Zuckmayer, Carl 1896–1977
Zuckmayer was a German dramatist, novelist, screenwriter, essayist, and poet. He began his dramatic career as an expressionist; however, after two undistinguished plays he turned to realism. It is for his realistic dramas, which show a close affinity to the work of his friend and mentor Gerhart Hauptmann, that Zuckmayer is best known. His most successful works are generally, like The Merry Vineyard, comedies which draw upon German folk traditions; or, like The Captain from Köpenick and The Devil's General, satires on the militarism of Nazi Germany. He also wrote the German screenplay for The Blue Angel. During his career Zuckmayer received many of Germany's most prestigious literary awards: the Kleist Prize, the Georg Büchner Prize, the Goethe Prize, and the Heinrich Heine Prize. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)
[Carl Zuckmayer] ironically was dismissed from his post as dramatic producer of the theater at Kiel because of his "complete incompetence as an artist." Following his dismissal, he wrote a comedy in the dialect of his home district on the Rhine entitled Der fröhliche Weinberg (The Gay Vineyards, 1925) for which he received the highly esteemed Kleist prize. He has since published numerous plays including the well known The Captain of Köpenick (1930). Zuckmayer's immediate success hinged heavily on his realistic and down-to-earth characters. He thus broke with the tradition of the extremely stylized characters often found on the stage of late Expressionism. Although not a renovator of the theater, Zuckmayer surely stands among the most effective creators of stage drama. (p. 369)
[In] The Devil's General, Zuckmayer's sensitivity and insight enabled him to create a genuine and convincing picture of the mood reigning within Germany without having lived there himself during the last Nazi years. The play centers around a strong character, General Harras of the German air force. He openly despises the Nazi regime and continually scoffs at their twisted Weltanschauung. The play presents the last days of the hero, who is constantly observed by the SS. A feeling of threat and dread, caused by the eternal presence, secret or actual, of the all-powerful authorities of the state pervades the play. In the midst of a...
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Both Brecht's direct influence and the general vogue of anarchy and lawlessness—which were associated with America—were the potent ingredients which left their mark on Pankraz Awakens. (p. 84)
[For In the Jungle] Brecht derived his notions about America in general and Chicago in particular (as well as some of his imagery, themes and motifs) from two literary sources: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and J. V. Jensen's The Wheel…. [However,] the proximity of Brecht's early "Chicago and hinterland" was much closer to Zuckmayer's "Log cabin in the Far West" … than one would be inclined to assume…. Not surprisingly, Zuckmayer avoided an urban setting altogether; in his more conventionally realistic stage description of a rustic, if exotic, milieu which does not convey inner landscapes as do the Innenraum scenes of In the Jungle the future author of The Merry Vineyard shows his true colors. The similarity in the setting of Brecht's and Zuckmayer's plays should not induce us to conclude that Zuckmayer's choice of an American setting was due to Brecht's direct influence; rather, the general vogue of America as well as specific literary models provided the initial impetus for the selection of a certain milieu in both cases…. Zuckmayer's Far West was dependent to a considerable extent on James Fenimore Cooper and Karl May. (pp. 84-5)
[It is] their concept of America as the embodiment of sensationalism and exoticism [that] provides the common link…. Zuckmayer's drama is hardly less conspicuous [than Brecht's] in the depiction of gruesome, sensational events and the mysterious, strangely unfathomable behavior of its characters. Despite the differences of the two plays in their presentation of spectacular happenings, ill-disposed critics could not be deceived concerning the literary relationship between Brecht and Zuckmayer. In his extremely negative review of Pankraz Awakens Felix Hollaender wrote: "Brecht engendered Zuckmayer—and God save us from the offspring which Zuckmayer will bring forth." It is hardly surprising that in plays in which such spectacular happenings take place, one cannot expect an even remotely authentic description of America or the reflection of actual conditions…. Not without good reason does Eric Bentley speak of the "menagerie" of strange characters which populate Brecht's shadowy, mythical, and grotesque Chicago. (pp. 85-6)
If sensationalism, exoticism, and the presentation of an America that was largely inspired by literary sources were the only basis for a comparison of In the Jungle and Pankraz Awakens; if, in fact, these elements constituted the substance of the plays in question, then one might agree with Felix Hollaender. In his review of Pankraz Awakens he hardly felt it worth the trouble "to seriously express an opinion about this immature, bewildering stuff, this infantile mischief." An incisive critical review is...
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Zuckmayer belongs among the relatively few humorists Germany has produced. He has a depth of warmly reflective perception that never fails to hit the target. His generally well-constructed plays produce theatrical effects that ultimately silence many a critical objection. His talent as a storyteller, developed by study of the best traditions, impressively reveals an open, realistic, and humane commitment to the world. Strong imagery abounds in his poetry and epic descriptions of nature.
The sources from which Zuckmayer draws his inspiration can be found in the themes of popular art, songs, fairy tales, chronicles, and anecdotes. Such a basis in the natural and folkloristic is essentially a romantic trait and is most apparent in his poems, stories, and early plays, but it does not preclude astute observation and lifelike characterization of his country-men as real people. (p. 2)
The Merry Vineyard  is a well-made play, based on the best dramatic rules; it is deft and exhilarating and has a hardy eroticism without—according to today's standards—shocking the audience through "pornographic" excursions. But, since it must have seemed rather rustic to a metropolitan public, and its dialect form limited it regionally, no one could have foreseen that it would be universally received with such vociferous exultation. Nor can the humorous depiction of real life or its timely political sidelights fully account for its success. The plot is not even particularly well focused dramatically; rather, a picturebook sequence of scenes is well seasoned with nightclub "gags."
The core of the plot involves a colorfully mixed group of characters who congregate at the estate of a vineyard owner at the time of grape picking. Couples search for each other but fail to get together or are separated again…. Clearly it cannot have been the raw material of the plot alone, skillfully as it may have been constructed, that created euphoria in the German audience of 1925, eliciting volleys of laughter. Not just one element, but a whole complex, was responsible for the reaction. After all the poetic ecstasies of expressionist drama and the intricate problem plays of the early postwar years, the theater audience—provided it was not just looking for shallow entertainment—was starved for fresh fare…. With his prolific versatility in portraying scenic atmosphere as well as social situations, Zuckmayer was able to reach large and very different groups of spectators. Beneath the uncontestedly gross buffoonery in many of his stage effects there was a level of social satire that satisfied even the more sophisticated demands of an intelligent audience, despite some critical reservations. (pp. 36-8)
Of all Zuckmayer's plays, The Merry Vineyard probably remains the most popular…. The Merry Vineyard and others of his early plays may be viewed as conscious attempts at naturalism, stylistically expanded through topical insertions of actual quotations and contemporary speech. (p. 39)
What distinguished Zuckmayer from his contemporaries and helped him to be continuously successful was his remarkable ability to strike a balance between the tragic and the brighter side of life. This was particularly true in regard to his rustic scenes and his skillfully drawn characterizations of simple people and their earthy humor.
Zuckmayer's skill at enlivening the action with colorful images and scenes added to his popularity. Perfectly chosen local accents sustained the atmosphere of tension in the plot. During the love scenes between Johann Bückler and his Julchen [in Schinderhannes (1972)], the language turned soft and plain, almost like a folksong. Without sentimentality, many scenes attain the melodious tone of pure poetry. Zuckmayer's folk romance—as Schinderhannes might best be called—once again gave to the theater what was typical of the theater: moments of emotion, at times lyrical and at others dramatically tense. (p. 43)
Zuckmayer's subsidiary characters, especially figures in the mob, are often more true to life than some of his overdrawn or idealized heroes and heroines. However, Schinderhannes and his Julchen maintain their proper folk tone until the final curtain. That tone, now familiar on the stage, was the voice of the people. (pp. 45-6)
For a long time Zuckmayer contemplated the idea of a play on the theme of Till Eulenspiegel. The character of the Low German roguish jester and popular hero had always captivated him, and he intended to place the figure in a situation of contemporary relevance. But his ideas never crystallized into a clear concept. (p. 50)
[However, a dramatization of the true story of the Captain of Köpenick appealed to him as] a satire on Prussian militarism. The proverbial "Köpenickiad" was still fresh in the memory of his contemporaries, and the crafty swindles of the poor cobbler and recidivist convict had truly Eulenspiegel-like traits. At least one characteristic was shared by the false captain and the medieval thief: both used the weapon of the underdog cunning, to pull the mighty by the nose, thereby preserving the appearance of innocence….
Eulenspiegel had been the clever rebel among despised and oppressed peasants. The cobbler Voigt—the alleged...
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Zuckmayer's enormous success of approximately a decade ago [was] his autobiography Als wär's ein Stück von mir. The autobiography will, without doubt, retain a distinguished place in the annals of literary history as both a vivid account of the writer's development and a moving documentary report on the turbulent first half of our century. (p. 299)
Although Zuckmayer himself occasionally expressed his preference for his prose fiction, it is undeniable that the dramas have attracted the major share of critical acclaim and popular attention. The "German Trilogy" of Der fröhliche Weinberg (1925), Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (1931), and Des Teufels General (1946)...
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