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German Theater of the 20th Century History & Practice


  • Christine Korte


Theater in Germany serves as a hotly debated public venue for working through major social and political issues and critiquing the status quo. This tradition begins in the late 18th century with the radical dramatists of the Sturm und Drang period and continues up to the present. This class centers on 20th-century German theater and on the theories, movements, and dramas that shaped it against the backdrop of a tumultuous century. After studying the foundational contributions of Schiller and Wagner, we examine the modernist theater of Max Reinhardt and the left-wing theater of the Weimar Republic, especially Piscator's political theater and Brecht's epic theater. In subsequent weeks, we look at theater during the Third Reich, postwar theater trends in East and West Germany, and developments in reunified Germany starting in the 1990s. Finally, we explore current debates surrounding how contemporary Berlin theaters are addressing racialization and structural inequality. Our weekly meetings center on history, and theory, and usually include a dramatic text.

Learning Outcomes

  • Students can describe the historical context, key dramatists, and foundational concepts that emerge from the late 18th century and that continue to serve as a standard and measure for German theater through the 20th century up to the present.
  • Students can apply and critically engage with terms such as: Dramaturgy, National Theater, Aesthetic Education, and Moral Institution.
  • Students can apply Schiller's key concepts to the discussion, summarize the aesthetic and political principles of Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk, and describe the historical context from which it emerged.
  • Students can critically debate the legacy of Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk.
  • Students distinguish between the aesthetics and politics of Realism versus Naturalism and situate these movements in debates surrounding social conditions in late 19th-century Berlin.
  • Students will be able to summarize the agendas underlying Brahm's Freie Bühne and the Volksbühne.
  • Students debate the vanguard political dimensions of Hauptmann's Weavers.
  • Students can describe the ritualistic dimensions of Max Reinhardt's mass spectacles and situate his productions in the fraught social context of the early 20th century.
  • Students can classify the political and formal aspects of Expressionism, discuss Spring Awakening as an influential example, and draw connections to Brecht.
  • Students can differentiate between Piscator's political and Brecht's epic theatre, describe the political-artistic environment of Weimar Berlin, and summarize key debates in left-wing theater from this period.
  • Students can classify key concepts such as proletarian theater and Lehrstück.
  • Students can communicate effectively on Brecht's theories of theater written in exile.
  • Students can classify the features of a revolutionary stage versus the National Socialist concept of Gleichschaltung and describe the conformism of theater culture under the NS dictatorship.
  • Students can classify the Stunde Null (Zero Hour) and describe how the metaphor of Trümmer (rubble) was used to reflect the postwar state of Germany.
  • Students can discuss the issue of disability - both in the shadow of National Socialism and in the fraught context of postwar Germany.
  • Students can summarize the major debates and challenges in GDR theater with reference to major personages, dramas, institutions, and key terms (i.e. Socialist Realism, Formalism, Post-Brechtian).
  • Students can describe and debate the formally innovative and subversive oeuvre of Heiner Müller.
  • Students can classify Piscator's documentary approach in the tradition of Schiller's "moral tribunal" and differentiate between Piscator's political theater in the 1920s and his documentary theater in the 1960s.
  • Students can describe the impact of Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem on the documentary theater in helping to launch a collective Vergangenheitsbewältigung in 1960s West Germany.
  • Students can situate the oeuvres of Handke and Stein in the context of the student movement of 1968 and are able to describe dramatic concepts such as Publikumsbeschimpfung.
  • Students can summarize the historical and political context of the Wende.
  • Students can describe the key issues facing the Berlin theater landscape after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • Students can assess the relationship between history and dramaturgy in the German context, classify the significance of the Berliner Volksbühne, and debate the controversial productions of Castorf.
  • Students can summarize key concepts of postdramatic theater and apply them to a critical analysis of theatrical performance and dramatic text.
  • Students can assess the social, political, and cultural shifts that impelled the postdramatic turn in theater and describe the key proponents of postdramatic theater in the German-speaking world.
  • Students can summarize key debates in contemporary German theater.
  • Students can classify diverse approaches to identity politics offered by different theater institutions.
  • Students can define "post-migrant" theater, situating it within the context of post-colonial, post-Brechtian, and intersectional critiques.
  • Students can discuss, debate, critique, and moderate discussion on these issues.
  • Students can situate the developments of Bausch's feminist dance theatre against the backdrop of a variety of social phenomena including as a reaction to the NS dictatorship, patriarchy, and the gender conservatism of German society.

Topic Outlines

  • No topic outlines.


  • The Man Outside, Borchert, Wolfgang
  • Mother Courage and Her Children, Brecht, Bertolt
  • Offending the Audience and Self-Accusation, Handke, Peter
  • The Weavers, Hauptmann, Gerhart
  • Spring Awakening, Wedekind, Franz
  • The Investigation, Weiss, Peter
  • Dramaturgy, Luckhurst, Mary
  • Theater As a Moral Institution, Friedrich Schiller
  • Letters on the Aesthetic Education, Schiller, Friedrich
  • The Utopian Gesamtkunstwerk, Koss, Juliet
  • The Art-Work of the Future, Wagner, Richard
  • The Naturalist Innovation on the German Stage, Baxendall, Lee
  • Re-inventing a people's theatre, Fischer-Lichte, Erika
  • German Expressionist Theatre, Kuhns, David F.
  • Spring Awakening, Wedekind, Franz
  • Piscator's Theatre, Patterson, Michael
  • Brecht on Theatre, Brecht, Bertolt
  • Baden Lehrstück, Brecht, Bertolt
  • Bertolt Brecht's J.B., Baxandall, Lee
  • Short Organum for the Theatre, Brecht, Bertolt
  • Mother Courage and Her Children, Brecht, Bertolt
  • The Swastika and the Stage, Strobl, Gerwin
  • Hope, Despair, and Justice in Postwar European Culture, Engel, Amir
  • Who Belongs?, Poole, Carol
  • The Man Outside, Borchert, Wolfgang
  • From Faust III to Germania III, Teschke, Holger
  • The Despair and the Hope, Weber, Carl
  • I have to change myself instead of interpreting myself, Barnett, David
  • Holocaust Drama, Plunka, Gene A.
  • Performing Catastrophe, Arjomand, Minou
  • The Investigation, Weiss, Peter
  • Peter Stein, Carlson, Marvin
  • Benno Ohnesorg, Rudi Dutschke, and the Student Movement in West Berlin, Barclay, David
  • Offending the Audience and Self-Accusation, Handke, Peter
  • The Sprechstücke, Marranca, Bonnie
  • Theatre is More Beautiful than War, Carlson, Marvin
  • Eine Aufgekratztheit im Theater, Stebbins, Amy
  • Unification as Drama, Cornish, Matt
  • Postdramatic Theatre, Lehmann, Hans-Thies
  • Political theatre in a shrinking world, Barnett, David
  • Multilingualism and Postmigrant Theatre in Germany, Sharifi, Azadeh

Grading Rubric

Class Participation 20%  Seminar-Leading 20%  8 Reading Responses 20%  Proposal 10% Critical Essay 30%


  • Class Participation in discussions constitutes an important component of course activities and makes up a significant portion of student grades. Students will have the opportunity to further explore the course readings, seek clarification, express their views, and engage in peer discussion. Participation can also mean attentive presence and listening.
  • Seminar-Leading is a requirement. This involves a 20-minute presentation in a style of the student's choosing. Students offer a summary or close reading of select passages of the week’s material and develop three critical discussion questions for the class to take on collectively.
  • Reading Responses are required to prepare for discussion in class and develop critical thinking and writing skills. Students are required to submit 8 reading responses (ca. 250 words) in total on specific texts and questions by the designated deadline by posting them under Discussions on Brightspace. These reading responses, counting 20% towards the final grade, serve to develop a habit of critical engagement with the texts and regular writing practice. They can also help to identify research interests early on. 
  • The proposal (2 pages) and the bibliography (1 page) should outline students’ choice of topic for the critical essay, as well as five bibliographic sources students will incorporate in their final papers. Please arrange to meet with or email Dr. Korte at the earliest opportunity to discuss your research interests and topic ideas. The proposal is due on Friday, March 10, 2022.   
  • Finally, students will write a critical essay (approx. 8 pages, 2000 words) on a topic of their choosing. This work demands argumentative writing and critical engagement with secondary sources. The critical essay is due on Friday, May 5, 2023


No other.

Course Resources


Uploaded by Common Syllabi on 2023-07-04