Franz Werfel Essay - Critical Essays


Although the plays of Franz Werfel cover a wide range of subjects and styles, certain motifs and themes run throughout his works from the earliest experiments to his last realistic drama. Werfel’s primary assumptions about life are as follows: The most important thing in the world is people’s relationship to God, other people, and nature. Faith in God is necessary, and humanity’s highest calling is to effect a mystical union with the rest of humankind, a kind of brotherhood of man, but any attempt to impose a faith or, worse yet, to impose a materialistic-realistic interpretation of life on other people, is evil. The “isms” that have frequently been substituted for religion by the modern age are, in reality, merely vast materialistic superstitions that are bound to fail. Furthermore, evil does exist in the world and in the soul of humanity; to deny the existence of this evil, or to attempt to control it through force, might unleash it. Bureaucracy, technology, orthodoxy, and methodology tend to separate people and dehumanize them; faith, love, art, drama, music, and poetry tend to bring people together. Finally, although the effort to warn one’s fellow humans of the presence of evil often results in estrangement, one has an obligation to give such warnings.

When these major concerns of Werfel are considered, it can be seen that his dramas present consistent patterns of image, symbol, character, and theme. Werfel’s works are marked by the bringing together of people of very divergent views and backgrounds and the clash between the ideal and the mundane, between faith and orthodoxy, and between imposed Utopianism and the hardship of freedom. For example, in his preface to Die Troerinnen des Euripides, his free adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, Werfel states: “There is an essential tragedy in the world—a break—an original sin, wherein all participate, and from which the understanding soul suffers most.”


In the three-part expressionist drama Spiegelmensch (mirror man), almost all these themes are encountered. In this play, Thamal is turned away from an Oriental monastery. Discovering a mystical looking glass, he tries to destroy his mirror image, thinking by that method to kill the evil side of nature. He succeeds, however, only in freeing the “mirror man,” who then persuades Thamal to become a leader of men.

After causing the death of his father, eloping with his best friend’s bride, Ampheh, and then deserting her while she is pregnant with his child, Thamal hears of a people suffering under the rule of Anathas, the snake god. Thamal fights and defeats Anathas, who then prophesies that Thamal will rule only if he remains pure. The mirror man then declares Thamal to be a god, but Thamal is deposed and must flee.

Alone in the wilderness, Thamal again meets Ampheh, who refuses to go back to him. Ampheh’s child has died, as has Thamal’s best friend. In the end, Thamal judges himself guilty and takes poison. The mirror man returns to the looking glass, which becomes a window of purity, and Thamal transmigrates again to the monastery, where he is free of falsity and can embrace true values.

In this drama, the true values of friendship and love clash with the false values of Utopian idealism. The struggle against oppression leads again to oppression because of the lack of spiritual values: People’s lives must be more than mere reflections of themselves.

Goat Song

Goat Song employs similar themes. In this play, Stevan, the leader of a village, has fathered a monster, half man and half goat, which is kept in a stone house, a secret from all but Stevan, his wife, and the doctor. Somehow, however, the creature breaks loose (“the animal in us takes possession”) and ravages the countryside, bringing death and destruction. The beast is eventually captured by Juvan, the leader of a peasant revolt. The peasants worship the creature as a kind of god of violence and revolution. The beast is finally destroyed, and Juvan is led away to be hanged, but not before Stevan has been forced to acknowledge that he fathered the beast and not before he loses Mirko, his human son, to suicide. In the final scene, Mirko’s beloved Stanja reveals that she is carrying within her the child of the beast.

Again in this play, although symbolic structure is very profound, one can recognize Werfel’s recurring themes. The sins of the father, Stevan, are visited on his sons, Mirko and the monster. Also, Stevan’s attempt to hide evil and his failure to warn others cause a greater catastrophe to be loosed on the countryside, and the peasants worship of that which is half-man-half-beast leads, finally, to the cyclic perpetuation of evil.


(The entire section is 1971 words.)