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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1917

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...

(The entire section contains 1917 words.)

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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 alone illustrate this point: Fridlein Zettenscheis (Freddie Dungheap), Herman Hirnlos (Herman Brainless), and Velle Mistfinch (Vail Pigpen).

The farmer was often crude and stupid, and these qualities were readily assimilated into the carnival plays. The farmer or peasant appears in thirty-one of the total eighty-one Fastnachtspiele. For example, one of the earliest plays, entitled Der Nasentanz, presents a ridiculous peasant contest to determine who among the farmers has the largest nose. Sachs’s depiction of the fierce competitiveness of the peasants to win the “longest nose award” is representative of the humor of this genre. This particular play is also interesting from the standpoint of the framing technique employed by Sachs: He depicts an actual carnival scene as the main setting for the play itself.

Das Kälberbrüten

One of the most amusing portrayals of the peasant occurs in Das Kälberbrüten. While the wife is away at the market, Hans, who is supposedly “watching the place,” decides, rather than tend to the chickens and livestock, to sleep. As a result of his negligence, their calf falls in the pond and drowns. To avoid angering his wife, Hans, as the title indicates, attempts to remedy his plight by brooding or hatching a new calf. Eventually, even the village priest is called in the hope of restoring Hans to his senses and to pull him from the barrel, where he insists on sitting to do his hatching. The scene in which the priest and wife pull him from the barrel, with its hilarious dialogue, proves to be as uproarious today as it must have been when it was originally performed.

Der Bauer mit dem Blerr

Der Bauer mit dem Blerr is a delightfully contrived example of the incredible naïveté of the peasant. Heinz, who surprises his wife in bed with the village priest, vows revenge. His wife, aided by a neighbor girlfriend, concocts a logical explanation for the whole “affair.” Seeing is believing, but seeing through the early morning haze and dew is enough to distort, dim, and blur the vision of even those with perfect eyesight.

Der schwanger Bauer

Der schwanger Bauer, one of Sachs’s best-written pieces, brings the peasant motif to its apogee. It features Isaac, a quack physician who capitalizes on the credulity of the peasants. His “cure-all” is a purgative, which in its effect acts more as a killer than a cure. Isaac’s diagnosis of the peasant Kunz’s malady is that the poor fellow is pregnant with a foal. The purge and subsequent pranks set the tone for the complete comic devaluation of the credulous Kunz.

Der Kezermaister mit wort, würz und stain

As noted above, Sachs, a staunch supporter of Martin Luther, delighted in ridiculing the priesthood. It should be noted, however, that with all his satire of priests and their foibles, Sachs wrote only one play in which a direct attack on the Catholic Church itself was made, and even in this play the primary object of the satire is a particular inquisitor and not the entire institution. The play in question, Der Kezermaister mit wort, würz und stain, is also significant in that it gives tangible evidence of the waning Catholic influence in Reformation Germany. This phenomenon is attested by the fact that by 1553, when Sachs wrote this play, the threat of excommunication, formerly so feared by the people, had become material for comedy. The play says clearly what many people had previously dared only to think silently—that corruption and materialism were rampant within the Church.

Der gestohlene Bachen

Der gestohlene Bachen immediately starts off in the spirit of carnival. Heinz Knol enters, complaining of a hangover. He meets Guntz Drol, who relates that their miserly neighbor has just killed a pig. Herman, the miser, refuses to share the meat. Consequently, the two neighbors plot to steal the Bachen. The miser is subsequently told by the village priest that he will reveal the thief—via his black magic. In fact, the priest is privy to the plot and reveals his magic to his accomplices: For them, and for himself, he prepares leaves of ginger covered with sugar; for Herman, he has a leaf covered with aloe and dog manure. The one who cannot swallow the leaf is guilty. How Herman “the guilty” not only forgives them immediately but also gives them “quiet money,” in addition to the bacon, illustrates the adeptness of Sachsian dramatic craftsmanship.

Das Weib im Brunnen

In addition to poking fun at the foibles of the farmer and the self-interest of the clergy, Sachs also recited over and over again in his one-act plays the ever-popular theme of Das böse Weib—the crude, insolent, violent, spiteful, evil woman. In order to present in realistic fashion his thematic böses Weib, Sachs created women who were not only unfaithful but also violent and vicious. One of the most salient examples is entitled Das Weib im Brunnen. In this play, Steffano becomes suspicious that his wife has been deliberately getting him drunk every night in order to be free to go out and meet her lover. One night, he feigns drunkenness and sleep, and, when his wife stealthily leaves the house, he locks her out. When he refuses to let her in on her return, she screams and threatens to kill herself. Finally, in order to gain entrance to the house, she successfully contrives a trick that assures her readmittance and, consequently, serves as title to the play.

Das böse Weib

The Fastnachtspiele entitled Das böse Weib portrays the type most often implied by the term Das böse Weib—a quarrelsome, nagging, suspicious, coarse, and violent housewife. The wife in this particular farce enters abruptly, rudely interrupting her maid and her husband’s journeyman, who are engaging in innocent courtship. She accuses both, with no reason whatsoever, of gross immoral conduct. Their indignant self-defense only goads her on to more extensive and violent insults. In her rage, the wife fires the girl, and the two are almost on the point of blows in a dispute over back wages when the husband enters. The husband, seeking to calm the combatants, is immediately accused by his wife of being a “straw-partner” with the maid. A neighbor enters and serves to further incite action and sparks from the wife. The ending leaves no doubt in the mind of the spectator as to why a term such as “evil woman” is apropos for this character.

The motif of the destructive woman was very definitely in keeping with the ribald spirit of the carnival play. Here, as elsewhere, Sachs knew how to derive the maximum amount of theatricality from the barest of dramatic staging and preliminaries. Sachs realized that audience attention would immediately be obtained if the farmer, priest, or evil woman appeared onstage. The selection of these characters also reflects his ability as a dramatic artist to capture and portray the fabric of human activity during his age. Although simple in conception, such recurrent and timeless motifs are still enjoyed by German audiences as they were more than four hundred years ago.

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Sachs, Hans