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Performing Oblivion / Enacting Remembrance: The Merchant of Venice in West Germany, 1945 to 1961


When the Staatstheater Stuttgart put on The Merchant of Venice in 1956, the reviewer of a major German newspaper commented on the precariousness of staging the play in Germany after 1945, “With several million dead, it is difficult to play away without playing them away.” By taking such a degree of reticence and reflection for granted, it is often assumed that Shakespeare’s problematic comedy was slow in returning to German stages after National Socialism, the Second World War, and the Holocaust and that, when it eventually did return, the play was necessarily performed and received in the spirit of a soul-searching remembrance. In consequence, the first fifteen years of Shylock’s postwar history in (West) Germany are frequently glossed over. This essay takes a closer look at the play’s surprisingly lively—and at times surprisingly unrestrained—reception during the foundational period of the Federal Republic of Germany. The analysis proceeds from the hypothesis that the play may in fact have been used “to play something away,” since the appeal of Merchant was partly due to its comedic plot line of psychological shock absorption and social restoration. However, the figure of Shylock exceeded, or even exploded, such restorative ends, so that early postwar productions of Merchant performed a revealing dialectic of continuity and change, compensation and “working through,” forgetting and remembering. Eventually, it proved impossible to simply “play” the recent past “away.”

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