Shakespeare Under the Swastika and the Union Jack: Shakespeare and Propaganda in World War II

Presented by Barbara Acker, Prof. Emerita
School of Film, Dance, and Theatre, ASU Herberger Institute for Design & the Arts

~Part of the ACMRS Political Shakespeares Series~

Eventbrite - Shakespeare Under the Swastika and the Union Jack: Shakespeare and Propaganda in World War II

Monday, November 9, 2015 at 7:00pm
Changing Hands Bookstore
6428 S McClintock Dr. Tempe, AZ
Free and open to the public

In World War II civilians in Germany and Great Britain struggled to do their part, in spite of desperation and deprivation. Popular entertainment in all forms, including theatre, helped distract people from their worries, but even more important were the serious arts, such as ballet, opera, music and plays. These national treasures reminded people what they were fighting for. What could be a more potent symbol of civilization than the works of Shakespeare? His plays reminded the Germans and the British of their cultural heritage.

Although there were relatively few productions of Shakespeare in Great Britain in the years between the wars, as soon as the Germans attacked, the government’s new Council for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) decided to subsidize theatres and companies, recognizing, “the drama as one of the sinews of the national soul. . . .” The mission for theatre was to be uplifting, educational, and able to symbolize Britain’s cultural heritage in a time of total war. Funding breathed new life into classical drama; for example, the Old Vic Company starring Sybil Thorndike toured Shakespeare to Welsh mining villages, and and Donald Wolfit gave popular lunchtime performances of Shakespeare in London. Theatre audiences flocked to see plays by their national poet and far wider audiences saw Shakespeare through Olivier’s 19435 film of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Germany always claimed Shakespeare as “one of us,” and his plays had been popular in Germany since the days of Shakespeare himself when English companies toured the continent. German audiences saw drama as serious business, not as frivolous entertainment, but as a moral institution for education and betterment. They enjoyed their classical dramas in their subsidized municipal and state theatres. When Nazi came to power in 1933, they created a Ministry of Propaganda and People’s Enlightenment, headed by Joseph Goebbels, giving him authority over theatre in Germany and its conquered lands. His mission was to purge un-German artists and promote nationalistic and “clean” repertoire. Shakespeare merely had to have new “approved” translations. The Nazis saw Shakespeare as Aryan, not decadent English, and his heroines as the sort of girls “our boys should marry.” Shakespeare flourished in Germany even as Allied bombers leveled their theatres.

About Barbara Acker:
Barbara Acker retired from the ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre where she taught voice, acting, and Shakespeare. She has a Ph.D. in theatre from Wayne State, was co-editor of The Vocal Vision and has had articles published in The Journal of American Drama and Theatre, the Journal of Voice and the Vasta Journal. Acker is a past president and member of the board of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association. She has appeared in Shakespearean plays as an actor with the Hilberry Repertory in Detroit and has served as text and voice coach for Shakespearean plays at the American Stage, ASU and the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.