Ferdinand Bruckner wrote twenty-six plays during a career that spanned four decades, but the plays on which his reputation rests are three that premiered in German theaters during a four-year period from 1926 to 1930. Pains of Youth, which had its world premiere in Hamburg in 1926, The Criminals (Berlin, 1928), and Elizabeth of England (Berlin, 1930) proved to be three of the most popular plays ever performed on stages in Weimar Germany. When World War II was over, their popularity resumed, and they sometimes still appear on German stages. They are also performed in Austria and in German-speaking Switzerland. Their popularity may be in part the result of the fact that they have served as “star vehicles” for many actors and actresses. They are popular as well because they provide multifaceted, well-developed roles for women. More than anything else, however, these plays provide startlingly good theater; their author was capable of imbuing them with an energy that intrigued and aroused audiences and that stimulated performers to do their best work.
Pains of Youth
The first of these plays, Pains of Youth, opened at the Hamburg Kammerspiele on October 17, 1926. The “illness of youth” referred to in the title can be variously interpreted. It may be a malady otherwise known as unrequited love, for there are numerous instances in the play of frustrated passion. It may be a kind of exhaustion that has set in after much studying: The play is set in a student rooming house, and the lead character, Marie, is about to complete her final examinations. It is most likely, however, that the “illness” of the title is a feeling of displacement and a lack of firm identity among the characters. Bruckner here portrayed the first generation to come of age in Germany after World War I, and that generation, in his dramatic view, had suffered mightily in the wake of the wholesale collapse of German society. These young people have no values; they exploit one another; they steal from one another; they attempt to murder one another; they commit suicide.
A play that dealt with the “problems of youth” was nothing new. That genre had received its best-known definition in Frühlings Erwachen (pb. 1891; Spring’s Awakening, 1960) by Frank Wedekind in 1891, and Bruckner is Wedekind’s debtor in Pains of Youth. The characters may be somewhat older than their counterparts in the Wedekind play, yet they still speak in that peculiar idiom called aneinandervorbeireden (“speaking past one another”) that Wedekind originated. This type of speech creates a feeling of isolation and terrible longing in each character, while at the same time there is a sensation of the characters’ willful desire to avoid one another. They do not really talk to one another; they speak “past” one another. They also use childish expressions which have no literal meaning; for example, the expression “Thalatala!” is used in Pains of Youth to express triumph or elation, much in the way a child might disclose naïve delight. One major and particularly meaningful difference between Pains of Youth and Spring’s Awakening is that while the children in the Wedekind play use language in an attempt to sound grown up, the young adults in the Bruckner play use it to sound like children. The Countess Desiree is especially fond of sounding like a little girl; she tries to convince Marie at one point to come to bed with her just as the countess and her sister Marion had done as children. Later, when Marie agrees to sleep with the countess, they both jabber like schoolgirls.
The Countess Desiree represents one level of society in Pains of Youth; that level is the displaced nobility, nearly all of whom lost their status under the republican regime. Another level represented in the play is that of the medical student Marie, whose intelligence and hard work have brought her to the end of her medical studies after only ten semesters. She stems from hardy, upper-middle class stock. Irene is another student, but her father is a worker. Finally, there is Lucy the maid, who seems willing to be exploited by a male character named Freder. Freder succeeds in turning Lucy into a prostitute—presumably so that she will support his continued medical studies, although Freder has been studying for at least the past ten years. Other male characters include Petrell and Alt, who meander in and out of the action and serve mainly as love interests for the women. The overall character makeup of the play, however, serves to illustrate a cross section of society, and the picture that emerges from this play is indeed frightening. It portrays a society decaying from within, a society lacking all direction and motivation.
Bruckner employed the motif of youth, therefore, to make a larger social statement. These young people are not in a state of rebellion; rather, they are in a kind of daze. They are searching for no meaning or values. They are satisfied instead with any kind of momentary gratification which will allow them an escape from their despair.
The playwright also succeeded in creating fully dimensional personages on the stage, which no doubt contributed to the play’s success throughout Germany. When the play first opened in Hamburg under Miriam Horowitz’s direction, word soon spread about a controversial new play about students that dealt with homosexuality, drug abuse, and narcissism. Abetting the play’s notoriety was the fact that no one had ever heard of the playwright Ferdinand Bruckner. The program in Hamburg described him as “a Viennese physician living abroad with a patient.” Bruckner used this bit of subterfuge because as Theodor Tagger, he was still engaged as director of the Renaissance Theatre in Berlin, and he was contractually obligated there. He may also have felt somewhat insecure about his efforts as a playwright in 1926; he did not reveal his pseudonym even to his wife after Pains of Youth had become a success. The mystery of the playwright’s true identity grew as Berlin audiences awaited the opening of the play at the Renaissance Theatre on April 26, 1928, under the direction of Gustav Hartung. Ironically, Theodor Tagger was no longer the director of the theater when Pains of Youth opened. He had departed for the Theater am Kurfürstendamm in 1927, and probably viewed with much amusement and pleasure the tremendously positive reception accorded the play by both critics and audiences in Berlin.
One critic asserted that the play was so popular because the playwright attempted to fuse the theatralisch with the moralisch, and such attempts had long been popular among the Germans; the dramas of Sturm und Drang in the eighteenth century had set the precedent....
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