It has been said that melodrama is the quintessence of drama, and that farce is the quintessence of theater. One cannot imagine Hans Sachs performing melodramas, yet one can readily imagine him improvising, ad-libbing lines eclectically and at will. One can readily imagine him achieving instant attention and rapport with his audience by means of a smile or gesture—all to the certain delight of the beholders.
Indeed, Sachs holds a unique position in German literature. While his predecessors and some of his contemporaries continued writing along traditional lines, he, though not abandoning his literary heritage, found ways to breathe fresh life into his dramatic creations. Others of his time, and later, obviously admired him for his innovative drama and his contribution to European letters through a wealth of humor, variety, and encouragement of the evolution of the theater. The trend toward secularization and the emergence of a more literate society during the sixteenth century created a new tenor of life in Europe. It was the genius of Sachs to have captured and portrayed humorously the life of that time in a form that is accessible to audiences even today.
Sachs’s literary production was enormous. His dramatic works alone include sixty-one tragedies, sixty-five comedies, and eighty-one Fastnachtspiele. The comedies and tragedies have been forgotten, perhaps justifiably; they are little more than epic-didactic dialogues or sometimes chronicles in verse. Sachs’s great contribution to German as well as European literature rests with his Fastnachtspiele, or carnival plays.
It is important to realize the overall purpose for which the Fastnachtspiele was composed. It was written for performance on a feast day or, more specifically, for carnival or pre-Lent season. This fact necessarily conditioned and affected the overall tone as well as the individual characteristics of these German playlets. Taking into account the chaotic circumstances and the ebullient demands of the audience, the writers of Fastnachtspiele, perforce, developed and popularized an entertaining medium in keeping with the occasion. It was in a sense a medium that was, at the time, sui generis. Whereas the ordinary drama elicited spectator identification with the hero and his ideals, the farce presented ridiculous characters who afforded the spectators a feeling of superiority over the “heroes.” Hence, in accord with the rhythm of the festival spirit, the carnival play was more intent on entertaining than instructing.
Sachs strove to create a drama that would be in keeping with the spirit of carnival. A rough, physical sense of humor, blunt language, and a forthright approach to reality characterize his one-act plays. The actions were based primarily on the desire to fulfill an immediate, elemental need. The tool of trade employed by Sachs as a catalyst to initiate action was generally a mischievous trick or bantering quarrel. The ensuing dramatic excitement then hinged on the success or failure of the contrived ruse or bicker. The spectator or reader was immediately caught up in the situation, curious to see whether the characters would be able to satisfy their particular wants or protect themselves from their enemies. Situations were necessarily uncomplicated, easily understood by all in a minimum amount of time.
In his endeavor to put on a “good show,” Sachs used dramatic incidents from The Decameron, which inspired thirteen of his pieces. In some instances, Sachs adheres closely to his source, then again he adds and omits, cuts and concentrates, or rounds out and expands his material. His purpose was to assimilate his sources and rework them dramatically via strong, actable characters. His primary source for his plays, however, was the daily life that surrounded him. He captures dramatically and portrays humorously the people and preoccupations of his era: Coarse peasants, faults of the clergy, overbearing wives, vagabonds, and so on, all were threads in the fabric of sixteenth century customs and events. Indeed, it can be said unequivocally that Sachs contributes significantly to present-day knowledge of sixteenth century Germany through his character portrayal.
Of all the characters that are presented in Sachs’s dramatic works, the most prevalent are the farmer or peasant, the priest, and the evil woman. Because of the ancient hostility between the townsman and the farmer, it is only to be expected that Sachs should treat the farmer as a comic figure. The town audience, composed largely of artisans, enjoyed any spectacle that held the peasant up to ridicule. Some of the farmers’ names...
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