Johann Nestroy Essay - Critical Essays


Johann Nestroy’s works stand at the end of the Viennese folk-theater tradition, and at the beginning of the modern theater of tragicomedy. Appreciation for the striking modernity of Nestroy’s vision has continued to grow, as is evidenced by Tom Stoppard’s adaptation On the Razzle (1981), and Nestroy’s work is seen in the context of the profound influence of Austrian culture on the modern mind.

Nestroy shares with modern playwrights their predominantly intellectual-ironic-objective stance, their skepticism, and especially their aversion to false pathos. In particular, he shares with Bertolt Brecht the effect of deliberate alienation. Nestroy even anticipated Brecht’s technique of alienation through song in his couplets. Parody in Nestroy’s work and in modern plays serves the identical purpose of alienating the audience from ideas and values long held sacred and opening the spectator’s eye to a new perspective. Indeed, Nestroy’s affinity with modern playwrights such as Dürrenmatt and Eugène Ionesco runs deeper still, for he often went beyond the parodistic reinterpretation of a given situation to a parody of language itself, a parody of overused and meaningless phrases and metaphors, of virtuous banalities and proverbs, even to a parody of the pompous theatrical language of his time, which he effectively contrasted with the Viennese folk dialect. Franz Mautner postulates that Peter Handke’s 1966 Pubikumsbeschimpfung und andere Sprechstücke (plays about language), which closely investigate each word as to its possible range of meanings, are unthinkable without Nestroy’s example. Present-day theatrical devices such as the division of the stage into two or more independent spheres of action are also common occurrences in Nestroy.

Nestroy’s shunning of the illusion of theatrical reality can be traced to the influence of the commedia dell’arte on his writing. This influence can be seen best in his characters and plots. Originality is not important to him, and he usually borrows the plot from other works, including the comedies of antiquity. His farces consist of an artful mechanism held in motion by stock characters, burlesque situations, and theatrical coups. There are jealous lovers, fathers who want to prevent their children’s marriages, cunning servants, and crafty craftsmen. His plays are filled with the Viennese lower and middle classes: the shoemakers and tailors, the rich merchants and parvenus, the servants and masters. In some ways, these farces must have been regarded by their audiences in the same manner in which the more intelligent television situation comedies are received today.

Der Tod am Hochzeitstage

Reflecting the heritage of the Viennese folk theater, magic plays a significant role in Nestroy’s work. Its representatives have become all too human, however, their virtuous or evil qualities reduced in scale. Clearly, the effects of romanticism are noticeable in Nestroy, even though he was anything but a romantic writer. One of his earliest plays, Der Tod am Hochzeitstage (death on the wedding day), is not far removed from romantic Symbolism. Its protagonist Dappschädl, “the fool of melancholy,” dreams of what could have happened if his wife had not died twenty-five years earlier. In his despair, he throws himself on his servant girl Seppi, and as his mournful feelings well up, he tries to seduce her. This early comedy is a mixture of magic and disillusionment, a parody of romantic witchcraft that expresses the absurd in life.

Nagerl und Handschuh

Nestroy employed a specifically Viennese locale for the first time in his play Nagerl und Handschuh (Nagerl and the glove). This “parody of an often satirized theme” (Cinderella) replaces the shoe with a glove and the gruesome ending for the older sisters with a happy one.

Der böse Geist Lumpazivagabundus

It was a play in the following year, however, Der böse Geist Lumpazivagabundus (the evil spirit Lumpazivagabundus), that signified Nestroy’s breakthrough as the most prominent Viennese actor and playwright of his time. As with most of his plays, Nestroy here drew on an earlier source, Carl Weisflog’s Das grosse Los (1827; the winning ticket). In good baroque fashion, and again like most of his plays, it has a double title, the second half of which lifts the veil on that which is about to happen just enough to whet the audience’s appetite (in this case the subtitle, “Das liederliche Kleeblatt” means “the roguish trio”). The real world of nineteenth century Vienna and the fairy kingdom encounter each other in this story of three dissolute journeymen: a shoemaker, a tailor, and a carpenter. The old magicians of the realm, led by Mystifax, complain to the Fairy King Stellaris about Lumpazivagabundus, who has seduced their sons and daughters into a dissolute life. The king commands Fortuna to return their squandered possessions to them, but Lumpazivagabundus mocks that wealth will never better the young. As if to prove his point, Hilaris, the son of Mystifax, exclaims that only love can conquer the dissolute, and he demands the hand of Brillantine, Fortuna’s daughter. Fortuna refuses, even though Amorosa takes the side of the lovers. Finally, Fortuna offers the following condition: Three dissolute humans shall receive wealth from her horn of plenty. If two of them make wise use of their gifts, Brillantine and Hilaris shall not marry; if two squander their wealth obstinately, Amorosa will be victorious.

The action then shifts to the city of Ulm, where the audience is introduced to the shoemaker Knieriem, a student of beer and astrology, the squanderous tailor Zwirn, and the carpenter Leim, who has become melancholic after the loss of his beloved Pepi. At the inn, they discover that the main drawing in the city’s lottery will be held on the following day. During the night, Fortuna allows each of them to dream about the same number, 7359, and the next morning they buy this ticket with their last pennies. They win a considerable amount of money, which they divide evenly, and then they go their separate ways. Leim will try to regain his lost Pepi, Zwirn wants to lead the life of a Don Juan, and Knieriem will give himself entirely to the study of wine and beer, since his astrological observations have foretold the impending doom of the world. In one year, they plan to meet again at the house of Pepi’s father, Master Hobelmann, in Vienna. Because Leim is now equipped with money, Hobelmann is happy to consent to Pepi’s marriage. Zwirn, meanwhile, has become a parvenu in Prague and entertains worthless friends and passions with his quickly diminishing fortune. When the year has passed, Zwirn and Knieriem appear penniless at Master Hobelmann’s door. In the famous letter scene, Hobelmann pretends that Leim is lying on his deathbed in Nuremberg, but he has left some money behind for his friends. They resolve immediately to rush to Nuremberg in order to help him. In spite of their dissolute lives, they have demonstrated their good hearts. Leim appears, and the three are reunited. The two squanderers do not want to settle down, however, and they march on to the next inn. There, Stellaris, horrified by so much slovenliness and angered by the success of Lumpazivagabundus, catches up with them and banishes the two into the underworld. Fortuna declares herself the loser of the bet, and Hilaris and Brillantine are allowed to marry. Amorosa does not give up her hope, though, that Zwirn and Knieriem can become decent human beings through the power of love. In the end, she succeeds, and in a peaceful apotheosis, the three craftsmen appear, seated on different floors of the same house, working diligently, surrounded by wives and children, until the evening bell calls them all to dancing and merriment.

The play became an unsurpassed success at the Theater an der Wien. With it, Nestroy modified the traditional form of the magical farce into his own vehicle of expression. The contemporary critic Karl Meisl observed that Nestroy still employed the magic convention to motivate the dramatic action, but it was no longer intrinsically necessary and might even be eliminated altogether. The traditional bet waged between the forces of good and evil, which has notable forerunners in Raimund’s Das Mädchen aus der Feenwelt: Oder, Der Bauer als Millionär, (pr. 1826, pb. 1837; The Maid from Fairyland: Or, The Peasant as Millionaire, 1962), and particularly in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (pb. 1808, pb. 1833; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823, 1828) served to illustrate Nestroy’s ironic and paradoxical view of the world, since Lumpazivagabundus, the representative of slovenliness, remains victorious. His counterpart is Fortuna, a force who is similarly negative in a classical system of values. The old juxtaposition of virtue and vice has thus been abolished a priori, and the “Everyman in reverse,” as the play has been called, proved to its amused audience that it was much more enjoyable and took much less pain to go to Hell than to walk the path of virtue.

Some critics stress that Nestroy also sounded, for the first time, a political note in Der böse Geist Lumpazivagabundus and especially in the refrain to the famous couplet “Die Welt steht auf keinen Fall mehr lang” (This world will not exist much longer in any case). To this line Nestroy apparently added still greater relevance by delivering it with strong emphasis on the definite article, thus making the allusion to the shaky condition of the social order of his time. In the character of Knieriem, who sings this couplet, the author and actor Nestroy, for the first time, had made the coarsest of the poor his central comic figure and spokesperson. Knieriem was drawn and acted with a realistic quality that led another contemporary critic to observe, “Mr. Nestroy is a genre painter who conceives the most common scenes from life with such a sure and efficient hand and puts them on the stage so drastically that the viewer seems to shy away stunned as from a portrait so life-like that one expects it to speak any second.”

Die Familien Zwirn, Knieriem und Leim

Die Familien Zwirn,...

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