During Ludwig Anzengruber’s formative years as a dramatist, Austria was in the grip of a cultural revolution. There was a strong reaction to the enlightened rule of Emperor Joseph II and to the policies of his circle of humanistic advisers, which had led to the revolution of March, 1848. As a consequence, there was a constant battle fought between those who would reaffirm and continue those liberal-republican policies and those who wanted a return to absolutism, strengthened by a renewed treaty between the Roman Catholic Church and the state. The intellectual exponents of this battle formed political parties and rallied around highly partisan publications, whereas the Church attempted to mobilize the still-uneducated rural population to support its conservative policies, which culminated in the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870.
Anzengruber witnessed this manipulation of the rural population with great misgiving. He believed that a group of people who had not been given the chance to acquire an understanding of the issues involved—highly complex theological issues, such as the infallibility of the pope, the celibacy of priests, and civil marriage—should not turn out to be the prime casualties of these political battles. Sympathetic to the common people both through his family background and his early experiences, he set out to “confront his time from the stage” in a way and in words that the common people could grasp. As Anzengruber intended to educate the common people, he could not hope to achieve his goal by writing plays for the Burgtheater, the stage that produced a classic repertory of William Shakespeare, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Friedrich Schiller, as well as Franz Grillparzer and Friedrich Hebbel. Because the Burgtheater was under the personal protection and supervision of the Austrian emperor, its directors steered clear of all controversial subjects, except to support the prevailing official policies.
Anzengruber thus directed his early dramatic works at the suburban Viennese theaters, such as the Theater an der Wien, the Josefstädter Theater, and the Leopoldstädter Theater, which were the popular stages for the Volksstück , the popular play, mostly written in Viennese dialect. Anzengruber himself acknowledged the influence of Friedrich Kaiser, who had modified the very popular magical plays of Raimund and the caustic local farce of Nestroy into the bourgeois character play. The most attractive feature of the Volksstück was the couplet, a usually satiric vocal interlude, which served as emphatic commentary on the farcical action of the plays.
Anzengruber, whose bitter apprenticeship as an actor had made him painfully aware of what was effective and successful on the popular stage, shrewdly chose the form of the Volksstück, included popular elements of the rural tales of Eduard von Bauernfeld, and made them the vehicle for his early polemic plays.
Anzengruber contributed to the development of Austrian drama in several ways. He elevated the popular Austrian farce to the level of the serious problem play while retaining the ingredients that ensured the former’s popular appeal. The musical interludes, particularly the couplet, allowed him, at least for a while, to compete with the growing popularity of the French operetta while still being able to disseminate his liberal, anticlerical ideas and his popular version of the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach. His easy, nonlocalized use of the Austrian dialect makes him the dramatic equal of such renowned contemporaneous Austrian prose dialect writers as Peter Rosegger and Bauernfeld. The influence of his plays, with their description of the life of the Austrian rural population, can be seen in the work of later Austrian playwrights such as Karl Schönherr, Helmut Qualtinger, Wolfgang Bauer, and Peter Turrini.
Der Pfarrer von Kirchfield
Civil marriage and the question of the celibacy of Catholic priests are the main topics in Anzengruber’s first play, Der Pfarrer von Kirchfeld. The protagonist is a sympathetic priest whose name, Hell (meaning bright, clear, luminous, in German), suggests his enlightened outlook: He is more interested in the spiritual well-being of the parishioners of the small rural community in his charge than in the finer points of dogma and canon law. Not surprisingly, the manner in which he interprets his duties as a priest incurs the displeasure both of his superiors and of his secular lord, Graf Finsterberg (again, the name is symbolic, meaning dark, gloomy, obscure). The simple people of Hell’s parish are confused about the new papal directives, and Hell has no answers to their naïve questions. His humanistic approach to his duties is turned against him by Finsterberg, who has discovered that Hell has fallen in love with a girl in his employ. After the priest, in contravention to directives, has blessed the marriage of a Catholic with a non-Catholic and has given a church burial to a suicide, Finsterberg makes him officiate at the marriage of the girl he secretly loves and then orders him before a church tribunal. Hell submits to this vindictive judgment and prevents his parishioners from reacting violently when they hear that they will lose their popular pastor.
Anzengruber’s discussion of church dogma is flawed, and many of his accusations against the clerics are unfounded and illogical, but he manages to create a powerful figure, which serves to enhance the popular appeal of the play. Here it is the character of Wurzelsepp, the simple, rural man who is turned misanthrope and atheist by his having been excommunicated for marrying a non-Catholic. It is he who discovers Hell’s secret love and brings about the priest’s downfall, but it is also he who is reconverted by Hell’s magnanimity when he asks the priest to grant a church burial to his mentally disturbed wife, who has killed herself. In a sense, the true main characters of the play are Wurzelsepp and his wife, the former changed into a misanthrope by the insensitive application of church dogma, the latter driven insane by...
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