Nestroy, Johann Nepomuk Eduard Ambrosius

(1801–1862)
   Like many of his fellow playwrights of the Biedermeier popular comedy in Austria, including the equally important Ferdinand Raimund, Nestroy was a master of many trades that the stage demands. Beginning his career as an opera singer, he not only wrote for the theater, but was an immensely gifted actor as well. His plays, which make heavy use of the local Viennese dialect (Wienerisch), are tests of a performer’s lingual agility and quick-wittedness. They were an ideal showcase for his own talents as a mimic, a punster, and a social critic.
   All of Nestroy’s major works stem from his central productive period (1833–1844), beginning with The Evil Spirit Lumpazzivagibundus, the adventures of three unemployed journeymen making their way through the world. These pieces characteristically leave ample room for the quodlibet, an interval during the action in which characters on stage directly address the audience on topics of their choosing. Though generally intended to amuse, these episodes can also be a vehicle for calling attention to political skullduggery, social injustice, or cultural pretension. Nestroy the actor was famous for these sallies in his own plays.
   Though he used French and English as well as German comic models, Nestroy drew his most memorable characters from familiar types in Austrian society: from Knieriem, the down-on-his-luck cobbler in Lumpazzi, to whom a comet reveals the winning numbers in the lottery, to Weinberl, the clerk in Einen Jux will er sich Machen (in British playwright Tom Stoppard’s adaptation, On the Razzle, 1981), who allows himself and a younger apprentice a final night of freedom before he assumes the responsibilities of an associate in a grocery store.
   These plays are so bound to their linguistic and social context that they have never found much of a public beyond the German world. An important exception is Jux, a work that inspired not only Stoppard, but the American Thornton Wilder’s The Merchant of Yonkers. Following the Revolution of 1848, Nestroy became an increasingly bitter critic of contemporary society. His work took on a harsh edge not associated with popular comedy. His last play, Frühere Verhältnisse (Previous Relationships, 1862), with a minimal cast, is a dissection of a marriage in which the prior love affairs of the partners intrude disastrously. Its general theme is that one can never outlive one’s past.
   See also Literature.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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