Many are familiar with the Gertrud-Eysoldt-Ring, one of the most important awards for theater professionals in German-speaking countries – the list of prizewinners reads like a “who’s who” of the performing arts. But only a few know anything about the life and work of the eponym, the theater legend Gertrud Eysoldt. The woman, who was born in Pirna on November 30, 1870, knew early on what she wanted, namely to go to the stage. Through her masterly performed female characters, she earned the title of “first feminist in German theater,” as her roles were a protest against the social oppression of women.
Eysoldt was not only an actress, but also a director, artistic director and teacher. Her acting skills were certified as having a »power of intellect«, a »naturalness of expression« as well as an enormous ability to express: »Often it is just a movement, an expression of her face, through which she achieves an extraordinary effect«, according to the dramaturge Felix Hollaender. one of her admirers.
Noticed as a page
After studying at the Royal Bavarian Music School, Gertrud Eysoldt began her stage career as an apprentice at the Munich Court Theater. There she stood out in the role of a page from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”. She came to Berlin at the turn of the century via the Meiningen court theater and the city theaters in Riga and Stuttgart, where she developed artistically from the “naive sentimental” to the character mime. Here, under the directorship of Max Reinhardt, she developed a range of her acting skills, ranging from Gerhart Hauptmann’s »Hannele« to »Elektra« by Sophocles and showing the diversity of her creative abilities. She did not allow herself to be locked into a certain role, even though the directors preferred her for “problematic” women.
The characters for whom Gertrud Eysoldt was “the ideal actress” included Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” – Lovis Corinth painted her in this role -, Frank Wedekind’s “Lulu” and August Strindberg’s “Fräulein Julie”. In all of these pieces she played the modern woman who has her “whims and nerves”. She is said to have been characterized by a “nervous eroticism”. With the vibrations of her voice alone, she knew how to be a virtuoso performer. The critic Alfred Kerr once wrote that it could make the depraved, the strange, the grotesque, the eccentric as well as the careless and cheerful more convincingly than anyone else. The theater enthusiast John Höxter also raved about her in his poem “Devotion to St. Gertrude”: “Holy Gertrude! Speak for us! / You refuge of sinners, loving ones / Lulu, speak for us! (…) / You comforter of the afflicted / cheerful puck, play for us! “
Legendary as Puck
Eysoldt’s Puck from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of her most famous roles, was for Thomas Mann “the rebirth of theater from the spirit of the theater”. Never before has anything like it been played on stage. Gertrud Eysoldt shows the puck not as an elf, but as a tough goblin. She exchanged letters about poetry and acting with Hugo von Hofmannsthal – and he wrote scenes especially for her. Rainer Maria Rilke was the godfather of her son Peter, born in 1910 from his marriage to Benno Berneis.
Eysoldt not only shone in her star roles, but also in her art of lecturing. Posthumously she let the Vormärz poets Georg Herwegh and Ferdinand Freiligrath have their say, preferred reading Clemens Brentano, Novalis and Leonid Andrejew, whereby, as contemporaries wrote, she created a nuanced painting of the soul. Eysoldt organized lecture evenings for the German Pacifist Student Union, the German Women’s Club and the Berlin Workers’ Youth Day. Together with Tilla Durieux, she supported the workers’ welfare as and wherever she could and was involved in artist aid for starving Russia, which years later thanked us with a reception at the Russian embassy in Berlin for the annual celebration of the revolution, with Alexandra Kollontai at its center was standing.
Eysoldt protested against the intolerable interference of the judiciary in the freedom of art in a league with many artists at a meeting of intellectual workers in 1925. She vehemently criticized the violent measures of the public prosecutor’s office against the writers Berta Lask, whose book Thomas Münzer was confiscated, and Johannes R. Becher, who was prosecuted for subversive sentiments. In the mask of Rosa Luxemburg, she took a stand against the death penalty and read from Max Hoelz’s prison letters at a matinee on the Piscator stage.
In recognition of her performance skills, Gertrud Eysoldt was awarded the title of Honorary Member of the German Theater by Max Reinhardt on her 60th birthday. She herself said that no other profession is so tempting for women as that of actress, because here it could be quite true.
When the fascists came to power and Reinhardt had to leave Germany, she withdrew from the theater. Almost forgotten during her lifetime, Gertrud Eysoldt died in Ohlstadt in 1955. Her grave is in the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof in Berlin.