The more than forty plays of Franz Xaver Kroetz can be grouped according to four developmental phases: first, an experimental phase, from 1965 to 1968; second, a phase labeled by Kroetz himself as “descriptive realism,” from 1968 to 1972; third, a phase with the provisional title “didactic realism,” from 1972 to 1979-1980; an extension of this phase, a subphase so to speak, called “dialectical realism” (dialectical because the contradictions are laid bare, and it is up to the spectator to take the next step); and fourth, a phase after 1982 for which the label “Kroetz revisited” will have to serve as a collective term. After 1982 Kroetz—with one exception—keeps coming back to former themes and dramaturgical practices of his uvre.
The division into developmental phases presupposes certain changes in Kroetz’s dramaturgical practice as well. Leaving aside the experimental period during which he was still exploring various styles, Kroetz’s own theoretical pronouncements leave no doubt that in his second phase he was on the whole indebted to the dramaturgy of identification as it had been practiced by the German naturalists and later by Horváth and Fleisser. The phenomenon of identification of Kroetz is, however, different from the concept of the naturalists and closer to that of Horváth and Fleisser. Kroetz deviates from the naturalistic dictum of the faithful reproduction of the minutest details of social reality; he makes use of stylization and reduction—in language, composition, and scenery—to introduce a limited kind of alienation effect. In his third phase, Kroetz turned to Brecht and was guided by Brecht’s concept of “didactic persuasion” as it had been illustrated in his Lehrstücke (didactic plays). The emotional appeal, the result of identification, is alienated, that is, broken, in Kroetz’s plays of this period through the didactic orientation and specific alienating devices largely borrowed from Brecht. What saves Kroetz from producing theoretical tracts or moralizing sermons is his fundamental approach to writing: He invariably starts with concrete experience, not with a theoretical, abstract conception. He has been the first to admit that his failures have been the result of not adhering to this practice. The spectator is to be persuaded, not by a series of theoretical arguments, but by authentic situations from life. In the subphase “dialectical realism,” Kroetz returned to his former practice of distant and limited identification, while introducing ambiguous images of compelling complexity. For most of the 1980’s and 1990’s, Kroetz revisits his prior work and produces plays that tend to be more somber and more strident in their criticism of contemporary capitalist society. Thus, Kroetz seems to have come full circle, from a dramaturgy of limited identification, to one of didactic persuasion via examples of concrete experience, to a dialectical process in which contradictions are exposed and left unresolved, and back to his interest in the Theater of the Absurd.
Kroetz has created a style of language that distinguishes him from everyone else. The speech of his characters is not a naturalistic imitation of a sociolinguistic stratum but rather an artificial, supraregional quasi dialect that is not authentic or specific to one class alone—it can be understood by almost any speaker in Germany. The success of Kroetz’s plays in Northern Germany is proof of that. The language possesses great revelatory and unmasking powers (the word used by critics in Germany is Ausstellungs-charakter) that expose the conditions of oppression and dependency to the spectators, while at the same time keeping the speakers ignorant of their problems. This places the spectators in a position of superiority, but the authenticity of tone and the reduction in plot and action to very fundamental human situations force them to realize that the characters onstage are not that far removed from them.
The compelling force of these formal elements is heightened by the topicality of Kroetz’s themes. He protests against the dehumanizing effects of economic exploitation, modernization and so-called technological progress, and bureaucratization. Kroetz, who was never a member of the revolutionary student movement of the late 1960’s, has called himself a “communist conservative”; on one hand, he takes a cautiously progressive attitude toward the institution of the family, gender roles, and children—he advocates individual self-realization and liberation from traditional bonds—but, on the other hand, he wants to protect these traditional patterns from the onslaught of modernization and technology, which he fears will depersonalize social relations and impose a fragmentary existence on man without offering anything in return.
The First Phase
During the experimental phase (1965-1968), Kroetz explored various styles, from the avant-garde theater to the traditional folk theater. Only two examples of that early period, Als Zeus zum letzten Mal kam and Hilfe, ich werde geheiratet!, have survived; the others were destroyed by Kroetz as soon as he had found the realistic style of his next phase. The first of these plays is clearly a takeoff on Beckett’s Fin de partie: Suivi de Acte sans paroles (pr., pb. 1957; Endgame: A Play in One Act, Followed by Act Without Words: A Mime for One Player, 1958). Two partially paralyzed cripples, stranded on a garbage heap in a sea of wasteland, are periodically faced by a Sisyphean task: They must rebuild their shack, which is destroyed by recurrent floods. Survival seems to be the only meaning to life; language and literature provide entertainment, helping the characters endure a life of utter boredom and monotony. The second play of this period represents a complete turnabout in subject matter as well as in technique; it is a situation comedy with all the necessary requisites of the traditional folk theater. A farmer’s wife successfully contrives to overcome her son’s misogyny by disguising his future bride as a man and hiring her as a house servant.
The Second Phase
The second phase of Kroetz’s drama centers on the struggles of lower-class people—homeworkers, factory workers, unskilled laborers, small farmers and their servants—against societal injustice. The characters are victims, oppressed by a system the values of which they have internalized and by a language that does not permit comprehension of themselves or the forces that imprison them. The term “descriptive realism” not only encompasses social reality but also defines Kroetz’s skeptical stance; he refrains from commenting, allowing the characters to exhibit emotional debilities through characteristic speech patterns and silent actions. Although the characters themselves see no end or solution to their problems, the spectator is implicitly urged to reflect on the determining circumstances.
Among the plays of this phase, Farmyard and its continuation, Geisterbahn, are probably the most representative. In Farmyard, Beppi, the somewhat retarded daughter of the Staller farm, and Sepp, an older and sickly servant, develop a relationship that is based on blunt, unmitigated gestures and actions of affection rather than on verbal forms of communication; the two are unable to articulate clearly what they feel and think. When Beppi becomes pregnant, Sepp has to leave the farm and move to the city. The Stallers want to force their daughter to have an abortion, but Beppi threatens to kill herself in that case. An antiquated code of honor rules the consciousness of the parents; the illegitimate child is an unbearable embarrassment to them, and they insist that it be placed in a home. Beppi vehemently refuses, packs up her belongings, and moves into a tiny one-room apartment with Sepp. Because Sepp is sick and no longer able to work, Beppi keeps the family alive by working at home. The two experience moments of happiness that stand in stark contrast to the nervous irritability and the carefully structured but joyless daily routine of Beppi’s parents. When the Stallers persist in their efforts to have the boy institutionalized, Beppi suffocates the child, puts him in a box, and deposits the box in the “ghost-train” in which she and Sepp had met.
Farmyard and Geisterbahn contain the major elements of Kroetz’s second phase: the damaged speech that prevents understanding of one’s problems and their causes and that is relieved in sometimes brutal actions, and the bourgeois value system that, as in these two plays, oppresses the outcast and downtrodden. It is Kroetz’s paradoxical message that the emotionally crippled and retarded show, despite their inarticulateness and violent explosions, more humanity than the so-called normal, who are barricaded behind a wall of suppressed violence. The parents are actually the more pitiful creatures: They cannot break through the disingenuously upheld code of honor and propriety; appearances must be kept up even at the loss of their own child. Other important plays of this phase are Homeworker, Hartnäckig, Michi’s Blood, Wildwechsel, Men’s Business, and Dolomitenstadt Lienz.
The Third Phase
Kroetz’s declaration of solidarity with the Communist Party marked a definite change in his writing. No longer satisfied with the descriptive exposition of problems and the stirring up of the spectator’s conscience, he wanted to effect change through political agitation, activism, and open argumentation. His characters began to resist oppression, striving to emancipate themselves, some with more, some with less, success. The plays tackle specific social and individual problems and advocate a wide range of responses. Morecambe describes the decision of a couple not to sacrifice their child merely to preserve a comfortable standard of living; Münchner Kindl calls for political action against modernization plans for the city of Munich that would evict the elderly and the poor; The Nest depicts the fight of a politically awakened worker against the illegal dumping of toxic wastes; Lieber Fritz, the liberation of an erstwhile sexual deviant; Verfassungsfeinde, opposition to the “radicals’ decree”; Mensch Meier, the emancipation from traditional dependencies in the patriarchal family structure; and Through the Leaves, the self-assertion of a woman. Not all Kroetz’s plays of this period call for political and social action; a number of them—among them Maria Magdalena, Weitere Aussichten, Reise ins Glück, and Der stramme Max—still represent unopposed oppression but not in the manner of the plays of the second phase. The characters are not as deficient in their speech as before. While they may not be able to escape their circumstances, they are capable of insight and therefore offer the spectator less emotional identification with their lot.
A discussion of The Nest will illustrate the didactic realism of the third phase. Kurt, an obedient and loyal truck driver, is told by his boss to dump a few barrels of...
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