Rolf Hochhuth Essay - Hochhuth, Rolf (Vol. 11)

Hochhuth, Rolf (Vol. 11)


Hochhuth, Rolf 1931–

Hochhuth is a German dramatist and essayist now residing in Switzerland. His first play, The Deputy, was an immediate and controversial success. In this drama Hochhuth explores the possible complicity of Pope Pius XII in the deaths of European Jews during World War II. This play set the tone for Hochhuth's subsequent dramatic output. He desires to revive the theatrical conventions of the great German playwright Schiller, and to this end employs a traditional dramatic context for plays that voice his moral concern for contemporary political and social problems. Although he has been criticized for the strongly polemical character of his plays, he is generally credited as being the founder of the documentary theater. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Richard Gilman

[The Deputy] manages to survive its own deficiencies and even its incorporeality, persisting in the memory as an instigation, a catalyst and an obduracy. The play as adapted and performed is very much less than the printed text, that text is in turn less than the truth of history, yet something remains that cannot be appeased, neutralized or overthrown. (p. 163)

[The] play sets going a moral energy outside the framework of history and independent of its details. This is the high, or soul-supporting, interpretation. On lower levels The Deputy is regarded as a strict historical assertion which can only be established or disproved, or alternatively, as a no less strictly intended work of art obliging us to canonize it or deflate its pretensions. But what is so significant about Hochhuth's work is that it cuts through categories, being neither art nor history nor pure moral gesture nor autonomous call to arms. If it is anything at all it is an act of frustration in the face of categories and complexity, an attempt to give definition and location to an overwhelmingly diffuse and imprecise moral anguish. (pp. 163-64)

As Eichmann was, for the people who tried him, the active principle, upon whom was heaped all the rage and frustration that stemmed from the fact that there was no other agent at hand and, even more, from the intolerable pressure of historical complexity, so Pope Pius, in Hochhuth's sortie against the past, is the negative principle personified, the fixed point of silence who is made to account for and bear the responsibility of silence everywhere. (p. 164)

Two things go wrong, however, in Hochhuth's drama, if not in his moral vision, or at least his moral impulse. The first is contained in the enormous blunder of ascribing to the Pope's personality and human deficiencies more of the responsibility for the Church's failure to speak than rests upon the institutional nature of the Church herself. As Michael Harrington and...

(The entire section is 821 words.)

John Simon

[Among Hochhuth's artistic forebears, two great German historical dramatists figure] prominently: Kleist and Hebbel. It is Kleist's Romantic passion that largely informs The Deputy; its idealistic young Jesuit hero owes something to the Prince of Homburg and even to Michael Kohlhaas, figures whose noble passion makes them politically or socially culpable, but who are more troubled and complex than, say, the hero of Schiller's The Robbers. And it is Hebbel's notion of historical drama, based on Hegel rather than Kant, in which protagonists become symbols of their society, their age and the workings of history, that importantly affects Hochhuths's dramaturgy. (pp. 167-68)

[Historic] drama can emphasize either half of its name: it can make history subserve the ideas and effects of drama, or it can use the drama as a vehicle for momentous historical truths. Though either approach is valid, the former is more likely to produce a work of art, the latter a tract in dramatic form. (p. 168)

[A] major stumbling block is the question of contemporaneity. It is all right to be fiercely critical or freely inventive, or both, where a figure of the distant past is concerned—where our own world and memories are not incriminated and the plea of insufficient evidence can be advanced. Thus Becket may grossly caricature a twelfth-century pope and elicit no more than the arching of an isolated eyebrow, whereas The Deputy may make a twentieth-century pope less unsympathetic than its author personally considers him and yet provoke outcries of "Caricature!" from critics all over, regardless of race, creed or competence.

Let us consider the main artistic charges (as opposed to political ones) that have been leveled against Hochhuth's Piux XII. We are told that this Pius is not a worthy antagonist for the idealistic hero—in other words, the "caricature" argument in more sophisticated form; and that The Deputy, asserting as it does its historical authenticity, has no business imputing motives of a damaging yet unprovable sort to the Pope. Now, if you believe in a categorical imperative to do right, as Hochhuth does, Pius can no longer be an equally convincing defender of an antithetical position, as Kleist's Elector or Antony in Julius Caesar can be. Absolute morality compels a pope to speak up in behalf of six million human beings, dead, dying or yet to die—even if the consequences, to himself and all Catholics, were more manifestly dangerous than they may have appeared to be. By keeping the Pope as close to absolute silence as dramatically feasible, Hochhuth is actually lending the greatest possible dignity to a position he considers untenable. (pp. 168-69)

Hochhuth has indeed put forward all conceivable reasons for the Pope's silence: the safety of Catholics, business and financial considerations, ecclesiastical politics (danger of schism), European politics (Hitler as bulwark against Stalin and Communism), a kind of aristocratic hauteur and lack of human warmth, failure of nerve. Hochhuth does not insist on the equal relevance of all—indeed, he allows directors, actors, audiences and readers to consider some of them irrelevant. If, however, it is objected that the particular juxtapositions are misleading, I reply that the need for compression makes them inevitable. (p....

(The entire section is 1381 words.)

R. C. Perry

Hochhuth's aim in writing Der Stellvertreter [The Deputy] was clearly a polemic one. His study of historical documents confirmed him in his conviction that Pope Pius XII could and should have protested against the Nazis' treatment of the Jews during the Second World War. The play is a passionate accusation, and the author has used all the skill at his command in his attempt to transmit his sense of moral outrage to the public. He has chosen to write his play in the form which is best suited to the task of generating emotion in the audience—that of the conventional 'theatre of illusion'. The main action consists of Riccardo's vain efforts to get the Church to condemn the deportations. He goes from one dignitary to the next, until finally he forces his way into the presence of the Pope himself. When he, too, refuses to act, Riccardo becomes convinced that the only course of action remaining open to him is to go to Auschwitz to share the Jews' suffering. The play ends with his death in Auschwitz….

Hochhuth claims to have respected history in writing his play, but since most of the characters—including Riccardo—and all the dialogues are fictitious, there can obviously be no question of historical authenticity in the strict sense of the term. It is clear, however, that the play does have an authentic basis. (p. 828)

The key scene of the play—Riccardo's confrontation with the Pope—is, of course, unauthentic. There was never any confrontation of this kind as far as we know. But there is an underlying basis of fact which makes it possible to justify this invention within the terms of the play. It is clear that the Pope knew of the deportation of the Jews, and in the appendix Hochhuth demonstrates that several appeals were made by various bodies in the hope that the Pope would publicly condemn the atrocities and rescind the concordat with Germany. Pius's attitude is symbolized in the hand-washing incident, which forms the climax of the scene. (p. 829)

The effectiveness of Hochhuth's accusation depends on his being able to demonstrate that the main actions and dialogues of the play do have this solid basis in history, and to a large extent he succeeds…. [In] Act V the author tries to express in dramatic form the horrors of Auschwitz, a task which he realizes is virtually impossible…. The final...

(The entire section is 969 words.)