By Ute Sonnleitner
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to reflect a little on my research on the mobile lives of German-speaking actors and actresses. What started as a project on women’s lives in the region of Styria/Austria, became focused on the living and working conditions of artists partly because of my own experiences as a researcher. Although I had travelled frequently to archives across the country, I recently made the decisions to reduce my mobility. Suddenly, every autobiography I read was concerned in one way or another with descriptions of houses of flats inhabited by actors and actresses!
By the end of the 19th century, acting was a growing industry. Theatre buildings had reached almost every town in the German-speaking lands, and temporary ‘theatre-rooms’ had been established in small villages and in the countryside. These stages were not only to be found in the regions of Western and Central Europe, but around the world. German-speaking actors trod the boards in St Petersburg, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco, to name but a few. These actors lived mobile lives. Starting work as an actor or actress was inextricably linked to instability in living and working conditions. The vast majority of actors changed residences regularly, often once a season or when an engagement had ended. As artists became more established, a respectable residence could be adopted as the base from which to travel to guest appearances. A more intensive phase of guest-appearances – with longer time away from home –typically started up again as income dwindled in older age.
Although actors and their contemporaries took this movement for granted, ideas of home were of great importance. The concept of ‘sedentariness’ and its connection to ideas of national belonging in Germany are central to understanding this apparent paradox or ambivalence. In the nineteenth century, sedentariness became the only accepted way of living and it was a concept that was especially powerful among the middle class / bourgeoisie. The concept had a strong gendered dimension as middle class women were ascribed to the sphere of home and to devotion to the household and family. Men were also bound to their home, but were conceded much more latitude (earning the money for their families, defending their homes, fighting for their nation in wars and so on meant entry into the world). The middle class/bourgeois ideal became hegemonic – and challenged other ways of living. Informed by the gendered concept of ‘sedentariness’, the way in which the mobility of male and female actors and actresses were viewed and represented was very different: while male actor’s travels were seen as quasi-natural facts, actresses’ way-of-life was subject to criticism. This is mirrored in artist’s ego-documents: actor’s autobiographies and ego documents tell of joining wandering troupes and of days without food and housing. For female actors, it was a different story, and autobiographies focus instead on places of residence.
When Frieda Hempel (1885–1955) described the room of her singer-colleague Erna Berger (1900–1990), she said it was “exactly like one imagines the room of an old diva.” This statement demonstrates many significant aspects of contemporary thinking about actors, their mobilities – and their homes. Frieda Hempel inhabited several homes throughout her lifetime: she started her career in Germany before moving to the USA, and she was engaged on the great stages of the world and toured the globe. In her autobiography, she repeatedly reported information about these different homes – their furnishing, their geographical surroundings. With the detailed descriptions she was able to emphasize – once more – the success-story of her life. She had spent her childhood in humble conditions and, even though the rooms she inhabited at the beginning were simple, they represented important steps in her career. In Schwerin, for example, she rented two rooms without running water or a central heating system. She, nevertheless, liked the flat very much because she “enjoyed the view.” In Berlin, she became “Hofopernsängerin” (singer at the court’s opera), and the rise in her station was accompanied by an increase in the size of her apartment. The four “lovely” rooms, located at one of Berlin’s “most elegant addresses,” were furnished with antiquities, a “deep red Bucharra”-carpet and bronze figurines with Venetian mirrors completing the style. Her house in New York (where she moved to in 1913) vis-à-vis Central Park represented the climax of her success story. According to Hempel, her home, designed by a famous interior-designer, became an “attraction.” Thick carpets and walls clad in glass-plates were key elements of the design.
The home in New York was established when she went through the most successful years of her career – which were also the most mobile ones: Hempel toured constantly and her rooms were like a holiday-base where she returned to rest and to recover. The ‘old diva’ had enough money to equip her rooms exquisitely but she was – in the eyes of the colleague – overdoing it. The flat she inhabited had to prove the inhabitant’s respectability against public suspicions describing artists as filthy and unstable. Erna Berger lived herself a comparably mobile life. She also wrote an autobiography and described her own flat in quite similar modes to Hempel. Berger preferred a different style but the meanings she gave her rooms were the same. Her description of her colleague’s house reveals how deeply ingrained public opinions of artists and their lifestyle were – even among colleagues and friends. Similar reservations about artists and their unstable, mobile way of life are exposed by the use of the term ‘Künstlerwirtschaft’ (the artist’s ménage or household). ‘Künstlerwirtschaft’ functioned as a pejorative description of the unstable and unsettled life of an artist. Even artists themselves used the term in a negative way – to refer to a person lacking manners and living in filthy conditions.
While mobility was considered an unavoidable part of an actor’s early career, it became unacceptable to ‘move around’ later on in life. A fixed engagement at a reputable stage was needed in order to be respected. Travelling around in order to do guest appearances could be prestigious – but a fixed starting point was necessary. A home was a safe ground, a means to demonstrate wealth and through that stability – making it, in turn, possible to be ‘bohemian’. Being ‘bohemian’ could get represented by very different means. Some artists expressed it through their clothes, others through an eccentric lifestyle (parties, ‘scandals’ and so on). Some actors/actresses extended the stage into their homes by using their private rooms for publicity. Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), world famous French actress, can be named as one of the best known examples: She bought a white coffin and used it for “recreation.” It stood in her bedroom and pictures showing her lying in the box were spread over the whole globe. Nevertheless, also Bernhardt always emphasized the importance of her home, even though (or perhaps because of) she was off for months and years when touring the globe. The realities of mobility had not necessarily changed since especially among older actors and actresses travelling might even have increased due to an intensive phase of guest appearances. Actors and actresses nevertheless gave the appearance of being stable – or in other words of living a bourgeois life.
Through their dwellings, actresses and actors were able to position themselves in society. To artists, their homes could become another kind of stage: here they were able to prove their economic well-being and their social compliance. Homes positioned artists as members of society by presenting – and very often pretending – stability and anchorage at a certain place in space. Mobility was, nevertheless, part and parcel of their public personas and apparent in romantic ideals of wandering artists combined with troubled representations of unreliable tramps. Homes enabled artists to perform a certain kind of bohemian identity – and to nevertheless remain (partly) accepted members of ‘better’ society. Their modes of mobility created a whole network of homes for them – which underlines that it is entirely wrong to think of mobile people as of “homeless.”
Ute Sonnleitner is head of the department of education of ÖGB-Steiermark (Austrian Federation of Trade Unions – Styria) and lecturer at Karl-Franzens-University Graz.