While England and Spain were developing their own national styles of theatre, the German-speaking countries lagged well behind, embroiled in constant warfare and religious upheaval and lacking a unifying capital city as a cultural focal point. Classical plays had little more than academic interest, and the tradition remained indigenous albeit crudely medieval. The most notable writer was the Meistersinger Hans Sachs, who transformed the bawdy Fastnachtsspiele into more acceptable farces with which to entertain Shrovetide carnival crowds. He also established Germany’s first theatre building inside a church in Nrnberg in 1550, though there were no truly professional companies to fill it.
An unexpected stimulus came from touring English troupes that had firmly established themselves in Germany by the end of the 16th century. Although there was a good deal of cross-fertilization between England and the Continent, many English actors chose exile as an escape from monopolies, suppression, and the withdrawal of playing licenses at home. They gave public performances in towns or at rural fairs and private ones in the halls of nobles. Robert Browne’s company was the first, arriving in Frankfurt in 1592. In a country where local theatre was weighed down by excessive moralizing, these actors made an immediate impact through their robustness and vivid professionalism. Their repertoire consisted mainly of pirated versions of Elizabethan tragedies and comedies, performed in English, though heavily cut and padded with enough music, dancing, acrobatics, and dumb show to overcome the language barrier. In between the acts a clown figure, combining the English fool and the German Narr (from the Fastnachtsspiel), took over with improvised antics in pidgin English sprinkled with Dutch and German phrases. Thomas Sackville created one of the first of such clown figures in the character Jan Bouschet. Similar English creations were Hans Stockfisch and Pickelherring–prototypes of the totally German character Hanswurst, who found his way into all the improvised comedies of the day. As the proportion of German actors in the English companies increased, a more indigenous drama developed known as Haupt-und-Staatsaktionen. As this term implies, such plays dealt with the intrigues of high characters in high places and abounded with blustering rhetoric and gory sensationalism. The last English troupes left Germany in 1659, by which time the Italian style of staging, with its perspective scenery, had become the fashion in spectacular court operas and the elaborate productions of Jesuit school plays (see above).
Dutch strolling players also visited Germany, performing vertoonige (“living tableaux”) and contemporary plays, Spanish drama being much favoured. Italian traveling players presented puppet theatre in Austria and southern Germany as an offshoot of the commedia dell’arte, which itself was widely imitated, particularly in Austria. While the strolling players did little to elevate German theatre to the level of the highest art, they did at least establish vital links with neighbouring European cultures, helping to inject new ideas into backward traditions and precipitating the emergence of the professional actor.