August Wilhelm Iffland was one of the finest German actors in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
That fact alone would probably not make him worthy of a podcast episode. What does make him worthy of a podcast episode is a ring that bears his name which has been passed down from actor to actor for over 200 years.
It is a tradition that is still ongoing today.
Learn more about the Iffland Ring and the very odd tradition surrounding it, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
I have to confess up front that this might be one of the oddest episodes of the podcast that I’ve done. I had some doubt as to if I should even do it.
The reason why I had doubts isn’t that it scandalous or anything like that, but rather that the topic is one which is so obscure, I wasn’t sure it was worth doing.
Then I realized the name of the show and the fact that I have hundreds of shows i have to do every year, and I figured I might as well just do it.
I’m guessing that the vast majority of you listening are not familiar with the Iffland Ring. If you are familiar with it, you probably live in a German-speaking country, but even then most people living in German-speaking countries probably don’t know what the Iffland Ring is.
The Iffland Ring is named after August Wilhelm Iffland, who by all accounts was one of the greatest German actors of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
He started his career in 1779 in Mannheim and worked his way up the ladder until he became the director of the Prussian National Theater in Berlin, and was made responsible for all stage presentations performed for the royal family.
The thing about actors from this period is that we have no clue really how good they were or how they performed because there was no way to capture their performances.
Another great 19th-century actor? John Wilkes Booth….but that is a totally different story.
Anyway, Iffland was significant enough to get a street named after him in Berlin.
He died in 1814, but before he died, according to legend, he was given a small diamond-encrusted ring made with his profile in the center of the ring by arguably the greatest German playwright, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Many of the details around the founding of the tradition are sketchy, but supposedly in 1814, just before his death, at one of his last performances, Iffland gave the ring to another actor, Ludwig Devrient.
This idea of passing down a ring supposedly comes from a German play from this period called Nathan the Wise. In it, there is a parable about a ring that is passed from father to son for generations.
Devrient, like Iffland, was considered one of the great actors of his era. When he died in 1832, he passed the ring along to his nephew Emil Devrient, who by all accounts wasn’t that great of an actor.
At his death in 1872, he passed the ring on to Theodor Döring, who also was considered a fine, but not a great actor.
He held the ring for only six years before he bequeathed it to Friedrich Haase in 1878.
It was with Haase that the history of the ring becomes much clearer. Some people think that Haase actually commissioned the ring himself and made up the entire backstory. However, there is little to no evidence for this.
Haase solidified the tradition of passing the ring to the person who is considered the greatest German-speaking stage actor. The theory goes that only a genius can recognize a genius.
Haase died in 1911 and wrote a letter dated 1908, which gave the ring to Albert Bassermann. By all accounts, Bassermann was a great actor and didn’t even know Haase that well, but Haase recognized him as the Greatest German actor.
In the letter Haase wrote to Bassermann, he said, “Take the ring dear sir Bassermann, wear it, you will forever remain worthy of this rare award. In time you will bestow the ring to that thespian who you consider the fittest, and fondly remember sometimes your old comrades.”
Bassermann supposedly never actually wore the ring. He actually named three different actors to get the ring, but he outlived all three of them. When the third man, Alexander Moissi died in 1935, he supposedly placed the ring on his coffin to be cremated with him because he now considered it to be cursed.
However, the director of the National Theater in Vienna, Hermann Röbbeling saved the ring by grabbing it off the coffin.
The ring was held at the Austrian National Library in Vienna. In 1946, they had a meeting with Bassermann, and he refused to take the ring back or name a successor.
With this, the Austrian National Theater became the de facto caretaker and overseer of the tradition.
Basserman died in 1952 without assigning a recipient.
So for the only time in the ring’s history, in 1954 it was given on the basis of a meeting held by the Austrian Actor’s Guild. They awarded it to Werner Krauss.
It was in 1954 that formal rules regarding the ring were established. The first rule is that the recipient must declare a successor within three months of receiving the ring to the Austrian National Theater. The selection will be held in secret until the death of the holder, or unless the successor should pass away and another successor has to be named.
Second, if there is no successor named, then a committee of the Austrian National Theater will appoint one.
Finally, the ring is the property of the Austrian government, but the next holder of the ring will always be determined by the current holder.
Krauss wasn’t probably the best choice to give the ring to. While he was most certainly an accomplished actor, he was also very tight with the Nazis. He was a cultural ambassador for Nazi Germany and performed in antisemitic propaganda films such as “Süss the Jew”.
Krauss only held the ring for five years and died in 1959. He then awarded the ring to Josef Meinrad.
According to his widow, he wanted to leave the ring to the Austrian actress Alma Seidler but felt he was bound by custom to leave it to a man. More on Alma Seidler in a bit.
It was unknown who Meinrad’s original choice was, but he changed his will in 1984. When he died in 1996, his choice was the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz.
Unless you are German, you probably aren’t familiar with any of the names I’ve mentioned so far in this episode. However, whether you know it or not, you are probably familiar with Bruno Ganz.
If you have ever seen the meme videos where Hitler is in the bunker and starts yelling at his subordinates, but they put incorrect English subtitles over it. The person playing Hitler is Bruno Ganz.
Ganz passed away in 2019 after holding the ring for 23 years. His appointed successor, and the current holder of the ring, is Jens Harzer, who was only 47 at the time he received it.
I mentioned that Werner Krauss wanted to give the ring to Alma Seidler.
When Seidler passed away in 1978, the Austrian government decided to just create a new ring using this lineage that would honor the greatest German-speaking female actress.
It is called the Alma Seidler Ring.
The first ring was given in 1979 to Paula Wessely, who was a popular actress in post-war Austria.
She died in 2000 at the age of 93 and passed the ring on to the Swiss actress ??Annemarie Düringer.
She passed away in 2014 at the age of 89 and handed the ring down to its current recipient, the Austrian actress ??Regina Fritsch.
Both of the current ring holders are in their 50s, so it might very well be decades before we see another ring transfer.
There are a lot of awards and honors which are given to actors. In America, there are the Oscars and in Germany, they give out the Lola awards.
The Iffland and Seidler Rings, however, are very unique. Not only are they some of the oldest acting awards in the world, but they also are traditions unlike anything else.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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