Carl Zuckmayer was born on December 27, 1896, in the village of Nackenheim in the Rhenish Hesse district, where his father owned and operated a small factory. In 1900, his family moved to Mainz, a city that then had some eighty-four thousand inhabitants. Zuckmayer attended the Humanistische Gymnasium (academic high school) there from 1903 to 1914. When World War I broke out, he enlisted as a volunteer and attained the rank of lieutenant by the end of the war. The war years were of paramount importance for his development as a man and as an artist. His fellow soldiers came from all regions of Germany and from all social classes. The future writer of realistic dramas took careful note of their various dialects and modes of expression. He also had time to read widely. This reading, together with his firsthand experience of the war, led him to adopt an idealistic, pacifist worldview. In 1917, he published several poems in Die Aktion, a pacifist-socialist weekly.
After the war, he served briefly on the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council in Mainz and on the Revolutionary Students’ Council of the University of Frankfurt. During 1919 and 1920, he studied economics, philosophy, botany, and biology at the universities of Frankfurt and Heidelberg. While in Frankfurt, he was in contact with young socialists and pacifists, notably with Carlo Mierendorff, who was the editor of Das Tribunal, a periodical that advocated comprehensive social reforms. Zuckmayer joined such writers as Kasimir Edschmid and Theodor Däubler in contributing to Das Tribunal. At the same time, he became acquainted with the expressionist dramas of Fritz von Unruh and Walter Hasenclever, which were then performed in Frankfurt. Zuckmayer’s political and philosophical thinking was influenced by his socialist and pacifist friends, and in his writing he emulated the practitioners of expressionism. In 1920, his first drama, entitled Kreuzweg, had its premiere in Berlin. It consisted of a series of expressionistic outpourings about love and death that were poorly related to a sort of plot involving some peasants who revolt against their feudal lord. The play was lambasted by the critics and closed after three performances; for a while Zuckmayer was forced to eke out a living as a freelance writer and as a singer in cabarets, along with a variety of other jobs.
In 1922, Zuckmayer’s friend Kurt Elwenspoek, the newly appointed director of the theater in Kiel, offered him a job as Dramaturg (literary adviser). The two friends shocked and infuriated the conservative burghers of Kiel by staging plays by such avant-garde authors as Georg Büchner, Ernst Barlach, August Strindberg, and Frank Wedekind. When they presented Terence’s erotic comedy Eunuchus (161 b.c.e.; The Eunuch, 1598) in a daring and provocative adaptation by Zuckmayer, both he and Elwenspoek were fired on the spot, and the theater was closed by the police. During the 1924-1925 season, Zuckmayer and Bertolt Brecht were employed as Dramaturgen by the prestigious Deutsches Theater in Berlin. At that time, Zuckmayer was more concerned with society and politics than was Brecht, who was then in his expressionist phase and had become known for such plays as Baal (wr. 1918, pb. 1922; English translation, 1963) and Im Dickicht der Städte (pr. 1923; In the Jungle of Cities, 1961). It was partly under Brecht’s influence that Zuckmayer wrote his second play in an expressionist vein, entitled Pankraz erwacht. It was also a failure, and the eminent critic Alfred Kerr suggested that both the play and its author ought to be forgotten. Fortunately, Kerr was quite wrong about the second part of his suggestion, because in the very same year, 1925, Zuckmayer’s comedy Der fröhliche Weinberg had its premiere in Berlin. It was a tremendous success and was shortly afterward performed in more than one hundred theaters. Also in 1925, Zuckmayer married the actress Alice Frank, née von Herdan. During the next several years, Zuckmayer enjoyed huge artistic and financial successes with his plays Schinderhannes (also based on Terence’s Eunuchus), Katharina Knie, and The Captain of Köpenick.
The latter also provoked numerous diatribes in the Nazi press, and in 1933 (the year that Adolf Hitler assumed power in Germany), Zuckmayer moved to Austria, where he had purchased a country house in 1926. In 1938, when the Germans annexed Austria, Zuckmayer emigrated to Switzerland. His plays and books having been banned in Germany and Austria, his financial situation became precarious. In 1939, he was deprived of his German citizenship, and he moved to the United States. He was first a scriptwriter in Hollywood, then a lecturer at the dramatic workshop of the New School in New York, and starting in 1941, a farmer near Barnard, Vermont. Zuckmayer’s years in exile were difficult ones: He was cut off from his linguistic milieu and forced to devote most of his time to his chores as a farmer, and his literary output diminished to a trickle. It was precisely during this time of hardship and isolation, however, that he created one of his masterpieces: The Devil’s General was written during the period of 1943 to 1945 and had its premiere in Zurich in 1946.
Beginning after the play’s German premiere in 1947, Zuckmayer participated in numerous discussions with German students and other young people about the issues raised in the play. During the next ten years or so, he lived alternately in the United States and in Europe. In 1958, he took up permanent residence in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. During the last twenty years of his life, Zuckmayer wrote a number of plays and prose works, and he was showered with prizes and honors, including the Great Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Great Austrian State Prize. He died in Visp, Switzerland, on January 18, 1977.