F. M. Fowler

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1875

Eich has created not so much a theatre of the air as a poetry of the air, a "spirit-world of voices", a medium in which, as in lyric poetry, the word or word-complex is dominant. Dispensing with the visual dimension (and limitation) of the stage as well as the communal reaction of a mass audience, Eich's Hörspiele [radio plays] demand the total engagement of the listener's imagination so that they may subtly or violently awaken the individual conscience.

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The play entitled Träume, though somewhat uneven in quality, is indisputably a key work; no one hearing or reading it could possibly be left in doubt as to the nature or extent of Eich's commitment as a writer. From a formal point of view, too, though not typical, it is significant: the five dreams acted out as separate scenes are framed by verse passages increasing the involvement of the listener, and finally—in a near-Brechtian manner—making a direct appeal to his sense of duty as a human being…. [The] dream is seen as an escape, a potentially dangerous flight from a reality that should command all our attention…. But at the same time the dreams reveal, through the five scenes, the fundamental insecurity of twentieth-century man, uncovering a reality far below the surface of everyday life. Significantly enough, the dreams are not all those of one person, or even of a few people living in similar circumstances: the fictitious dreamers are spread over four continents, and their dreams give a clue not to the peculiar psychological state of any one set of individuals but rather to the condition of a whole diseased society. (pp. 90-1)

[In] Träume Eich conjures up a picture of a society insecure and unstable, haunted by anxious dreams and liable to lose the values of humanity. If the images themselves are Kafkaesque in quality, the appeal to the social conscience is Brechtian: the individual dare not be deaf to the unceasing cries of pain in the world, he must give up his dreaming and be ever on his guard to ensure that those in authority, acting in his name, use their power not to inflict but rather to alleviate suffering. In no other Hörspiel by Eich is the social message so strongly and directly expressed; but the recurrence of themes from Träume in his latest lyric poetry shows this concern to be no mere passing phase in his thought.

If the first broadcast of Träume deserves Gerhard Prager's designation "the birth of the German radio-play", it is not because of technical or formal innovations in the play but rather owing to the masterful verbal economy. Far more impressive than the appropriate use of sound effects—the train accelerating, the steps in the night, the tribal drums, the sound of the termites—is the suggestive character of the language, particularly in the first scene, in which a few lines reveal the insecurity of man's relation to reality and his need of language to command it.

Although it may be said that formally Träume is unique in Eich's oeuvre, the dream motif at least recurs regularly throughout the plays. In several cases the motif is combined with a typically Eich pattern: the individual awakens from a state of torpor or sterile self-satisfaction, a kind of death in life, to a new acceptance of reality; mysteriously, he is driven to seek his true destiny, the finding of which frequently involves his own actual death. (p. 93)

The comic element … appears as a notable feature of Festianus, Märtyrer, a play about a nervous little saint who feels ill at ease in heaven because he fails to find his friends and relations. The great saints appear singularly unhelpful on the subject…. Eventually Festianus descends to hell (a sophisticated concentration-camp) and chooses to remain there, for while he can in no way diminish the sufferings of the others, he prefers at least to share them. Although Eich here treats a real problem in traditional theology, the context of his other plays reveals that he is not primarily concerned with the Christian notion of the hereafter but rather with the problem of suffering and our attitude to it: through Festianus he again condemns complacency, indifference and rigidity—whether on the part of the individual or the institution. The theme of caring for others likewise predominates in the satire Zinngeschrei, in which, however, a cynical reversing of rôles takes place—the idealist's conversion to material self-interest balancing the progress of the other main character from self-interest to idealism.

Eich's best-known, perhaps most effective play, Die Mädchen aus Viterbo, is again concerned with the self-realization of the individual who is "on the way to becoming what he really is". Formally, the work is Eich's most elaborate to date: in contrast to the majority of his plays, Die Mädchen aus Viterbo has a well-outlined second principal character, and the scenes alternate between war-time Berlin, where a Jewish girl and her grandfather are hiding from the authorities, and the catacombs of Rome, where we encounter a second set of voices, imagined by the first but scarcely less real for the listener…. In order to distract Gabriele's attention from an air-raid, Goldschmidt makes her imagine the situation of [a group of] girls lost in the catacombs. At first Gabriele is determined to have a thoroughly romantic happy ending but Goldschmidt, fearing that their fate may have no relation to this, tries to show her that her conclusion is purely arbitrary…. [Gradually] Gabriele comes to accept her fate and finally awaits death with complete dignity and resignation…. (pp. 97-8)

Anyone already acquainted with Eich's plays will hardly be surprised to find in his verse an all-pervading sense of solitude, any prominent I-thou relationship being absent. For just as in the plays Eich presents a lonely protagonist, the object or objects of whose love have become remote or finally inaccessible, so too in the poems the (comparatively rare) introduction of a "thou" inevitably involves a remoteness either spacial or spiritual, temporal or emotional…. The beloved remains at a distance, and only the impossibility of communication remains…. Eich's use of the pronoun "I" [has been described] as a kind of substitute for the impersonal "one". In Eich's verse we find the individual constantly alone with nature, his problems and his fears—but these appear as the problems and fears of twentieth-century man.

In Eich's first post-war collection, Abgelegene Gehöfte, where most of the poems still have a traditional four-line rhymed stanza, the most powerful pieces are those in which the poet deals with his experiences as a soldier and particularly as a prisoner of war. Quite the most stark in form and basic in content is the beautifully controlled poem Inventur, in which, without a trace of self-pity or false pathos, Eich conveys the atmosphere of life in a prisoner-of-war camp at the same time raising the situation to a symbolic plane…. In this poem the marked sobriety of the utterance is suited to the "prosaic" nature of the subject: a man takes stock of the few miserable possessions left him as a prisoner, and the words, like the things themselves, are reduced to an absolute minimum. But for all its unsensational parlando, the poem is cunningly constructed with a moving climax…. [There] is no romantic or emotional ending in which the poet puts forward a pretentious claim that even in adversity the mind triumphs gloriously over matter, creating beauty amid ugliness and need. Instead, quietly, he returns almost to the point de départ, to the thread which is necessary for mending the cap and the coat with which he began. The two things co-exist—the poverty and the poetry—and indeed the form of the poem represents exactly the relation of one to the other. (pp. 98-100)

Shocking though the content may be, Latrine is no mere undergraduate attempt at épater le bourgeois but a poem with a serious purpose and a ring of truth. The experience, unique as it stands, is in fact capable of application to the whole paradoxical human situation in all its tragedy and absurdity. On the one hand we have Hölderlin and the clouds, a symbol of the loftiest flights of the human spirit: on the other hand, and at the same time, blood, war, horror, represented by the most disgusting of man's bodily functions…. [Many poems] in Abgelegene Gehöfte communicate a sense of desolation and disorientation through the individual's reaction to the natural scene. Just as the autumn and late summer poems convey a pervasive sadness and solitude, so even the spring is tinged with bitterness and associated with suffering and death. In fact, even after the war experiences had found full expression, a basic insecurity or existential Angst persists, together with a nagging doubt as to the purpose of life…. In Eich's later poetry … life has indeed a meaning but man is not permitted to know it except through death. The natural world around him provides strange signs and indications of a different set of values, but these are mysterious clues for which man possesses no key, incomprehensible fragments of an unknown language. At times the signs seem thoroughly hostile and threatening, as when a flight of crows causes a dark writing to appear in the sky…. The symbol of the bird standing for another order or scale of values recurs regularly in Eich's work: the jay, the pigeon, and in the radio play Sabeth the huge black bird that brings happiness but cannot remain indefinitely on earth.

Moments of sudden and inexplicable uneasiness such as that in Angst are no less common in the poems than in the plays…. Man is never safe in his own self-sufficiency; in the calm of natural surroundings or the silence of a deserted street the unexpected may at any time break in on his little world, instantly transforming his state of mind. Such moments, which provide a striking starting-point for many of Eich's plays, are caught and unsensationally retained in suggestive and memorable form in pieces such as Februar or Weg zum Bahnhof. (pp. 101-03)

In keeping with their freer form the … poems [in the 1964 collection Zu den Akten] tend to be more laconic and cryptic than the early ones, but they also avoid the occasional bathos bordering on the ludicrous, a danger to which Eich's everyday language left him open…. The romantic element and the singing quality found in some of Eich's earlier verse have been greatly reduced in his later work…. [He] shows no signs of abandoning his earlier themes…. But perhaps the most striking feature of Eich's most recent poems—apart from the wry humour noticeable in several—is the recurring concern expressed for the suffering, the refusal of Festianus and Paul simply to turn their backs, to pass by on the other side…. (p. 104)

Now as in 1950 Eich is unrelenting in his indictment of a society that turns a deaf ear to the cries of the afflicted or meets them with a convenient sophistry. (pp. 104-05)

F. M. Fowler, "Günter Eich," in Essays on Contemporary German Literature: German Men of Letters, Vol. IV, edited by Brian Keith-Smith (© 1966 Oswald Wolff), Oswald Wolff, 1966, pp. 89-107.

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