Günter Eich F. M. Fowler - Essay

F. M. Fowler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

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....

(The entire section is 1875 words.)