Nestroy, Johann Nepomuk

Nestroy, Johann Nepomuk
   Playwright, actor. Nestroy ranks among the most successful and noteworthy of the German-language theater's comic playwrights. His plays when premiered were extremely popular; upon his death they were generally forgotten, but in the 1880s a series of revivals in his native Vienna (where he had staged the plays initially) led to a reappraisal and subsequent revivals in German theaters elsewhere—including New York, Chicago, and Milwaukee, where Nestroy was a staple in German-American repertoires. In the 1890s his works were collected and published, making nearly his entire oeuvre available to any theater desirous of doing them. In the 1920s Nestroy enjoyed another rebirth, as critics, directors, and audiences alike found a new appreciation of Nestroy's comic authenticity, along with his profoundly effective satirical gifts. His works continue to be performed throughout the German-speaking theaters to this day and remain the subject of ongoing scholarly inquiry.
   Nestroy began his career as a basso at the Court Opera in Vienna; his vocal gifts were such that he was in demand at opera houses throughout Europe and in the mid-1820s was a permanent member of the Amsterdam opera company. By the late 1820s he tired of opera and began performing comic roles in regional theaters throughout the Habsburg territories. In 1826 he was arrested in Graz for improvisational byplay in which he criticized Habsburg ruling practices—not the last time Nestroy would run afoul of censorship authorities in his career. In 1829 he returned to Vienna to work regularly at the Theater in der Josephstadt; two years later Carl Carl placed him under lengthy contract to become a permanent member of his company. There Nestroy began writing plays (usually featuring himself in the leading role).
   Nestroy's first hit for Carl was Der böse Geist Lumpazivagabundus (The Evil Spirit Lumpazivagabundus) in 1833. It was a parody of Ferdinand Raimund's popular Zauberstück (magical play) formula. The title character is the patron saint of drunken street bums, but he is a distinctly minor figure in the play, appearing only at the beginning. The main action is wholly lifelike, set in contemporary Vienna and featuring three recognizable types: a tailor, a cobbler, and a carpenter—all of them shiftless wastrels. One night in a typically Viennese flophouse, by the grace of their patron Lumpazivagabundus, they dream of the same lottery number; they buy a lottery ticket together the next day and indeed become instantly wealthy. The carpenter and the tailor quickly go through their money in dissolute fashion, but the cobbler (played by Nestroy) marries his sweetheart and reforms himself. The play had many of the characteristics that distinguished Nestroy from his predecessors: the dialogue was realistic, the dilemmas were believable, the setting was contemporary, sentimentality was noticeably absent, and the roles were splendid performance vehicles for Nestroy and his colleagues.
   In many subsequent plays (he wrote more than 80), Nestroy created roles for Wenzel Scholz and himself; Scholz was as compact, corpulent, and diminutive as Nestroy was tall, lean, and angular. Often their mere appearance on the stage together evoked peals of laughter. Nestroy wrote more than 30 plays for them both; among the best are Der Talisman (The Talisman, 1840) and Einen Jux will er sich machen (Out on a Lark, 1842). The latter is better known because it is the basis of the Broadway musical Hello, Dolly!, but the former is a comic masterpiece featuring Nestroy as a red-haired outcast who climbs the Viennese social ladder by wearing a wig. Other plays bearing mention are Zu ebener Erde und im ersten Stock (Upstairs, Downstairs, 1835); Eine Wohnung ist zu vermieten (An Apartment for Rent, 1837); Das Haus der Temperamente (The House of Temperaments, 1837), Glück, Missbrauch, and Rückkehr (Fortune, Extravagance, and Return, 1838), Das Mädl aus der Vorstadt (The Girl from the Suburbs, 1841), Liebesgeschichten und Heiratssachen (Love Affairs and Wedding Bells, 1843), and Der Zerissene (A Preoccupied Mind, 1844).
   In these and many others, Nestroy's social satire and oblique political criticism caused him frequent problems not only with the authorities but also with Viennese newspaper critics; the latter preferred the older, less pointed and more sentimental approach Nestroy eschewed. Nestroy's lack of sympathy for the misfortune of his characters was a distinctive feature for which critics frequently called him to account. Yet Nestroy was not interested in ridiculing the Habsburg establishment with the goal in mind of overturning it; when the 1848 revolution in Vienna briefly lifted police censorship, Nestroy immediately satirized the "new order" with Freiheit in Krähwinkel (Freedom Comes to Krähwinkel), implying that revolutions are as preposterous as empires. In the play, a journalist helps foment a revolution in the town of Krähwinkel, which stands for every form of narrow-mindedness Nestroy sought always to satirize. In this play, however, as in nearly all his works, Nestroy does not resort to cynicism; his satire of institutions, officiousness, prejudice, and tradition usually remains optimistic.
   Nestroy's optimism dimmed with the death of Scholz, after which he reluctantly agreed to take over administration of the Carl Theater. That responsibility ultimately led to his premature death, and his passing was an occasion of mourning throughout the city of Vienna. As they had during his lifetime and as members of his audience, the
   Viennese showered Nestroy with public expressions of devotion and admiration. They stopped attending productions of his plays, however; many felt that without him in the roles he had written for himself, the appeal of a Nestroy play was sorely diminished. Only when the generation that had personally witnessed Nestroy had likewise passed from the scene were Viennese actors able to revisit and revive the plays, often with fortuitous results.
   In the 20th century, Nestroy's reputation continued to grow, and his influence spread. The playwright most scholars and critics cite as Nestroy's 20th-century heir is Ödön von Horvâth, though his plays often feature a violence and despair completely alien to Nestroy. Few actors have been compared to Nestroy, even though abundant pictorial evidence of Nestroy in performance exists. The actor most similar to Nestroy in type was probably Theo Lingen; Lingen's abundant comic gifts likewise resemble Nestroy's, but his record of performance in Nestroy's plays is somewhat meager.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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