Few modern writers exhibit the scope, diversity, and depth of artistic production of Günter Grass. As a playwright he provides witty dialogues and clever situations as well as black humor, and his use of theatrical techniques is adept. Together with his novels, poetry, and graphics, Grass’s plays constitute an uvre that is unsurpassed in postwar German literature.
Grass’s preoccupation with dramatic forms—plays and ballets—predates and partially overlaps with his early novels, which have earned him enduring literary fame. His dramatic works developed over the years, and their genesis usually predates their first production by a year or two. Therefore, like his enduring occupation with lyric poetry and the graphic arts, these plays deserve critical attention as the crucibles in which his later monumental narratives were first formed. Grass’s dramas demonstrate his literary and graphic uvre to be an organic, if often surprising, whole, in which thought patterns and ideas are reshaped, recycled, and reconstituted. The seeds of many later episodes, characters, and ideas in his novels and political essays can be found first in the dramatic works.
Grass’s plays were performed in important regional theaters such as Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne, Hamburg, and Bochum, and broadcast on the radio. Three of his plays, The Wicked Cooks, The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, and Max, and his ballet Die Vogelscheuchen had their premiere in Berlin. Some of his plays were considerably reworked over a long period from their first genesis to the performance version to final publication. The collected works of Grass in German (Werkausgabe, 1987), published in honor of his sixtieth birthday, contain eleven plays. Although almost all his major works have appeared in English translation, there is no complete English edition.
The characteristic feature of Grass’s plays is the extreme lack of action. Nothing, or very little, happens, thus focusing the viewer’s attention on the ideas and structures rather than the plot. Often his plays feature a play-within-a-play. Because many of Grass’s plays were first published in literary magazines, much clarity about the origins, the first publications, and performance history of Grass’s plays has been provided by the final volume of his German collected works with its commendable scholarly apparatus.
Grass’s polyhistorical interests permeate all aspects of his artistic production, both graphic and literary. The dramas demonstrate the author’s command of form as expressed in the idiom of the theater and, by comparison to his other works, the control and manipulation of content. All of his plays experiment with traditional dramatic elements, themes, and structures. Grass’s plays have met with only limited success, a fact that might be attributed to the topical nature of the plays, to the dearth of any real action and the focus on verbal argument, and to their inherent tendency to be nondramatic. For example, temporal as well as geographic proximity of themes in The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising and Max—Bertolt Brecht, the revolt of 1953, the Berlin Wall, student rebellions—may have prompted the initially mixed reception of these works.
His dramatic works are generally divided into two categories. The earlier group, which includes Flood, Mister, Mister, Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo, and The Wicked Cooks, features the absurd or grotesque, and The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising and Max represent the new dramaturgical impetus of dialectical theater in the Brechtian sense. The two groups are distinct in the treatment of thematic material as well as in dramatic elements and structures. In all the plays, however, there is a marked tendency to avoid dramatic situations and the resolution of the plot in a traditional manner. The author refuses to provide any answers to the many provocative questions posed in his dramatic works.
Grass himself relegated the early plays to the category of “poetic” theater, a designation that reflects the integral relationship of his early lyrics and plays. Poems that bear the same name or that treat themes similar to those of the corresponding drama exist in many instances. Grass explains his procedure in this way:And so the transition from poetry to drama happened like this: poems were written in dialogue form, and were then extended. That was shortly after the war. Then slowly, gradually, stage directions were added, and so, parallel with my main occupation at that time, sculpture, I evolved my first play. That is why in a relatively short time, between 1954 and 1957, I wrote four full-length and two one-act plays, which, just like my poems and my prose, contain fantastic and realistic elements; these fantastic and realistic elements rub against each other and keep each other in check.
The two-act play Flood depicts humankind’s uncanny ability to deal nonchalantly with periodic catastrophe and the inability to learn anything at all from this experience. Noah, together with his sister-in-law Betty, moves his cherished collection of antique inkwells to a higher story; she, in turn, is worried about her photo collection. Noah’s daughter, Jutta, and her fiancé, Henn, are listless youths, too bored to help or even to make love. The arrival of the aggressive duo, Leo (Noah’s son) and Kongo (Leo’s friend and an erstwhile boxer), from out of a packing crate catalyzes the situation. Leo and Kongo force Henn out on the roof, where a pair of wise rats, Strich and Perle (their names allude to rain), observe and comment on history and human behavior. Henn is not at all perturbed by Jutta’s liaison with Kongo; everyone is aware that their attraction for each other will last only as long as the flood.
Meanwhile, Noah naps and Betty sews parasols for the sunny weather ahead. What strikes the audience is that no one is worried about the rain and the rising water, no one considers the imminent peril; all are content to wait until their previous lifestyles can be resumed. The notion of rats abandoning a sinking ship receives an ironic twist: Here the wise rats, who suspect a return to normality and therefore to rattraps, embark for Hamelin as soon as the water recedes. Henn returns to Jutta, Noah sees to his inkwells, and Leo and Kongo depart for Liverpool (or maybe the North Pole), taking along Noah’s grandfather clock, from which emerges an official insurance inspector, who is anxious to assess the damages incurred during the flood.
Biblical elements and their parodies abound: Noah, the dove with some “weeds” in its beak, the dove on the armband of the insurance assessor, the cyclical rain and high waters versus the biblical flood, and the moldy rainbow that whets the rats’ appetite. The unusual juxtaposition of persons, objects, and animals, typical of Grass’s early works, returns to “normal” after the flood. The play points to the absurdity of human behavior in the face of disaster—with a minimum amount of action. As in Rocking Back and Forth, there is emphasis on motion leading nowhere—back and forth, up and down the stairs to avoid the rising water.
Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo
In Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo, Grass similarly flouts the tradition of forward-moving motion of the plot and action. The countdown to only ten minutes to Buffalo contrasts starkly to the immobility of the rusty locomotive in an alpine meadow. The marine terminology used by Krudewil and Pempelfort...
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