Our Debts to the Duke:
By Stanley Kauffmann
Everyone who goes to the theater owes a debt to the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. Though Georg II (1826-1914) ruled his tiny German duchy liberally and justly, he figures in our lives for rather different reasons. From youth he had been passionate about the arts, had studied painting and music, and when he came to the throne in 1866 one of his early actions was to found a theater company. That company, recruited by the duke himself from the best available German-speaking professionals, was dedicated to the classics and important new plays (including Ibsen) and it was the duke himself who set the theater’s tone and fixed its ideals. In this process, he consolidated the profession of the theater director.
In Germany, outstandingly among all countries, vestiges and hints of what we might call directing had preceded the duke. There were efforts to do more with production than to follow the rubrics in prompt-books and to invest the play with whatever costumes and scenery a theater had available. But it was the duke, beginning in 1866, who first insisted that all plays be costumed and set in specific productions and who rehearsed his actors with unifying design, precision, and thematic tenor.
This phenomenon, occurring in the little town of Meiningen, was astonishing enough. (Imagine, say, Lincoln, Nebraska becoming the vanguard of theater production in America.) But in 1874 the duke began a practice that made his company a major influence in the history of the theater. He sent his company on tour. He could not accompany it, of course; he had a duchy to run. But he had an able deputy who kept the performances well up to the duke’s mark.
The Meininger, as the company came to be known, toured Europe for sixteen years, ranging from Russia to England. Their influence -- basically, the duke’s influence -- was immense. Stanislavsky went to see them on their two Moscow visits; Henry Irving feted them in London. (They were planning an American visit in the 1890s, but the deputy died, and there was no one to lead them.) The duke maintained the company thereafter and occasionally sent them on tour, but mostly he kept them at home. Still they had done their influential work. Through the Meininger‘s tours, the idea of the truly directed production was established in the theater. It is not the slightest exaggeration to say that when we attend a theater performance, traditional or heterodox, the impulse to create the unified production that we see had its origin in the vision of Georg II.
But that is not all. Our debt is larger than is usually acknowledged. Georg was also passionate about music. For many years he maintained a symphony orchestra -- and for fewer years an opera company -- in his tiny capital. Wagner called it the best orchestra in Europe. The principal conductor for five years was the preeminent Hans von Bülow; Johannes Brahms came to Meiningen to play with von Bülow’s orchestra. That in itself would be noteworthy if merely a historical fact. However, eventually more immediate to us, in 1885 von Bülow engaged Richard Strauss as his assistant conductor -- with a five-month contract.
Strauss, who was then twenty-one, had already proved to be one of those almost unnerving prodigies with whom the course of music is bedecked. He had already written two symphonies and a violin concerto -- all of them performed -- along with numerous sonatas and songs and chamber works. But he had shown no interest in the theater. Bryan Gilliam says, in his Life of Richard Strauss, that, besides the influence of the major musicians with whom he was associating:
There was another aspect of Meiningen…that would profoundly shape Strauss’s career many years later: that of the theater. The Meiningen Theater of the 1880s was one of the finest in Germany, and Strauss the avid theater-goer took full advantage….Richard’s letters home [to his father] suggest a strong attachment to the stage….His diaries and letters document his exposure to Schiller, Kleist, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Lindner, and others. Such an intense preoccupation with the theater…was a major factor in his move from tone poem to opera.
Strauss himself said in the memoirs that he wrote many years later:
During this particular winter the famous Meiningen Theater Company did not go away on tour, and naturally I was there every night for the splendid performances. When I took my leave of the duke and his wife [in April 1886] Frau von Heldburg [the duke’s wife and his leading actress]…bade me a gracious farewell with the words: “His Highness the Duke and I are very sorry to lose you so soon…You have been the best claqueur we have had in the theater for a long time.
Still vivid in Strauss’s mind were the duke’s “magnificent” productions of the classics, particularly distinguished by “the direction of the crowd scenes, in which every move was plotted with the greatest care, and the stylistic verisimilitude of the staging.” Strauss also gives us an example of the duke’s discipline.
One New Year’s Eve  the rehearsal went on until 9 o’clock, 10, at last it struck midnight, the duke stood up, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The duke: “I wish the company a very good New Year, the rehearsal may continue!”
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In fact it took six years -- six very busy years in which he created the “tone poem“ -- before Strauss began his first opera, Guntram, but it seems fair to agree with Gilliam that the idea of opera composition might never have grown in Strauss’s mind without the Meiningen experience. In time Bernard Shaw wrote: “Strauss produced works for the musical theater which maintained it at the level to which Wagner had raised it.” So, in addition to our theatrical debt, when we are at a Strauss opera, when we tremble with Elektra or revel with Salome or soar with Der Rosenkavalier, a little throb of gratitude is due the man I can’t help thinking of as our duke.