Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 868

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 he is. His talent for inventing lies, which he uses to postpone the discovery of his complicity in the case, makes him into a stage clown putting on a show.

Kleist employs a colloquial language to re-create the realistic village scene. The characters use rough language with clever double meanings, thus creating a bawdy atmosphere. Their coarse sense of humor probably contributed to the lack of appreciation of the Weimar audience, which was used to seeing sentimental dramas.

Adam immediately wants to pronounce Ruprecht guilty, as he wants the potentially dangerous situation to end as soon as possible. The district judge, Counselor Walter, intervenes, however, to let the accused defend himself. As a higher official of the court he feels responsible for ensuring that the case is heard properly. Whenever Adam veers into irrelevant descriptions, Counselor Walter uses his authority to bring him back to the trial. Kleist thus creates an extended and very comical tug-of-war between Adam and his chief on the one hand, and Adam and the plaintiff, Marthe, on the other. A further source of merriment is that Marthe is more concerned about her jug than about her daughter’s reputation. She pursues the culprit relentlessly, without considering that while doing so she may be destroying her daughter’s good name. At the play’s conclusion, Marthe is still pursuing the vain hope of recompense for her jug; she hardly seems to notice that her daughter and Ruprecht are reconciled.

In Eve, Kleist creates a strong, positive female character. She embodies his ideal of a sensitive woman who believes that trust is the ultimate component of a relationship. Because of her love for Ruprecht, she silently endures all kinds of aspersions on her character. Ruprecht’s jealousy may make him disown her, but she staunchly refuses to expose Adam, as that would mean she would not get the medical certificate from him that is needed to save Ruprecht from military conscription. On the other hand, she cannot let Ruprecht appear as the culprit, because he will then be justified in believing that she was unfaithful to him. Only after Adam hurriedly pronounces a jail sentence for Ruprecht does Eve break her silence.

Kleist wrote one of the best German comedies and simultaneously presented a social critique of his time. The description of the village courtroom, with its leftover food and drinks strewn amid various documents, hardly resembles a place of justice. On the other hand, Adam’s superior, Counselor Walter, is so bent on maintaining the dignity of the court that he refuses to pronounce Adam guilty even though he knows he committed the crime. It is more important for him to maintain respect for the authority residing in a judge’s position than to uphold the truth. Instead of being jailed, Adam is therefore merely suspended; his ambitious clerk, Licht, is promoted to the level of judge. In Kleist’s treatment, the theme that justice matters just as little to the people at the courthouse, who all have their individual concerns, becomes yet one more source of hilarity in The Broken Jug.

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