Theatre programme: The Lantern Theatre
Theatre programme of the Austrian exile theatre - The Lantern Theatre – for a performance of Goethe’s Iphigenia in Tauris, London, 1942
Deutsches Exilarchiv 1933-1945 der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek, EB Ks 1831


Die folgenreichste Wirkung des Exiltheaters war vielleicht die, dass es den exilierten Dramatikern, Regisseuren, Theatertheoretikern einen – oft nur imaginären – Bezugspunkt schuf, eine Realisierung ihrer Vorstellungen zumindest in Aussicht stellte (...). Ohne diesen Bezugspunkt wären viele bedeutende Dramen des Exils nicht entstanden, wichtige Reflexionen über das Theater gar nicht erst angestellt worden.

[The most important contribution of exile theatre was perhaps that it created an – often only imaginary – point of reference for exiled playwrights, directors and theatre people, that is, a feeling that their performances generated at least a perspective (…). Without this point of reference, many significant exile dramas would not have come into being, many important reflections on the theatre would not even have happened. (ed. trans.)]

Peter Roessler and Konstantin Kaiser, Dramaturgie der Demokratie. Theaterkonzeptionen des österreichischen Exils (The Drama of Democracy, Concepts of Theatre in Austrian Exile), 1989

When an actor is unable to work in his native language, he lacks a fundamental means of expression. That is why, among theatre people, the exile situation interferes directly with their work. And yet despite this, some actors managed to find work and in many countries created their own cultural life in the German language. Exile actors also often performed exclusively for other exiles. In German-language radio broadcasts (for example, at the BBC in London), numerous actors also worked as speakers, thus providing many with at least some modest means of continuing to practice their profession.

However, most emigrants did not get the chance to perform theatre in their country of exile, which is why, in many of these countries, theatre groups performing in German emerged. These were often very small political theatre groups or theatre clubs who sought out their own artistic niche, sometimes continuing the theatre of the Weimar Republic. On many such stages, for example at London’s Laterndl, mainly political revues, cabaret shows and entertainment was presented.

In the USA, where around 1,000 theatre artists went into exile, there were expectations that actors in exile would gain a command of the English language. 

Unlike in Switzerland at the Zurich Playhouse (Schauspielhaus Zürich), in France or in South America, in the USA hardly any of the exile theatre groups or ensembles who formed there survived for very long. In Palestine, German was rejected as the language of the Nazis and actors had to learn Hebrew. However, in the Soviet Union, exiles were able to perform German-language pieces, for example at the German “Kolonne Links” theatre in Moscow.

In addition to the language barrier, there were often different expectations in the various countries of exile about what the role of theatre was in society as an entertainment medium. In the USA, for example, artists from the avant-garde theatre of the Weimar era clashed with the more commercially oriented business of Broadway. Even well-known playwrights and directors like Bertolt Brecht and Max Reinhardt had difficulties bringing their work to bigger stages. The audience’s reaction was vital and sometimes pieces were dropped after only two or three performances.

Many of those in theatre set up workshops or acting schools in exile, like Max Reinhardt, or Erwin Piscator with his Dramatic Workshop in New York, which also generated new impulses for the theatre culture in his country of exile. When World War II ended, many theatre people returned to their home countries.

Further reading:
Diezel, Peter: Theater im sowjetischen Exil. In: Mittenzwei, Werner / Rischbieter, Henning / Schneider, Hansjörg / Trapp, Frithjof (Hg.): Handbuch des deutschsprachigen Exiltheaters. Bd. 1. Verfolgung und Exil deutschsprachiger Theaterkünstler. München: K. G. Saur 1999. S. 289-318.
Naumann, Uwe: Theater, in: Krohn, Claus-Dieter u.a. (Hg.): Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 1998, Sp. 1112-1122
Oedl, Ulrike: Theater im Exil - Österreichisches Exiltheater, Vortrag 2002,
Schirrmeister, Sebastian: Das Gastspiel: Friedrich Lobe und das hebräische Theater 1933-1950. Berlin: Neofelis-Verlag 2012