Ivan Medenica*

I come from Central or Eastern Europe, where the development of the theatre culture took place under a very strong Austrian or, in more general terms, German influence. The first theatre in what is now Serbia was founded in the mid-nineteenth century, in Novi Sad, which was at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The City of Hamburg. 18th century

The history of German theatre as a social institution looks rather particular when one compares it to the theatre history of other Western European countries such as Italy, France, Spain or England. First of all, it started pretty late, only in the seventeenth century—if one does not count popular, folk performing traditions that existed at fairs and in similar contexts. Secondly, the first professional theatre companies in the German states were not local but the travelling ones that came from England or Italy (the commedia dell’arte companies, for example).

As I do not intend to present an overview of the history of German theatre, I will switch here to one of the main theses of this presentation. The rise of the institutional theatre culture in the German states was linked to the rise of the bourgeois society. Before the rise of the bourgeois society, there were no public or court theatres that were based on the national, German theatre traditions. The court theatre was completely “imported” from abroad—France, first of all.

The most important breakthrough in the development of the German institutional theatre culture happened in the mid-eighteenth century when, after decades of failures, a few leaders of theatre companies got permission to build theatre houses in various German cities and states (Fischer-Lichte 2002: 150). As is well known, the most important of all of these theatres was the one in Hamburg, because it was, as Erika Fischer-Lichte stresses, “programmatic of the new demand that theatre should be the forum of bourgeois public life” (2002: 151). Of course, the importance of the Hamburg national theatre, as it was named in 1767, was linked to the work of its famous dramaturge, in-house critic and in-house playwright, Ephraim Gotthold Lessing.

Portrait of Lessing by Anna Rosina Lisiewska during his time as dramaturge of Abel Seyler’s Hamburg National Theatre (1767-68). Wikipedia

The main mission of the newly founded theatres—to be “a forum of bourgeois public life”—was achievable due to the strong support they got from the new, bourgeois class and its professions: merchants, lawyers, professors, students, journalists. This support was articulated in different ways and contexts, but, first of all, in the theatres themselves and during performances. Fischer-Lichte quotes A History of Theatre in Hamburg, from 1794:

The audience showed an unusual enthusiasm for its theatre as never before, at least never before more justified. This was due, not least, to a certain, not inconsiderable group of friends of the theatre, who formed an audience within an audience . . . , and who, no matter what one may otherwise remember, considerably encouraged theatre, art and improvement of tastes. This group was increasingly composed of connoisseurs and dilettantes but also fervent admirers of theatre, including lawyers, learned and simple craftsmen who, none the less, had broadened their horizons through travel and reading beyond the mere status of merchants. . . .  These self-appointed men set the tone and applauded good new plays or single, well-performed scenes, or even well-spoken speeches. (2002: 150-51)

Besides this self-organized, non-institutional support, the bourgeois theatre received more formal support from another new institution of the bourgeois society, the press. This is the period in which, throughout Western Europe, a new media started appearing, which was also “a forum of bourgeois public life” and its morals. Especially influential were the so-called “moral weeklies,” which emphasized the habits of bourgeois society and its respective values: charity events, schools for the poor, family morals. Already in these weeklies, conceived upon the English journals of that time such as The Spectator, the first reviews began to be published, and they were more focused on the morals of the performances than on their artistic features. Later, proper literary journals started appearing which had regular theatre columns (Fischer-Lichte 2002: 151).

The Tatler and The Spectator, two well known “moral weeklies”

The point I want to make here is that two important institutions of bourgeois society that emerged at its very beginnings, in the eighteenth century, bourgeois theatre and a free press, were strongly, even essentially interrelated. They both had the same mission: to promote, support and defend the values of the newly born middle class which was, at that time, an emancipatory endeavor. Although the middle class was becoming the main economic strength of the society, it still did not have an equal social and political power due to the extremely conservative opposition coming from the old political elite, aristocracy and clergy; opposition which was especially strong in small, feudal German states (much stronger than in England, for example). The essence of this interrelation is the support that the repertoire of bourgeois theatre—especially “burgerliche Trauerspiel” (domestic tragedy)—gained from the critics.

The domestic tragedy was revolutionary because, as Fischer Lichte says referring to the first play of this genre, The London Merchant, written in 1731 by English playwright Georges Lillo: “For the first time in the history of European drama, he (Lillo) had created a tragic hero from the ranks of the bourgeoisie” (2002: 152).

Playbill for an 1803 production of
The London Merchant

What are these essential bourgeois values that are articulated in domestic tragedy? In its German version, in “bürgerliche Trauerspiel” written by playwrights such as, in the first place, Lessing, the main bourgeois value was the harmony and purity of the patriarchal family. The pillar of these family values is the relationship between father and daughter: he does not impose his will on his daughter, she is free to choose her partner, but due to his patriarchal authority, mixed with a mutual love and respect between the two of them, she has already interiorized her father’s moral standards. Due to this interiorization, the only solution to the threat to her purity provoked by a villain who is always an aristocrat—and that is the main dramatic conflict in these plays—could only be the salvation of the daughter’s chastity at all cost, even at the cost of her own life.

This sounds ethically unacceptable from today’s point of view, and not only the feminist one, but that was the bourgeois moral of the times. The most important thing here is that the family unity, harmony and purity were the essential values of the bourgeois society promoted by German domestic drama and praised by the bourgeois press.

George Lillo (1691-1739)

I have emphasized German domestic drama here, because, in the English domestic drama of the eighteenth century, in The London Merchant itself, the “ethical focus” was not on family values but on the moral aspect of the merchandise itself. One of Lillo’s characters presents trade as a source of all virtue:

See how it is founded in reason, and the nature of things; how it has promoted humanity, as it has opened and yet keeps up an intercourse between nations, far remote from one another in situation, customs and religion; promoting arts, industry, peace and plenty: by mutual benefits diffusing mutual love from pole to pole. . . .


If we skip almost two centuries and move from London to Lagos, Hamburg, Belgrade, or even if we stay in London—and maybe especially if we stay in London!—how do we react to these words today?

The capitalist system, with globalized merchandise and free trade as its basis, is “promoting humanity, peace and plenty” and “by mutual benefits diffusing mutual love from pole to pole”! (?) Of course, the only “natural” reaction to these words, and not only from the perspective of the leftists, will be bitter laughter. Similar to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, which can nowadays hardly be interpreted as a doubtless apotheosis of democracy, Lillo’s, Diderot’s and Lessing’s domestic plays and their praise of bourgeois society also need to be put in a historical perspective, and thus challenged and questioned.

There is nothing wrong with the original concept of western democracy, bourgeois society and a free market, but we are all witnessing nowadays its decadence, inversion from the most progressive social values of their times to something rather different, if not completely opposite. One can even claim that nowadays western or western-like democracies—with the examples of authoritarian intentions, deeply corrupt political elite, the imposition of financial slavery on a lot of countries, weakening of workers’ or social rights in general, rigid attitudes towards refugees from Middle East and Africa and the growth of racist and nationalistic movements—are mutating into a kind of a new feudal system.

Of course, the crises of western bourgeois society did not start in the twenty-first century. It was showing its weaknesses throughout the twentieth century and has been challenged by new emancipatory political concepts, those coming from the left and ranging from the positive achievements of the state socialism (which excludes, of course, its anti-humanistic aspects) to the movements from the year 1968.

Does this rather radical change question the role of bourgeois theatre as well? To answer this question, one has first to ask him/herself: what is the bourgeois theatre nowadays? This is not as evident as it was in the eighteenth century. Some of us will refer to the institutions with regular state and/or municipal subsidies and drama theatre repertoire consisting of both classical and contemporary plays (let’s call it “the German and/or Russian model”). Others will refer to the commercial theatre of Broadway, West End or boulevards of Paris with, predominantly, the repertoire of musical theatre and light comedies (let’s call it “the Anglo-American model”). Patrice Pavis stresses that, nowadays, and from the perspective of an “experimental theatre,” its makers and audience, the notion of bourgeois theatre has become a pejorative designation for a commercial, boulevard theatre. He indicates the paradox of such a designation: a pejorative designation is attributed to theatre as an institution and its repertoire that, in the eighteenth century, was seen as a revolutionary opposition to the aristocratic values of the classical tragedy (Pavis 1996: 362).

We do not have time to go deeper into a theoretical elaboration of this topic; we will leave it for another occasion. I would offer my own, rather general and arbitrary, perspective on contemporary bourgeois theatre. This would refer to a financially stable theatre model, regardless of where the money is coming from (from state subsidies or box office income), which preserves the traditional western aesthetic model of representational, mimetic or, simply, “drama theatre,” and which does not essentially challenge or disturb the moral values of its bourgeois audience.

Following Fischer-Lichte and Pavis, one can easily remark that, opposite to the historical bourgeois theatre of the eighteenth century, which fought for new social values in confrontation with the aristocratic elite of that period, nowadays’ bourgeois theatre simply does not fight for any cause. On the other hand, it very often presents itself as, and it truly believes itself to be, politically engaged and progressive. Still, it rarely has any essential social impact, one that would last beyond a few hours of spectators’ self-indulgent feeling that they were socially aware, responsible and courageous.

Hans-Ties Lehmann

Hans-Thies Lehmann thinks that the main reason for this social inefficiency lies in preservation of the aesthetic model of representation which is radically challenged by the capacities of new media to reexamine and reshape our social realities. In Lehmann’s words: “A stage representation of those who are politically tortured, doesn’t make theatre political” (334). He develops the thesis that theatre does not become political by purely focusing on political topics: to be political, theatre has to question its artistic forms as well. It includes a challenge of the position and responsibility of spectators and actors/performers in creating and existing in a social situation that we call “a performance.”

In other words, and put in a rather simplified way, nowadays, theatre that wants to act politically has to “directly” disturb its bourgeois audience, even primarily on a bodily/sensorial  level, and not to confirm and promote its values, as it was the case in the eighteenth century. Whether one accepts this perspective on political theatre or thinks that the bourgeois/dramatic theatre can still be socially relevant,[1] it seems that, to a certain extent, the naturalistic principle of the fourth wall, this very strict division in bourgeois theatre between fictional reality of the stage and a social reality of the auditorium, has to be challenged.


And what about theatre criticism? If we presume that contemporary bourgeois theatre, in the sense we attributed to it, has become detached from its original emancipatory social function, is this the case with theatre criticism as well?

First of all, nowadays, theatre criticism is a very diverse phenomenon in itself, culturally framed, shaped upon the different kinds of performing arts: for example, some theatre critics are specialized and interested only in experimental theatre so they do not follow and write about bourgeois theatre at all. As we can easily realize, this is quite opposite to the original background and function of theatre criticism at the time of its historical emergence. In the eighteenth century, theatre criticism was almost uniquely connected to the new bourgeois theatre, which means that there were no articles written and published about court or popular theatre.

It seems to us that, if nowadays theatre criticism focused on bourgeois theatre wants to preserve its emancipatory social function, it has to reexamine and challenge the social function and position of its “object”—bourgeois theatre—which does not mean automatically to discard it . . . Let us finish in the way in which we started: with the example from German theatre. One of the internationally best-known and most famous German directors, Thomas Ostermeier, does not have the same status back home, in Berlin. Praised abroad, Ostemeier’s work is strongly criticized in Germany. He is well known for his staging of the “domestic tragedies” of Henrik Ibsen, whose “bourgeois theatre” was, in the second part of the nineteenth century, socially extremely courageous and provocative. Ostermeier’s staging of Ibsen is an actualization; he transfers Ibsen stories to the contemporary context—more precisely, to the context of the German upper middle class of the twenty-first century. He is doing this to stress social parallels between Ibsen’s world and contemporary society, to criticize today’s upper middle classes, and thus make the work of Norwegian classic politically relevant in the present times.

German director Thomas Ostermeier is praised abroad but strongly criticized in Germany

One would say that this is exactly what we expect from the bourgeois theatre nowadays: to find ways to reshape and thus preserve its emancipatory social function . . . So, where is the problem? From the perspective of the majority of German critics, the actualization of Ibsen that Ostermeier is developing is not enough to make his theatre political because it stays in the representational mode of theatrical expression and does not challenge it. It only gives to bourgeois audience the above mentioned self-indulgent illusion of being socially responsible and brave[2]. . .  Whether one agrees with these arguments or not, they give a good example of the need for the constant self-examination of both bourgeois theatre and its criticism if they want to preserve their original emancipatory social function.


[1] “Tant qu’un autre type de société n’aura pas redistribué des valeurs qui ne doivent plus rien au goȗt et à l’idéologie bourgeois, le théâtre ne restera-t-il pas nécessairement lié à la culture dite bourgeoise” (Pavis 1996: 363).

[2] “Le cycle Ibsen d’Ostermeier, (mises en scène de NORA, HEDDA GABLER, JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN, et récemment UN ENNEMI DU PEUPLE), tient sȗrement un rȏle important dans ce jugement. Certains critiques considèrent que ce cycle n’est pas, comme il souhaite se présenter, une déconstruction de la société bourgeoise moderne par l’actualisation des drames de classique norvégien, mais l’affirmation de l’idéologie de ce monde et de l’esthétique à laquelle elle appartient (les mises en scène de ces œvres par Ostermeier sont rigoureusement réalistes)” (Medenica 242-43).

Works Cited

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. History of European Drama and Theatre. London and New York: Routledge. 2002.

Lehmann, Hans Thies. Postdramsko kazalište. Zagreb/Beograd: CDU/TkH. 2004.

Medenica, Ivan. “Berlin – une révélation théatrale.” Les Voyages ou l’ailleurs du théatre. Bruxelles/Paris: Editions Alternatives théatrales, Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. 2013

Pavis, Patrice. Dictionnaire du Théâtre, Paris: Dunod. 1996.

*Ivan Medenica (Belgrade, Serbia), works at the FDA as an Associate Professor, teaching The History of World Drama and Theatre, and holds the position of the Head of the Department for Theory and History. He is an active theater critic and has received five times the national award for the best theatre criticism. He was the artistic director of Sterijino Pozorje in Novi Sad, the leading national theater festival in Serbia (2003-2007), to which he brought some important structural changes, especially in the domain of internationalization. From 2001 to 2012, Medenica was one of the main editors of the prestigious journal Teatron. He is a member of the International Association of Theater Critics’ Executive Committee and the Director of its international conferences. He is also member of the editorial board of Critical Stages, the web journal of the Association, and as of October 2015, the artistic director of Bitef Festival (Belgrade).

Copyright © 2017 Ivan Medenica
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
The Bourgeois Theatre and Its Criticism: From Emancipation to Decadence and Back
Tagged on: