The first playwrights of the German-language theater were medieval minstrels and traveling players who performed, among other things, dramas based on gospel stories. The first permanent public theaters were established in the cities of Augsburg and Cologne around 1530, but it was not until the middle of the seventeenth century that professional theater became firmly established in Germany.
By this time, there were several different types of German-language theater: court theater, commercial theater, private theaters associated with noble households, and public theaters catering to a variety of tastes. Court theaters were supported by princes and bishops and typically staged lavish productions with large casts and expensive sets and costumes. Commercial theaters depended on ticket sales for their income and tended to produce more popular, though still high-quality, drama. Private theaters were a more intimate affair, often producing comedies and other light entertainment.
The most important figure in seventeenth-century German theater was the playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Goethe’s plays are still widely performed today, and his masterpiece Faust is considered one of the greatest works of German literature. Other well-known German playwrights from this period include Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), whose plays include the historical dramas Maria Stuart and Die Jungfrau von Orleans, and Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), whose plays explore themes of violence and obsession.
In the nineteenth century, the German-language theater was dominated by the operas of Richard Wagner (1813-83). Wagner’s epic dramas, which were often based on Germanic myths and legends, are noted for their complex music and innovative stagecraft. Other important opera composers from this period include Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) and Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826).
The twentieth century saw a return to more realistic forms of drama, as typified by the works of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). Brecht’s plays, which often deal with political or social issues, are characterized by the songs, narration, and scenes that can be removed from the main action to make the audience think more critically about the events on stage. Other important twentieth-century German playwrights include George Tabori (1914-2007), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982), and Tankred Dorst (1925-).
Today, the German theater scene is thriving, with hundreds of professional companies producing plays in a wide variety of styles. Whether you’re looking for light entertainment or thought-provoking drama, you’re sure to find something to suit your taste in Germany. Filmmakers such as Werner Herzog (1942-), Wim Wenders (1945-), and Volker Schlöndorff (1939-) have also helped put German cinema on the map, and you can catch up on the latest releases at one of the many film festivals held throughout the country each year.