Fritz Hochwälder Essay - Critical Essays


Fritz Hochwälder was one of the few contemporary dramatists who employed the traditional dramatic techniques of Aristotelian theater almost exclusively. The prevalent literary philosophy of the postwar era was that the traditional theater is passé because it is unable to stimulate social improvement or critical thought, as the epic theater, the Theater of the Absurd, and other varieties of modern theater have supposedly done. What concerned Hochwälder more than this theoretical controversy, however, was the practical condition of the German theater: He compared it to a tubercular patient, outwardly suntanned and blooming with life, but on the inside a moribund creature hastening to the grave. Generous subsidies to the theater by the cities and states suggest cultural vigor, yet the theater is dying because it has intellectualized the drama instead of encouraging vital, absorbing plays. Hochwälder’s own stated aim was to write well-constructed plays that audiences will appreciate—plays that deliver a message that audiences will understand, not plays that modern critics will endorse merely because of theatrical innovation and sophisticated intellectualism.

It is evident from his own statements about his dramas and from the plays themselves that Hochwälder used theater as an entertainer and moralist. The prevailing influence of theater as entertainment comes from the Viennese Volkstheater, and the dominant influence of Hochwälder’s message stems from World War II, especially the Nazi experience.

The Viennese theater tradition influenced him to present metaphysical truths through the senses rather than through the mind, by means of intellectual discourse. He believed that by combining spectacle and truth, his theater would be meaningful to all classes of people. In practice, his dramas for the most part adhere to his theoretical intention. His plays feature tightly knit plots with straightforward action, unity of time, place, and action, and folksy dialogue. There are character types, such as the miser Kavolius, the schemer Fouquier, and the academician Galgotzy, but most of the characters, such as the Provincial, Pomfrit, Mittermayer, and Lazaretti, are realistically developed. A major character often has a Hanswurst counterpart who is a servant or who is subordinate in rank or intellect. These exaggerated figures, such as Birnstrudl, Krott, and Damboritz, exemplify Viennese qualities of comedy and farce. Not evident in the plays, however—even those labeled comedies—is the quality of fun and lightness.

A recurring message in Hochwälder’s plays is that, because of the basic evilness of man, he is a potential murderer and must therefore always be on his guard against his own impulses, exercising personal responsibility to keep them in check. He cannot excuse himself by saying that he has merely followed orders, or that society, the times, or the circumstances are at fault, or that injustice in the world has made him the way he is. The characters in the play who have been irresponsible must usually pay the grim consequences, and those who are not guilty must beware lest the same happens to them. Even with the presence of evil and injustice, man is often capable of learning, of changing, and of achieving a kind of enlightenment or salvation. Nevertheless, there are dilemmas, resulting from the natural evil in man, that are not resolved in the plays. To try to produce heaven on earth (as in The Strong Are Lonely) will yield a hell. To try to fight terror with terror (as in Lazaretti) will bring destruction. Hochwälder believed that neither religion nor the state has the answer, nor do his dramas; consequently, the individual must grope for the solution himself, aware that his most formidable foe is himself.

The Strong Are Lonely

The Strong Are Lonely, Hochwälder’s first success, is a good example of both his theater and his message. In this play, as well in his other historical dramas, he was concerned with giving life to themes rather than biography or history. According to Hochwälder, the play portrays the eternal problems of mankind, the questions about social justice and the kingdom of God on earth.

This seventeen-character, five-act play of the classical tradition takes place in a Jesuit school in Buenos Aires in 1767. The Jesuits are trying to establish a spiritual kingdom and a social-welfare state for the Indians of Paraguay. The state is becoming so economically and militarily powerful that Spain has commanded an immediate political dissolution and an abandonment by the Jesuit founders. Should the Father Provincial, the leader of this missionary project, disobey and continue his work, providing for the spiritual and material needs of the oppressed Indians, or must he obey Spain and his religious superiors in Rome, knowing that if he does this, the Indians will be subject to further colonial exploitation?

In regard to the Indians, the play is predictable: They are unable to preserve a permanent utopia for themselves and, as a result of the Jesuits’ eventual departure, they become prey to the colonialists. Because they are portrayed as naïve, unquestioning followers whose only desire is a heaven in which there will be no lack of earthly or spiritual goods, they will necessarily be losers, regardless of the Father Provincial’s decision; whether they are under the Jesuits or under the colonialists, they will lose personal freedom and autonomy.

What is not so predictable and what makes this play dramatic theater is the Father Provincial’s internal strife when faced with opposing commands. Suspense is felt until he reluctantly reverses his first, instinctive decision to fight for the Indians and gives in to the secular command of Spain and the religious obedience to the Church—contrary to his better judgment and his conscience. The only one to refuse the Father Provincial’s new order to surrender to the Spaniards is the Jesuit ex-soldier Oros, who believes that religious authority is no longer binding when a sin is commanded. Oros intends to fight to the death defending the poor and weak. The moment of personal enlightenment for Father Provincial occurs when he is shot while attempting to quell the uprising led by Oros. As he is dying, he sees that he cannot solve his personal dilemma, that to fight force with force is futile; he hopes that the kingdom of God he feels in himself will live on in others.

Historical Dramas

After The Strong Are Lonely, Hochwälder wrote three more important historical plays: Meier Helmbrecht, The Public Prosecutor, and Donadieu. In the historical dramas, he seemed less interested in directly criticizing maladies of the recent war than in presenting timeless truths, objectified by historical garb and meant for all theatergoers regardless of time or geography. In fact, he once went so far as to say that there are no burning current issues in these plays.

In Meier Helmbrecht, the title character must stand trial because his son was a robber-knight. He pleads his innocence, saying that he cannot be held responsible because he was powerless to do anything. He did provide a horse for his son, but he was afraid of him. Finally, however, Helmbrecht acknowledges and confesses his guilt, a guilt that includes neglect, weakness, permissiveness, and cowardice. The general message of the parable seems to be that everyone shares in evil and guilt through sins of commission or omission; the play’s specific message may refer to the guilt that Germany and Austria must bear for their part in the atrocities of World War II.

Fouquier, the prosecutor in The Public Prosecutor, is also irresponsible but is more guilty because of his ruthlessness. To preserve his own life and position, he is ready to serve a terrorist government, even if it means sending innocent people to the guillotine. Through his own guile, he unwittingly prepares a case against himself; he is condemned and sent to the same death that he has arranged for so many others. The play ends in a struggle for power and forebodes even further terror and the downfall of yet another tyrant.

Donadieu poses the timeless questions of revenge and retribution, and the...

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