Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1564
First published: 1921
Type of work: Drama
Type of plot: Symbolic allegory
Time of work: Late eighteenth century
Locale: A Slavic countryside
Gospodar Stevan Milic, a farmer
Mirko Milic, his son
Stanja Vesilic, Mirko's betrothed
Juvan, a student
The damage that can be done by the fear and superstition of an ignorant people is amply demonstrated in GOAT SONG, in which the rebirth of brutishness in man is symbolized by the birth of a human monster. In their zeal to find a sacrifice for their sins, the peasants and gipsies elevate the human monster to sainthood and then sacrifice a young girl to him. This is a dynamic plot, the horror touched with mysticism and poetic symbolism.
Stanja Vesilic was the betrothed of Mirko Milic. The parents had arranged the marriage, as was the custom. It was a marriage of convenience, the exchange of money for position in the community. It was the custom also for the bride-to-be to stay in the groom's home for a month, in order that she might learn the ways of her prospective mother-in-law. Neither Stanja nor Mirko took much interest in the arrangements. It was to be and that was all.
Unknown except to a very few was the existence of another son born to Stevan Milic and his wife. This boy, now grown, was a human monster, hidden from the world and his brother in a little cottage. He crawled on all fours like a goat and at times let out terrible screams which had to be explained away to passers-by. The mother had never seen the child since his birth, he having been suckled by a servant girl, but her heart yearned for him even while she knew she could never see him lest the secret of his existence be revealed.
A physician called and urged them to place the monster in a home for such beings, but when Stevan learned that his name must be registered, he would not allow the plan to be carried through. No one must learn the secret. At last Stevan decided to kill his son so that the creature would be free of his troubles and Stevan and his wife free of worry about him. But when Stevan took his gun and went to the hut, he found that the physician, who had visited the monster in the name of science, had left the door open and the monster had escaped. Now he was really free.
The farmers of the area had been plagued by vagabonds and gipsies seeking to settle near the village. Most of these wanderers had once lived on land nearby and wanted a little of it again. When their leaders went to the council with their petition, the wealthy farmers would not listen to their pleas. Stevan presided at the council on the night the monster disappeared, his mind so filled with his own fear that he did not really hear the pleas of the gipsies. He ordered them away, telling them that they were the lucky ones, smiled on by fortune. His actions and words convinced everyone present, even the other elders of the council, that he was a madman.
The intellectual leader of the vagabonds was Juvan, a student. He stirred up his followers to kill and plunder the farmers who would not give them land. Stanja and Mirko talked with him. Each hated Juvan, but Stanja was drawn to him in spite of her hate. Feeling compassion for Juvan's homeless people, she wanted Mirko to join him in getting land. But Juvan insulted Stanja, and so the two men prepared to fight. Before they drew blood, the gipsies found the monster and ran to Juvan with the news. The ignorant gipsies thought the monster had been sent to punish them for their greed. Juvan, who knew the monster was the secret hidden by Stevan Milic, planned to use his knowledge to enforce his will on the landowners.
The monster was taken in bonds to the church and installed behind the altar, hidden from view. The gipsies secured arms, thought by the villagers to be provided by the monster, and attacked the peasants. As they murdered and plundered, thinking always that they were appeasing the monster, Juvan used the creature to work the mobs into a frenzy. At last they demanded to see the monster. Their lust for blood lessening, they wished to see the strange god who would avenge all their wrongs and return their homelands.
When they gathered at the church, Stevan, his wife, their son Mirko, Stanja, and the elders appeared. The mob would have killed them if Juvan had not silenced the rioters. Stevan tried to bargain with Juvan: if Juvan and his mob would lay down their arms and release the monster, the gipsies would be forgiven and allowed to take some land. After forcing Stevan to claim the monster as his son in the presence of all the people, Juvan said that the monster would be released only to Stanja, who was to go in and cut the creature's bonds. Mirko and his father and mother tried to get the girl to flee, but by that time Juvan ruled her completely. Scorning the words of everyone, she took the knife to cut the bonds. Mirko attacked Juvan and was instantly killed by a guard. Mirko's mother was happy, without understanding why she wanted her good son dead.
Stanja went into the sanctuary to free the monster, while the mob sang in ecstasy. When Juvan tried to go to Stanja, to save her, the mob held him back and demanded a sacrifice to the unknown god. Suddenly the doors to the altar opened of their own accord, and the monster stood in the shadows before them.
Soldiers came to the farms and villages and drove off the gipsies. The monster had fled into the woods and there burned, or so they said. Juvan, taken prisoner, was to be hanged. The farmers were now poor, but Stevan was strangely happy. He felt young, now that his sons were dead. He and his wife had found each other again after their guilty secret had been disclosed.
Now that her betrothed was dead, Stanja's parents came to take her home. But Stanja, refusing to go, begged to stay with Stevan Milic and his wife. Because she told them that she was still true to their son they kept the girl and loved her as their own. When Juvan was brought to Stanja under guard, the privilege of the condemned, he told her that he loved her, that she had changed him, by her sacrifice to the monster, from an animal knowing only lust to a man wanting a woman's love. Stanja loved Juvan too and wished to die with him, but he insisted that she live so that he would leave a part of himself on earth when he went off to his death on the gallows.
Later the hangman went to Stanja and the mother told them that he had found the monster lying dead in the charred forest but with not a hair singed. The mother wept that there would never be a trace of the son she had carried in sorrow and in secret. Stanja told her she was wrong. Before long the girl would be delivered of the monster's child.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
GOAT SONG belongs to a period of modern dramatic history when dramatists were struggling with new forms and symbols. O'Neill probed his characters' real attitudes and emotions with interior monologues, gave life to inanimate objects, and explored the forces of nature and time in his plays. Elmer Rice created a powerful symbol of modern life in THE ADDING MACHINE. Brecht strove to work past the audience's emotions and grip their intellects with his attacks on capitalism and modern corruption. Franz Werfel's GOAT SONG was part of this great experimental ferment which dominated European and American drama for two decades. Werfel was also influenced by his native Czechoslovakia and by the middle-European legends and attitudes, much as was his contemporary and fellow countryman, Franz Kafka. Utilizing the ancient character of the scapegoat, Werfel attempted in this play to create a modern myth.
Like Eve and Pandora, the girl Stanja begins the sequence of events by asking questions and urging her man to explore mysteries best left alone; and the doctor, with the arrogance of science, meddles foolishly and impotently in the affair. But it is the student, Juvan, the intellectual leader of the gipsies, who precipitates the action that leads to the violence and the ultimate destruction of the human "monster." The drama vividly illustrates the tendency human beings have toward irrational violence. Not only the ignorant are capable of cruelty and unreasoning acts of violence; not only the poor and hungry, are caught up in the passion of bloodletting. In retrospect, GOAT SONG seems almost a foreshadowing of the events which were to occur in Europe in the decades following its creation.
The hair-raising conclusion of the drama, when Stanja announces that she is carrying the monster's child, suggests that the seed of the perverse, the cause of evil, will always be with humanity, however men try to eradicate it. The evil lurks within them, not in outside forces or unseen and feared demons.