhouse [Kleines Schauspielhaus]—Friedrich Lobe, Director —1932/1933 Season” sits in elegant silver font on the square black 32-page brochure that was printed in Hamburg in August 1932 and is now held in the State and University Library. A drawing of the auditorium on the first page, “after completed renovation,” is followed by a 2-page self-description that explains the ambitions of the new theater. It conceives of itself as absolutely independent (above all in matters of repertoire), wishes to introduce the “noble Hamburg theater tradition” into modern times and to seek creative interaction with the public in the atmosphere of intimate theater. In boldface type are listed the names of former members of the Thalia ensemble (Friedrich Lobe, Charlotte Schellenberg, Marianne Wentzel, Eduard Gerdts, Albin Skoda); alongside are famous Berliners, such as Hans Albers, Lucie Höflich, Fritz Kortner, and Gustav Gründgens, who are expressly not coming to Hamburg just as “celebrities.” The closing comment by an unnamed theater professional sums up the house’s aspiration to create “theater for educated Europeans”. The rest of the booklet consists of details concerning the management of the theater, a listing of twenty planned productions, ticket prices, information about the not-for-profit “Society of Friends of the Little Playhouse in Hamburg,” as well as sixteen portraits of the artists, and two sketches of stage-settings. A detachable declaration of enrollment in the “Society of Friends” concludes the brochure.
In March 1932, the German Stage Members Cooperative (GDBA) published the memorandum “German Theater and Its Members in the Crisis,” which emphatically turned against the “rigorous application of all the austerity measures” in the existing emergency decrees. The missing support of theater constituted “cultural barbarism,” wrote the actor Emil Lind; the measures surrendered “Germany’s most glorious cultural possession…to irreparable destruction.” Elsbeth Weichmann, the GDBA’s statistician, substantiated the emotional appeal with tables and graphs tallying the number of stages, salary levels, and depletion of performances. The unambiguous numbers of the GDBA notwithstanding, the “Theater Crisis” resulting from the worldwide Depression of 1929 had more than economic causes.
Right from the beginning of the Weimar Republic, the words “theater” and “crisis” were frequently paired. They appeared numerous times in this connection in the writings of well-known literary intellectuals. Hans Henny Jahnn, the Hamburg dramatist, spoke out often about the challenges to theater posed by censorship, economic constraints, and the competition of radio and film. In late 1925, he wrote: “In my view, theater is not just seemingly dying, but is actually dead….We have no ensembles on the stage, just celebrities….Outside the theater we no longer have poets, just diagnosticians, who believe that they can ascertain the desires of the public, sometimes here, sometimes there.” National Socialist propaganda gratefully seized upon talk of a “Theater Crisis” to spread its claims of an “un-German spirit” and alleged “Jewification” of German theater.
In a theater city like Hamburg, the crisis led to palpable cutbacks and changes in management. Already by 1928, the German Playhouse [Deutsches Schauspielhaus], led by Erich Ziegel and under the general direction of Hermann Röbbeling, had merged with the Thalia Theater. When Röbbeling unexpectedly switched to the Vienna Burgtheater in January 1932, the actor and director Friedrich Lobe (real name, Friedrich Salomon Löbenstein) took over temporary leadership of the Thalia. In September 1932, he was in turn replaced by Erich Ziegel. Parallel to his activity at the Thalia, Lobe and his wife, the actress Friedel Lobe (née Frieda Anna Helene Kirsche), established their own theater in the space of the former Hamburg Intimate Theater [Hamburger Kammerspiele] (Grosse Bleichen 23–27). This theater had been founded by Erich Ziegel and his wife Mirjam Horwitz in 1918; ultimately they ran it under the name Intimate Theater in the Little Comedy Playhouse [Kleines Lustspielhaus]. On September 1, 1932, Ziegel became Lobe's successor at the Thalia as well as sublessor of the Little Playhouse, Ltd., founded by Lobe.
Owning his own theater and the artistic freedom that came with it constituted the preliminary high point of Friedrich Lobe’s extraordinary stage career. Born and raised in the poorest of circumstances in the Orthodox Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main, he, even as a youth, had turned to the theater. In Aschaffenburg (Bavaria), at just eighteen years of age, he was captivating as Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Following engagements in provincial theaters, the New Theater [Neues Theater] of Frankfurt, various Berlin stages, and the Düsseldorf Playhouse [Schauspielhaus Düsseldorf], as well as small roles in silent films, he had arrived at the Thalia in Hamburg in 1930. The Little Playhouse, beyond artistic fulfilment, can also be understood as an experiment, one that engaged the “theater crisis” raging on all fronts. This can be seen from a reading of the advertising brochure.
Under the title, the “Little Playhouse. Its plans—its duties” (pp. 2–3), the programmatic self-description promotes the project as an “interesting innovation,” as well as a continuation of proven traditions. On the one hand, complete independence is claimed for the repertoire, chosen wholly on the basis of artistic standards. On the other hand, it will be linked “to the noble Hamburg theater tradition, to truly fine acting.” The model was to be “the old Thalia Theater from the best of times.” There were also to be continuities in terms of personnel. A number of former Thalia actresses and actors (Charlotte Schellenberg, Marianne Wentzel, Eduard Gerdts, Albin Skoda — and, not least, Friedrich Lobe himself) were counted among the ensemble. Quite new is the claim that famous Berlin celebrities (Hans Albers, Lucie Höflich, Fritz Kortner, Gustav Gründgens) were not — as was long the practice — invited as “guest stars,” but rather “were to be completely integrated as productive fellow-members of the artistic company.” Half the brochure is devoted to portraits of sixteen artists, for the most part well-known faces, illustrating the special composition of the company. The venue is also introduced (where, under Ziegel, Gründgens and Kortner had already performed), as is the concept of the intimate theater. On the other hand, quite new are the technical facilities of the space “after a completed renovation.”
The ambitious mixture of tradition and innovation culminates in the aspiration to create a supranational form of theater: “theater for educated Europeans.” The European aspiration is reflected in the collaboration of the director, Peter Scharoff (of the Moscow Artists’ Theater), as well as in the list of planned works (p. 7). Modern German dramas by Brecht, Hauptmann, or Wedekind appear next to names, such as Hamsun, Strindberg, and Fodor. The classics of Schiller and Shakespeare are also represented, as are the premiers of new pieces by René Wachthausen and Paul Altenberg. But here, too, a certain continuity with the repertoire of the Hamburg Intimate Theater can be discovered.
A further innovation was the establishment of the Society of Friends of the Little Playhouse, Ltd. for the “non-profit intellectual and material support…of the theater undertakings of Little Playhouse (p. 31). The yearly dues entitled members to tickets at reduced prices and was supposed to replace the customary subscription. Still, such an option was also offered (p. 30), and thus the new way of connecting to the public was not fully implemented.
The Little Playhouse opened on September 3, 1932 with Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, in the adaptation by Hans Rothe and staged by Friedrich Lobe. This choice may, in the face of the crisis-ridden circumstances of the theater’s opening, also be understood symbolically. Ultimately, the Little Playhouse was unable to “tame” the adverse circumstances.
Documents preserved in the Hamburg State Archive, concerning the foundation, operation, and closure of the Little Playhouse, reveal that artistic matters constantly took precedence over the commercial. The goal of creating an independent, art-conscious European stage, with close connections to the public, in a relatively small house (approximately 200 seats) and with ticket prices “appropriate to the economic situation” could not survive over the long term. Moreover, predating the licensing was an expensive list of structural demands by the police authorities. Lobe, according to the partnership contract, held “sole direction of artistic and business matters.” He did not hold stock shares in the corporation but instead contributed in the form of lease agreements, performance rights, and play permits. The advertised circle of friends, among them prominent members of the Hamburg State Council, like Alexander Zinn, could not secure the theater’s existence.
On February 11, 1933, Lobe informed the commercial police: “In spite of strong artistic successes, the material collapse of the Little Playhouse, Ltd. is unfortunately unavoidable. I shall apply for bankruptcy proceedings….” After a final guest appearance by Fritz Kortner, as Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, closure became inevitable. The attempt of the ensemble to carry on as a collective failed after two weeks. Just six months after its opening, the Little Playhouse closed on March 2, 1933. In 1936 the venue was taken over by the Lower German Stage [Niederdeutsche Bühne], today's Ohnsorg Theater.
The Hamburg press commented mostly with sincere sympathy on the crisis and the closing of the theater. The Hamburger Fremdenblatt wrote: “It was with extraordinary sadness that broad circles of the friends of Hamburg theater received the news of the closing of the young theater on Grosse Bleichen, one which began with such high hopes….The closing of the Little Playhouse signifies a painful lost for Hamburg’s theater life.” The search for causes led to varying opinions. It was repeatedly mentioned that the fault was “not to be sought in professionalism or personnel, but rather in the disfavor of the times.” Others, such as Friedrich-Carl Koppe saw responsibility exclusively in the direction of the theater and asserted firmly that “the “crisis” in this case played a quite limited roll.” Friedrich Lobe had taken too lightly matters both “artistic and human.” Additionally, he had “abandoned the system of organically integrated guest appearances and replaced it with a previously stigmatized system of undisguised celebrity performances….” As diagnosed from afar by the Berliner Tageblatt, the truth lay “apparently in the middle: the direction of the theater had great aspirations, but great debths as well….Thus, when it came to a general financial distress, this Little Playhouse was not able to show Hamburg that…it could lay claim to be a unique artistic place.”
Only the National Socialist Hamburger Tageblatt complacently greeted the incipient foundering of the undertaking, seeing it as confirmation of its belief that “theater for ‘educated Europeans’ lacked a rationale for existence.” It spoke of “rotten intellectuality” and the “expression of modern intellectual Jewry.” Such things had, “praise God, exhausted their role in German spiritual life” and there was “no cause to wish that the Little Playhouse might luckily circumnavigate the present cliffs, not so long as it steers its previous course—which, incidentally, is unavoidable, given the composition of the ensemble.”
Most of the artists connected to the Little Playhouse remained in Germany and accommodated themselves in various ways to the new regime. In fact, only a few belonged to “modern intellectual Jewry,” and they fled abroad from Nazi persecution. Ultimately, Harald Bromberg, Kurt Hellmer, and Fritz Kortner went to the USA. Friedrich and Friedel Lobe — although already divorced — traveled as a married couple to British Mandate Palestine, where they finally separated but remained bound in friendship to one another. In Tel Aviv in the summer of 1940, Lobe married Hilde Mirjam Rosenthal, who was also from Germany; today, she is better known as Mira Lobe, the author of children’s books.
For seventeen years, Friedrich Lobe was active as a director and dramatist in the Hebrew Theater of Palestine and the newly founded State of Israel, without ever holding a permanent position; it was not until 1950 that he accepted an offer from Vienna. With wife and children he returned to Europe, in order once again to be able to perform in his mother tongue. But even in exile, he could not free himself from the German theater. In a Hebrew-language newspaper, he confronted the notorious allegation of “Jewification” by means of a several part recapitulation of the history of German theater. He stressed the historical significance for its development by such artists as Ludwig Barnay, Otto Brahm, and Max Reinhardt. The last article in the series is dedicated to Jewish actresses. Knowledgeably and wittily, Lobe exposed the lies of antisemitic propaganda that had also been deployed against the Little Playhouse. At the same time, “he broke a lance” for German theater that enjoyed no very special regard in the Hebrew-Jewish majority culture of Palestine.
Lobe’s own reputation in Israel was irreparably damaged by his “exodus” to Europe. Although, in April 1948, he had led the solemn opening performance of what later became the Israel National Opera, and was under consideration for a high position in the ministry of culture, only a few years later his Israeli citizenship was revoked. To reacquire German citizenship in the 1950s, Lobe had to place himself in the middle of the bureaucracy in charge of the "West German Federal Indemnification Law". Again and again, the Little Playhouse appears in the documents concerning “reparations proceedings.” As to the question of what income Lobe had had during this period, the officials received no satisfactory answer. However, Erich Otto, the president of the German Stage Members Cooperative (GDBA), made it once again quite clear in his response to the compensation office in Berlin what circumstances Lobe had to deal with in 1932 during his short-lived theater project: “Even in 1932, the former president of the German Stage Members Cooperative, Gustav Rickelt, made known to us the contents of a list given to him confidentially, in which it could be determined whom the Nazis, after their taking of power, would find intolerable, and whom they would immediately render artistically harmless….On this list was found…the name Friedrich Lobe.” Thus, even before it had begun, Friedrich Lobe’s dream of a theater, despite the “crisis,” already stood in the shadow of the Nazis’ pursuit of a “seizure of power.”
Lobe and his family were granted citizenship by the Hamburg Senate of West Germany in September 1954. However, he did not live to see the conclusion of his continuing “reparations proceedings” in Hamburg. He died in Vienna on November 20, 1958, from the consequences of a stroke. Shortly before, because of a temporary engagement with the German Theater of East Berlin, he had been defamed in the Austrian press as a communist agent.
As fleeting as the ambitious appearance of the Little Playhouse in the Hamburg theater landscape may have been, the history of the house and its director illuminates brightly a series of important historical connections: the position of Jewish artists in the cultural life of Hamburg during the end-phase of the Weimar Republic, their displacement and persecution in the early period of National Socialism, the Jewish confrontation of antisemitic assertions, artistic self-conception and inter-cultural misunderstandings in the emigration, questions of return and “reparation,” and so much more.
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Sebastian Schirrmeister, Ph.D., b. 1984, is a literary scholar and currently a Moritz Stern post-doctoral research fellow at the Lichtenberg-College of the Georg-August University of Göttingen. His research focuses on: Jewish literature(s), German-Hebrew Studies, exile literature, literature and historiography, archives and cultural memory, rhetoric, narratology, as well as literary revenge (fantasies).
Sebastian Schirrmeister, Between “Theater Crisis” and the “Seizure of Power.” The Brief Appearance of the Little Playhouse [Kleines Schauspielhaus] of Friedrich Lobe (1932/1933) (translated by Richard S. Levy), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, June 24, 2020. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-239.en.v1> [November 30, 2023].