Heinrich von Kleist wrote the one-act comedy The Broken Jug at the request of friends who had seen a French copper engraving entitled La Cruche cassée, which depicted a pair of lovers, a scolding older woman holding a broken jug, and a judge. In the original manuscript, Kleist also alluded to the influence of Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715). In both plays, the crime has already been committed and the audience knows the identity of the culprit. The action on the stage, therefore, consists of unraveling various past events for the purpose of naming this person. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the first to produce the play in 1808 in Weimar, where it proved a dismal failure. Goethe blamed the unkind reception on the play’s slow action, not realizing that his own arbitrary division of the thirteen scenes into three acts had destroyed the unity of the work. Staging it after a long opera did not help matters, either. Perhaps the German playwright Friedrich Hebbel pronounced the most appropriate judgment on it after its 1850 Vienna production when he said that the only failure the play could have was that of its audience.
The Broken Jug derives its humor from the ridiculous situation involving a village judge holding court proceedings for a case in which he is guilty of the crime. The plaintiff, the defendants, and his superior all depend on him to preside over the case, yet all the while he himself and soon, too, the audience know full well that it is he who broke the jug. Judge Adam’s ability effortlessly to tell outrageous lies is one important source of the play’s comedy. Adam is a bald old man with a clubfoot who feels attracted to Marthe Rull’s sweet, innocent daughter Eve. In creating a physically repulsive Adam, Kleist does not intend to provoke laughter at physical shortcomings. Rather, Adam’s deformities are meant to symbolize his disgusting character and his decadence. Nevertheless, Adam’s looks also arouse pity, for it is because of them that the audience realizes how all too human...
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