Friedrich Wolf Essay - Critical Essays


H. G. Wells described the early twentieth century as an “age of confusion.” He was thinking of the political and social turmoil of the time, but considering the vast artistic output, the swift succession of aesthetic currents designated by so many “isms,” the numerous contradictory theories existing side by side, and the fanaticism with which each movement set out to regenerate humankind, one would be inclined to extend Wells’s statement to include literature and the arts. Friedrich Wolf’s works, too, encompass some of these “isms.” His early writings were strongly influenced by expressionism —in the visual and literary arts, a tendency that strives for the expression of subjective feelings and emotions rather than the objective depiction of reality or nature. When Wolf began his career as a playwright, this movement was at its peak, with plays such as Georg Kaiser’s Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (pb. 1916, pr. 1917; From Morn to Midnight, 1920), Ernst Toller’s Masse-Mensch (pr. 1920, pb. 1921; Masses and Man, 1924), Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (pr. 1920), and others. In a later period, expressionism was marked by the disillusionment of World War I, which prompted a new concern for social truths. In literary expressionism, the characters and scenes are presented in a stylized manner with the intent of producing an emotional shock, sometimes through grotesque humor. Expressionist drama also gave rise to a new approach to staging, scene design, and directing. The objective of prominent contemporary stage directors such as Erwin Piscator, for example, was to create a unified production as perceived by the audience, a legacy of German Romanticism. It is within this framework that Wolf wrote his early plays: Mohammed in 1917, Das bist du in 1918, Der Unbedingte in 1919, Die schwarze Sonne in 1920, and Tamar in 1921. The author later rejected expressionism and what it represented, and he rewrote some of his earlier plays in an attempt to adapt their structure and message to the principles of socialist realism.

Der Löwe Gottes

One of the few books which the army doctor Wolf carried in his backpack during his service in World War I was a German translation of the Qur՚an. Amid the agonizing battles in the trenches of Flanders, Wolf wrote a typically expressionistic “scream play,” Der Löwe Gottes (the lion of God). The work, specified as an “oratorium,” consists of a succession of bold images, monologues, and dialogues; its key word is “heart.” By means of a messianic figure, the author intended to depict the path of humankind. The play deals with the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, until his flight from Mecca to Medina. Its focal point is the Prophet’s vocation to action. The work has strongly pacifistic overtones, and Leo Tolstoy’s “doctrine of nonviolence” forms an important element in the drama. In 1922, the play was published in K. Lorenz’s book Die rote Erde (red earth), and again in 1924 under the title Mohammed: Ein Schauspiel (Muhammad: a play). When Wolf rewrote the play, he tried to concentrate the plot on the social issues in Mecca at the time of Muhammad’s life and on the clashes between the ruling classes and the slaves. The new version, however, published in 1960 in the edition of the collected works, lacks the energy and immediacy of the original version, which Wolf had created “with the stroke of a pen.” This should come as no surprise. Wolf had tried to adapt the play to the principles of socialist realism, which demand a faithful, concrete representation of historical truth in its revolutionary development—that is, as it should be according to Marxist doctrine—and these requirements are diametrically opposed to the expressionistic aesthetic that informed the original version.

Das bist du

Although the expressionists believed that the decisive change in the life of modern people had to be accomplished by the individual, not by any social program, even in the original version of Mohammed, Wolf implicitly alluded to problems of his own time as well. This dimension is more clearly evident in Das bist du (that are you), produced in 1919, which was the first of a great number of Wolf’s plays to be produced on the stage. The title refers to an ancient Indian saying. The prelude presents several as-yet-unformed “beings” in the process of metempsychosis. In the main action, they return as woman, youth, ax, cross, and bench, while the central characters, the Tolstoy-like figure of Andreas and the symbolic figure of evil, the blacksmith Lukas, have already experienced earthly incarnation. On earth, the “things” and “humans” meet. While the humans remain in a passive state, initially incapable of action, the things (symbols of the antihuman) demand action: The ax wants to kill and seduce death; the cross, tired of the burden of love, wants to be an instrument of martyrdom again; and the bench wants to be a prop for the sinful deed.

The gardener, Andreas, lives in Utopia, a pure, Christian world of ideals, protected against temptation. Ruled by her desire, his wife, Martha, is a prisoner of her unquenched longing for love. The gardener’s helper, Johannes, vacillates between the two of them, and the demoniac, evil nature of Lukas the blacksmith meets with no response from the woman. This state of human existence, devoid of all potential for development, remains eternally the same and is, therefore, sterile. Finally, however, it is transformed by willful action into tragedy: The wife seduces the youth, who in turn allows himself to be seduced. The blacksmith then pushes, tempts, and rouses the jealous husband, Andreas, to the bloody deed. The ax in Andreas’s hand presses itself forward, and as Andreas sees his wife and the youth embracing on the bench, he fells the cross with the ax, and the falling cross strikes the youth dead.

In the epilogue, which is set on a glacier on another planet, the “humans” and “things” are transformed back into “beings” who find themselves in the next highest stage of metempsychosis. Now the “being” Andreas willingly chooses the woman, and with her, life. Johannes, who through his death has been purified, liberates the “beings” from the night of eternal sameness, a symbol for the rigid resistance of matter, and flares up into the radiant flame of the will, in which all beings merge and disappear: “We wanted to annihilate ourselves, but have been transformed.” Elements of Indian and Christian religious philosophy, Arthur Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1819; The World as Will and Idea, 1883-1886), and Wolf’s own, still awkwardly articulated worldview are here compressed into a problematical transformation play. The primitive earthly action comes across much more effectively than the vague framework of reflection, abstract poetry, and thought.

Der arme Konrad

Most of Wolf’s early plays carry strong autobiographical overtones and suggest ideas stemming from the Wandervogel youth movement. By the early 1920’s, however, as the nationalist, conservative forces in Germany were growing more articulate, the left-wing writers felt the need to deal with problems of practical interest; they could no longer find their criteria in abstract aesthetics. Wolf, along with many left-wing writers, began to adopt a style associated with the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity ), frequently using material that was readily accessible in German life, past and present. Der arme Konrad (poor Konrad) illustrates this shift in Wolf’s approach. A historical drama focusing on an episode from the year 1514 during the German peasants’ uprisings, it is accompanied by extensive stage directions; Wolf had supplied his works with such annotations before, but in the case of Der arme Konrad, he added an afterward with information on his sources and extensive suggestions for the smaller theaters and drama workshops so popular with the socialists and Communists. A later edition carries a report by the author on former performances, specifically on open-air stages.

Kolonne Hund

Kolonne Hund (Hund’s troop) deals with Wolf’s experiences of 1920 in Worpswede, where the artist Heinrich Vogeler had placed some land at the disposal of a group of...

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