History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/German Post-WWII

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Friedrich Dürrenmatt[edit]

Friedrich Dürrenmatt showed how a vengeful woman unsettled an entire town, 1989

A main figure in the German-speaking post-World War II period is Swiss-born Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990), notably for "Der Besuch der alten Dame" (The visit, more precisely The visit of the old lady, 1956).

"The visit of the old lady"[edit]

An old woman seduces and terrorizes an entire town with money. Poster of the play at the Oldenburgischen Staatstheater, Oldenburg, Germany, 1973

Time: 1950s. Place: Fictional town of Guellen, Switzerland.

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During difficult economic times, townspeople harbor great hopes in obtaining charitable grants from an immensely wealthy Claire Zachanassian, who once lived their midst 45 years ago, a town of proud traditions, where Goethe spent one night. While practicing his welcoming speech, the mayor notes down biographic facts concerning her, how she succeeded high school courses in botany and zoology, intending to emphasize her generosity. The great lady arrives sooner than expected, having taken an early train and illegally pulling the emergency brake, which she covers up by bribing the station-master. Missing an arm and leg, Claire has no patience for any type of bodily discomfort. She appears especially glad to see Alfred, her lover at the time, in an ill condition. She surprises the townspeople by delivering an empty coffin at her hotel, even more so by declaring she will grant them an enormous sum of money provided they kill her ex-lover for having falsely denied his paternity, which led her to a brothel until freed by a rich client, the first of her seven husbands. She has already castrated and blinded two of Alfred's false witnesses, now part of her entourage. Although the townspeople at first swear they are behind Alfred, before long he has many reasons to worry. The townspeople are suspiciously buying luxurious items on credit. The head of police and the mayor find no reason to arrest her. The priest specifies he should fear God, then advises him to leave town, but, on his way to the train station, the townspeople persistently surround Alfred till he faints in their midst. They then beseech Claire to withdraw her proposal and invest in the community, but she answers she has already invested in it, having bought it out. "The world turned me into a whore; I will turn it into a brothel," she declares. More prosperous times seem imminent, as shown by the new expensive clothes worn by Alfred's daughter, his son's new automobile, his wife's new fur-coat. The mayor arrives at Alfred's general shop with a gun, asking him to commit suicide for the good of the community, but he refuses. A town meeting is organized, broadcast on radio, at which it is covertly decided that Alfred must be exterminated. Once his closest adherent, the schoolmaster, eulogizes Claire before a cheering crowd: "Her aim is to have the spirit of the community transformed into the spirit of justice," he affirms, which the townspeople execute.

Rolf Hochhuth[edit]

Rolf Hochhuth described the relation between the papacy and nazism, 1966

Of equivalent interest is Rolf Hochhuth (1931-?) for "Der Stellvertreter" (The vicar, 1963). "The vicar" is a play on the relation between Nazi Germany and the Roman Catholic Church when Pius XII (1876-1958) was pope.

"The vicar"[edit]

Pope Pius XII protects individual Jews without openly denouncing Hitler

Time: 1940s. Place: Germany, Italy.

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Lieutenant and medical officer in the Schutzstaffel (SS, Protective Squadron), Gerstein informs the papal nuncio about Jews being killed in great numbers in Poland, Belzec, and Treblinka, but he turns away and suggests that he tell Adolf Hitler of this matter. Gerstein next informs German colleagues that the nature of the gas in the death chambers must be changed because the generators break down and that some die too slowly, after an hour. In gratitude for services rendered by his Jewish servant, Jacobson, Gerstein arranges for him to obtain a passport from a Jesuit, Riccardo Fontana. Count Fontana, the Jesuit's father, has just been admitted to the Order of Jesus-Christ and disapproves of his son's aggressive tactics to convince Pope Pius XII of the need to denounce openly the massacre of the Jews, all the more so on hearing him speak to a cardinal about this matter. The cardinal argues that Hitler must not be beaten by the atheist Soviet State but by England and America and that in any case the mass murders should soon stop. In Rome, the Jewish Luccani family prepare to hide in a Roman convent, but are prevented by the Germans. Gerstein and Riccardo together seek to convince the cardinal about the need to denounce Hitler, but he counters that they already do enough. "We even give shelter to non-baptized Jews," he specifies. Gerstein and Riccardo then try to convince a priest involved at the Vatican Radio to commit to their views, but are unsuccessful as well. Meanwhile, Commandant Salzer is ordered to round up more Jews in Rome. In view of Luccani's military service, Salzer assures him that he will be sent to Theresienstadt, where chances of survival are better than most. Count Fontana returns to the cardinal to say that Riccardo intends to follow the Jews to a concentration camp, which he considers foolish and liable to compromise the Roman church. He is especially worried about the vacuum in Italy created by Mussolini's fall, a man who had always countered the communists. Pope Pius XII reiterates his policy in this matter, on one hand paying large sums to shelter Jews in Rome but, on the other, refusing to defy Hitler openly. "Only Hitler, dear count, now defends Europe," he says. Without a strong German state, Eastern Europe is liable to be taken over by the Soviets. Riccardo is incensed, giving the example of the Danish king as the guide to follow, but no argument convinces the pope to change his strategy. Riccardo makes good on his threat and follows a contingent of Jews at Auschwitz, where Gerstein finds him together with Jacobson. When Gerstein requests Riccardo to help Jacobson a second time, he dons a priest's robe but is recognized as an impostor and shot to death. Riccardo is also shot, then thrown into a fire while still alive.

Peter Weiss[edit]

Peter Weiss delved into French history of the 18th century, 1982

Peter Weiss (1916-1982) wrote "Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade" (The persecution and assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade, generally known as Marat/Sade, 1963). "Marat/Sade" is based on historical events relating to the arrest of the marquis the Sade in Charenton prison.


Portrait of Donatien Alphonse François, marquis de Sade (1740-1814) by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo (1719-1795)

Time: 1808. Place: Paris, France.

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To pass the time while held in a madhouse, the marquis de Sade presents a play on the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat in 1793, a key figure in the reign of terror following the French revolution. In the play, Marat exhorts the people to continue the revolution, emphasizing that priests are on the side of power, not theirs. The director of the establishment, Coulmier, objects to this part. With the advent of the revolution, a greater number of people are free to accumulate riches. "And we find where that leads," continues Marat, "everyone free to fight fraternally and with equal arms, every man his own millionaire, man against man, group against group, in happy mutual robbery." His exhortations are approved by the radical Jacques Roux, excellent at rabble-rousing, demanding the public ownership of shops, the transformation of churches into schools, with Marat as the leader of their cause. However, the marquis de Sade does not believe in causes. In self-disgust, he requests to be whipped. Resuming his political views, Marat points out further that the government cuts deals with foreign invaders to undermine the revolution. Coulmier once more objects to presenting such views, pointing out that the emperor has rehabilitated these persons. The marquis dismisses Marat's criticisms of society and maintains that "there is nothing beyond the body". Afraid and dismayed at the growing reign of terror and his leading role in it, Charlotte Corday visits Marat. The marquis encourages Marat to gaze on this woman. "Her breast naked under the thin cloth and perhaps carrying a knife, to intensify the love-play," he adds. The marquis interrupts her as she is about to strike, so that Marat may hear of the events following his death. With both arms raised, she then plunges the knife in Marat's breast, at which the patients scream as he lays dying.

Heiner Müller[edit]

Heiner Müller described the chaotic condition of East Germany in the 1940s, 1989

Heiner Müller (1929-1995) was the main dramatist of note in East German, in particular for writing "Die Umsiedlerin" (The resettled woman, 1961), concerned with the agrarian reform ("Bodenreform") in East Germany, whereby land belonging to former Nazis and war criminals was expropriated and converted into collective people's farms ("Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaft") among peasant farmers, agricultural laborers, and refugees.

"The resettled woman"[edit]

Time: 1940s. Place: East Germany.

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During the agrarian reform, Ketzer, a farmer, is fined for not producing enough milk, as he had to sell his cow to buy a horse. In view of his inability to pay, he is threatened to have his property seized by the state. The burgomaster, Beutler, approves and supports Treiber, another farmer, in his attempts at recuperating the money Ketzer owes him. When Treiber is about to take away his horse, Ketzer stabs it to death. In despair over his financial troubles, Ketzer then hangs himself. Later, a fugitive from another region and former burgomaster on the run for his political opinions pleads Beutler to help him hide from the authorities. Beutler's friend, Rammler, agrees to hide the fugitive in exchange for money, as they discover the man made off with the contents of the treasury. Beutler accepts cash beneath the table from both Rammler and the fugitive. Despite his proferred help, Beutler denounces the fugitive to the police. In a town meeting, Senkpiel insinuates his burgomaster's treachery in regard to the arrested fugitive. In response, Beutler threatens him with deportation to Siberia should he say another word on this subject, maligning a representative of the state being equivalent, in his mind, to maligning the state, an act of treason worthy of the severest penalties. Flint, a party member and organizer, quarrels with his wife, as a result of being frustrated at her lack of knowledge, especially concerning political matters, while she is frustrated at his philandering, calling him a "chaser of women's red skirts". She leaves while he is still talking. When a mine dating from World War II explodes in a labored field, a tractor-worker is injured. To help bind his wounds, Niet, a resettled woman from Poland, tears out a peasant woman's sheet. The peasant woman reminds her that the sheet will be deducted from her salary. In another part of the region, a peasant trips over a drunk tractor-worker. The peasant complains to the authorities. "He who plows my daughter should not leave my field uncultivated," he declares. The tractor-worker responds by asking him which one among the photographs of women he carries in his pocket is his daughter, he having "many mares in his stable". After being pointed out who she is, the tractor-worker demands money if the peasant wants his field plowed before that of others. The peasant gives him some. He then asks for money if he wants the plowing done in straight lines. The peasant gives him some more. When his daughter shows up, the peasant recommends her to open her blouse for the sake of the tractor-worker. Meanwhile, Flint attempts to persuade a lazy good-for-nothing beer-guzzler, Fondrak, Niet's lover, to take over Ketzer's field following his suicide. Fondrak refuses because working makes beer taste less appealing. When a pastor leaves his motorcycle behind for Fondrak to repair, he does so but then sells it to a collector of production quotas so that the latter can escape to the western world. A district counsellor arrives to examine the town organization. He dismisses Beutler as burgomaster for ignoring the people's criticisms. Beutler is then pursued by the police for illegal activities while in office. The district counsellor offers the job to Flint, leery about accepting it but attempting once again to have Fondrak accept Ketzer's property, who, pushed by Niet, finally accepts, then leaves her with the business on her hands. Treiber as an important property-owner is pressured by the authorities to submit to the agrarian reform. He is so disgusted with the changes that he leaves to hang himself, but bungles the job. Thinking him dead, his wife faints. When she revives in a confused state and sees her husband again, she wonders whether they are in heaven or hell, while Treiber moves his arms as if ready to fly upward to heaven. A worker comments laconically that Treiber is still here because "heaven was full up".

Franz Xaver Kroetz[edit]

Franz Xaver Kroetz (1946-?) wrote "Maennersache" (Men's business, 1972).

"Men's business"[edit]

Time: 1970s. Place: Germany.

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Otto, a seasonal worker in metal works, and Martha, owner of a butcher's shop, are eating caviar as a live-in couple. When Martha speaks of her writing a journal about their relationship, she notices Otto taking out a pornographic magazine. "Men's business," he announces, to shut her up. Later, while she takes her clothes off, Otto becomes bothered by her dog's whining, goes outside, and beats it till it goes quiet, then comes back to make love. "You're not pretty, but you like it," he comments approvingly. On another occasion, he grumbles yet again about the whining dog. "He licks you below the skirt when you turn your back to him," he accuses, but she denies any improper behavior. One day, to please him, Martha announces she has killed it, a lie, Otto discovers, after finding the dog inside a cold room. When Otto later arrives with a rifle, ostensibly to kill the dog, she goes out and shoots it herself. Another thing bothers him about his girlfriend: how slow she is before being sexually aroused. "It was better with the dog from behind," he accuses. He further adds that, in his view, the probable reason she is more slowly aroused by him is because in general she refuses to submit to him. "You have no respect for me. That's how it is," she counters. Exasperated, she takes up his low-caliber rifle and shoots in his direction, but misses him. He challenges her to try again. In her next attempt, she hits him on the shoulder. "Now it's your turn," she says. He hits her with the first shot, then hands the rifle back to her. After missing twice, she manages to hit him again. Otto hits back, as does she, but when he successfully hits his target again, the blow is too much for her and she falls. "Do you give up?" crows Otto over her prone body.

Fritz Hochwälder[edit]

Hochwälder described the depth where a scholar can sink to publish an original book, 1979

Fritz Hochwälder (1911-1986) was the main Austrian-born dramatist of the period with "Lazaretti" (1975). Hochwälder also wrote "The public prosecutor" (1949), "The strong are lonely" (1943, more precisely The sacred experiment), and "The raspberry picker (1965). "The public prosecutor" concerns Theresa Tallien's revenge on a public prosecutor during the period of the Reign of Terror in late 18th century France. "The sacred experiment" concerns the forced abandonment of the Jesuit settlement in Paraguay by Spanish noblemen jealous of their countrymen's success. "The raspberry picker" concerns conflicts among villagers arising from the misidentification of a Nazi murderer known for having killed thousands of men while picking raspberries in a field.


Time: 1970s. Place: Near Lake Lugano, Switzerland.

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Professor Camenisch has been asked to write a book for a prestigious printing house but has been unable to provide it. His secretary, Rouzha, is sought after by the local psychiatrist, Dr Fliess, but is unable to convince her to quit her job and follow him to a first-class sanatorium near Lausanne, because she takes pity on her boss, specifying that he would be lost without her help. Camenisch receives the visit of a boyhood friend, Lazaretti, on the run because of persecution at the hands of men who have heard rumors about his latest manuscript, entiled "On the death of persecutors", exposing evil-doers past and present. Camenisch agrees to offer him a room in his villa. Lazaretti specifies that he has been alone since his secretary, Peltzer, obtained a rich inheritance at his father's death. Camenisch also agrees to keep Lazaretti's manuscript secure in his safe. Fearing that his friend suffers from paranoia, Camenisch orders his servant, Damboritz, to verify whether potential persecutors have been seen around town. He specifies to Fliess that in Lazaretti's last published book, "Total Aggression", an appeal is made to murder evil-doers, a subject continued in the current manuscript. He invites to dinner Fliess and Lazaretti along with his neighbor, Galgotsky, whereby Lazaretti is goaded into explaining his views. "My plan is simple: the establishment and organization of an international secret society on the model of the Jesuits, Freemasons, and similar associations. What ensues from this is something new: a conspiracy of young idealists from all lands, peoples, races, with the goal to set to work wherever law and humanity are threatened." He jumps up in alarm on discovering that Fliess is already informed about the manuscript and requests his host to give it back at five o'clock in the train station. Convinced that Lazaretto is mentally ill, Fliess proposes to Camenisch that they meet his friend at the train station so that he can convince him to follow him at the local psychiatric institute. Fliess also requests the manuscript for his records, which Camenisch reluctantly yields with the promise that it will be returned to him at 4:30. Camenisch next learns from Damboritz that Lazaretti's suspicions appear verified, since a group of four men have been following and persecuting him. Camenisch doubts this until receiving the visit of Peltzer, who informs him that he indeed intends on persecuting a man he considers a potential criminal. It is 4:30 and Fliess has not arrived. Sensing that he and Camenisch intend to cheat each other since neither informed the other that Lazaretti is armed, Rouzha leaves both. Unexpectedly, Lazaretti arrives to retrieve his manuscript, which Camenisch is unable to provide. However, Camenisch assures him that, based on Damboritz's spying activities, Peltzer has changed his mind and gone away. But Lazaretti does not believe him, raising his revolver to shoot him until disarmed by Damboritz. When Fliess arrives, Lazaretti submits to him. An overjoyed Camenisch takes up the manuscript to send it to his publisher as if it were his own.