Hans Peter Obermayer
BLACK MEDEAS in Germany: Hans Henny Jahnn's and Paul Heyse's Medeae
The publications of theatre scholar Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr., Athenian Sun in an African Sky (2002), Black Dionysus (2003) and Black Medea (2013) have sharpened our awareness of the significance of ancient myths and tragedies for contemporary African, African American and Carribean Theatre. Especially the Medea material in the 'Africanized' form of the "Black Medea" played a central role again and again.
The perspective of an "Afrocentric Classicism" may have been the reason why Wetmore and his predecessors marginalized or forgot important literary texts of the 'Old World'. Before Countee Cullen had completed his famous "African" Medea adaptation for the founder of the Negro People's Theatre, Rose McClendon in 1934 (see Corti 190-93, Wetmore 2003, 145-46), there were already two very different variants of a "Black Medea" in Germany. Hans Henny Jahnn's wild, expressionist tragedy Medea premiered in Berlin in 1926, Paul Heyse, the Nobel Prize winner for literature 1910, published his novella Medea already in 1896.
The aim of my lecture is to present, to compare and to interpret these two texts, which, to my knowledge, have not yet translated into English:
While in Heyse's novella the fate of a "modern" Medea (the "colored" tailor Wally) is told in order to prove that "even today in the breast of a poor woman abysses open up that are deeper than hell" (Heyse 292), and which allow her to commit atrocities similar to those of Medea in Euripides (annihilation of the rival, infanticide), Jahnn basically moves in the narrative of the Greek model, but with radical changes and additions:
He designed the displaced Medea as an aged, ugly "Negress" (as Jahnn calls her in the Dramatis personae), her two sons accordingly as "Afro-Greeks". The central theme of the tragedy, "Jason's betrayal of love", is extended by the aspects "incest" and "homosexuality". The children of Medea are adolescents, the older son is a bedfellow (eromenos) of his eternally young and erotomaniac father Jason, the younger one longs for physical union with his brother, paired with death longing or willingness to die: "You may kill me if you only love me" (Jahnn 50). In addition, the portrayal of Medea's acts of violence in Jahnn's version in unbridled expressionist manner exceeds all earlier adaptations.
The analysis of the traditionally narrated novella will show how unreflectedly Heyse adopted the stereotypes and role attributions of his time towards "people of colour" as "members of a people at a lower cultural level" (Heyse 297): The background to this racist view was the political and socio-cultural discourse in the German Empire, which first had to find its new role as a colonial power in Africa (since 1884).
Jahnn's motif of depicting Medea as an African, on the other hand, arose from his enlightened, more modern image of man: he repeatedly emphasized the "being human" of races of different colors ("it is human blood in the Negroes, capable") and succinctly stated: "What were barbarians for the Greeks are negroes, Malay, Chinese for us Europeans today" (Jahnn in Weber 101). Responsible for this comparatively 'modern' attitude, according to my thesis, were autobiographical experiences of the author, who - analogous to his Medea - also experienced himself as an outsider due to his sexual orientation and his subjectively experienced ugliness.
An overview of the performance history and reception of Jahnn's rarely played Medea will conclude the lecture. For unlike Wetmore's erroneous postulation (2003, 145: "The play has enjoyed a number of revivals, always with actresses of color in the lead role"), Jahnn's Medea was always embodied on German stages by white actresses in black face. Three productions are briefly introduced in their specific characteristics: The premiere at the Staatstheater Berlin 1926 (directed by Jürgen Fehling, Agnes Straub as Medea), Münchener Kammerspiele 1981 (directed by Ernst Wendt, Doris Schade as Medea) and Schauspiel Köln 1988 (directed by Manfred Karge, Lore Brunner as Medea).