Birch-Pfeiffer, Charlotte

Birch-Pfeiffer, Charlotte
   Playwright, actress, manager. Charlotte Pfeiffer married Christian Birch, a Danish physician with literary aspirations, in 1825. Thereafter her career blossomed into one of the most considerable of the 19th century. Her plays were more frequently performed than any others from the 1840s until her death, she played leading roles (especially in her own plays) for two decades in Berlin, and she successfully ran the Zurich city theater from 1837 to 1843. Birch-Pfeiffer wrote 74 plays, all of them at one time or another in the repertoires of nearly every German-speaking theater in Europe and America. Her best plays were adaptations of novels, most notable among them Dorf und Stadt (Village and Town, based on Berthold Auerbach's Die Professorin), Der Glöckner von Notre Dame (based on Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Die Waise von Lowood (Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre), and Die Grille (Georges Sand's La Petite Fadette). The plays adapted from other sources were similar to, though more popular than, her original works, but everything she wrote featured outstanding roles for actors. Hedwig Niemann-Raabe's performance as Lorle in Dorf und Stadt was a triumph the actress never equaled. The same is true of Friederike Grossmann's in Die Grille and, in Die Waise von Lowood, the performances of Ludwig Barnay as Rochester and Josephine Wessely as Jane Eyre, all of whom achieved "a kind of immortality" (Friedrich Kant, "Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer," Neuer Theater-Almanac, 11:55). Birch-Pfeiffer, according to Eduard Devrient, was able to create characters that "allowed the performer to put himself in the most advantageous theatrical light possible. As a result, every actor in Germany aspired to shine forth in a role by Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer" (Geschichte der deutschen Schauspielkunst [Leipzig: Weber, 1874], 273).
   Birch-Pfeiffer's father had been a schoolmate of Friedrich Schiller's and was convinced of his daughter's rhetorical skills at a very early age. When she was 12, he arranged for her to audition at the Bavarian Royal Court Theater in Munich; the theater's director was likewise impressed and arranged for her to study with Franz Anton Zuccarini, one of that theater's leading character actors. She debuted in Munich one week before turning 13 in a melodrama titled Mosis Errettung (Mosi's Rescue). Charlotte's idol was Sophie Schröder, and she aspired to play the big heroine parts like Medea, Maria Stuart, and Joan of Arc. She did so in touring companies during the early 1820s. She generally got good reviews, though some mentioned that her figure was "a bit too full" for effective heroine parts, and her voice "altogether too rough for Gretchen or Juliet." The year of her marriage to Birch, she became a permanent member of the Munich Royal Court Theater Ensemble.
   Her first play was an 1828 melodrama titled Herma, oder die Söhne der Rache (Herma, or the Sons of Revenge), which premiered in Vienna. There soon followed a dozen others within the next four years, nearly all of them drawing sizable houses. Her tenure as manager of the Zurich City Theater also marked the beginning of her career as an opera librettist, particularly for composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (Jakob Liebmann Beer, 1791-1864). In 1844 she became a member of the Royal Court Theater in Berlin, and there she remained established almost to the end of her life as a performer specializing in character parts.
   There was always a debate about her superiority in roles she had written or in roles written by others. Many fellow playwrights hated her plays, and poet Heinrich Heine was particularly incensed by her commercial success; he said she "served up dried peas and sow beans, both of which are inedible," yet knew secret recipes that somehow "softened the audience's resistance to them" (quoted in Kant, "Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer," 59). Most critics reluctantly agreed that Birch-Pfeiffer was an extremely skilled artisan, though few acknowledged that her skill at audience manipulation derived from the fact that she was her own most insightful audience member. She also possessed an extraordinary business sense. Acting as her own agent in convincing managers to produce her plays, she often presented to managers a "package" deal that granted performance rights to her most popular plays in exchange for producing the less successful ones. Heinrich Laube conceded that she was manipulative, but noted that her audiences were not so easily fooled. She gave them what they wanted within the prevailing confines of censorship practices, and they appreciated it. Her main interest was in any case the acting, Laube noted, "which is a good thing—indeed it is a necessary thing for the theater's development. Masterpieces for the stage come along so seldom that acting would simply shrivel up were it not for plays such as Birch-Pfeiffer's" (Kant 60).

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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