An 1853 Milwaukee Play Returns to the Wisconsin Stage
May 4, 5, and 6 at the Fredric March Play Circle in Memorial Union
Two UW-Madison faculty members and a guest director from Germany are collaborating to put a political comedy on stage that was last performed in Milwaukee 160 years ago.
Professor Cora Lee Kluge unearthed Christian Essellen’s gem “Deliver Us From Temperance!” (Bekehrung vom Temperenzwahn), written in Milwaukee in 1853. Professor Sabine Gross selected the text for the “German Play” she produces every two years, supported by the UW-Madison Department of German. At her invitation (and with Brittingham Foundation funding), theater director Manfred Roth from Frankfurt am Main, Germany, is directing a talented troupe in the German-language production that will place Essellen’s comedy before spectators’ eyes again after more than 1.5 centuries. There are 20 essential participants: the students who are acting, researching historical background, working on costumes and props, or designing the program along with Roth and Gross.
Essellen’s comedy will be performed in Madison on May 4, 5 and 6 at 7:30 pm, in the Memorial Union’s completely redesigned Fredric March Play Circle.
All performances are free and open to the public. Reservations are strongly encouraged: please call the Department of German at 262-2192, stop by Van Hise 818 in person (9-12, 1-4) or email: firstname.lastname@example.org (confirmation within 2-3 days).
The spring 2015 play is unique in having been written– in German – in Wisconsin. Essellen’s play, previously to be found only in an obscure 1854 source, would likely have been consigned to oblivion after its brief appearance in the middle of the 19th century if not for for Kluge’s archival work. She hass made it available to contemporary readers in Other Witnesses (2007), her collection of literature by the German Americans from 1850 to 1914. Christian Essellen was one of the “Forty-eighters” who left Germany after the failed democratic revolution of 1848. Having arrived in the United States in the fall of 1852, he began publishing a journal in Detroit before he moved to Milwaukee in 1853. That fall, elections were being held in Wisconsin, and the most contentious issue on the ballot was a referendum on prohibition or “temperance”. The matter was being debated throughout the country: by 1855, 14 of the country’s 31 states had enacted some version of this law, with more to come. German Americans considered the proposed law an infringement of their personal freedom and sociability, and Essellen did his part in the campaign against temperance as the acting editor of the Milwaukee German-American newspaper Wisconsin Banner, but also as a playwright.
Essellen’s comedy has held up well even though it spoke to concerns of his time. “Deliver Us From Temperance!” combines comedy, a love story, and political intrigue. Characters are painted in broad strokes, and as Essellen leads the two lovers (who are united also in their opposition to the temperance law) to happiness, he highlights double standards and unmasks the blatant hypocrisy of temperance supporters.
Essellen has an excellent ear for the influence of English on the German spoken by German Americans, offering a sampling of an American-German “mishmash” especially among the “loafers”, who will only vote for temperance when bribed (“treated”) with whiskey.
Director Manfred Roth is a brilliant and versatile theater practitioner, who directs the Madison troupe with high energy and a focus on audience entertainment: He has designed original costumes, which help create memorably farcical characters and interactions on stage.
A detailed synopsis in English, as well as English-language introductions and commentary to the scenes, will help audience members with little or no knowledge of German enjoy the play.