Marieluise Fleisser observed on a number of occasions that it was impossible for her to create out of thin air and on demand. Nearly everything she wrote was based on a combination of personal experience and observation of her immediate surroundings. In other words, she was subject to the impulses and urges of an extremely autobiographical writer. There is no significant development in her work as a dramatist; there is, however, a definite difference in literary approach—and arguably in quality—between her first play and the other four.
What accounts for this dichotomy in Fleisser’s career both as a playwright and as a writer of prose fiction is, in a word, Brecht. Not long before her death, she told an interviewer that he had destroyed something in her. To be convinced of this, she said, one had simply to compare the earlier Fegefeuer in Ingolstadt with the later Pioniere in Ingolstadt. Her first play was written in secret, free of the influence of Brecht’s theorizing and of his overwhelming and often overbearing personality. For Fleisser, the writing of Fegefeuer in Ingolstadt was an existential necessity, born of the mental anguish caused by the sudden clash of opposite worlds. One was the confining, rigid, and narrowly moralistic world of a Gretchen, reared in the provinces and educated by sheltering nuns. The other world was the wide-open, liberating, and neopagan world of the big city of the Roaring Twenties, where Gretchen encountered Mephisto (Feuchtwanger), who in turn introduced her to the genius of Faust (the works of Brecht; later, after the completion of her play, to the man himself).
Brecht was more impressed by Fleisser’s talent than by her play. When he succeeded in having it staged, he did everything he could to downgrade the religious atmosphere, which Fleisser herself believed was one of the elements on which the life of the play depended. Brecht much preferred Pioniere in Ingolstadt, which he had practically commissioned Fleisser to write. When the scandal provoked by Brecht’s staging of the play in Berlin in 1929 erupted, Fleisser finally faced up to the fact that if she were to save her writer’s soul, she would have to make a clean break with him. She was constitutionally opposed to his insistence that an author should sacrifice his or her uniqueness to the collective production of socially significant literature. In cutting herself off from Brecht, Fleisser hoped to regain her independence as a writer, but she could not cut herself off from his influence. In this regard, she gained much, but she lost even more. After Brecht, one finds her autobiographical bent reinforced by a sharper sense of naturalness or naïveté. There is also a greater openness to the sociological side of human existence. These elements account for much of the strength of her one novel. Their presence in her last play, Der starke Stamm, helps explain why, after resuming relations with Fleisser in 1950, Brecht went out of his way to secure a world premiere. As for the deficit side of her relations with Brecht, something which Günther Rühle, the editor of her collected works, calls her “original substance” was “broken.” Gone was the impulse or perhaps the ability to capture the world beyond the senses in fantasies and symbols, to come to grips with the abstractions of religion and myth, to make concrete the irrational realm of the psyche—in other words, to write something as fascinatingly elusive and shattering as her first play. Only in two haunting short stories, written four years after World War II, was Fleisser able to put her “original” self together again: “Das Pferd und die Jungfer” (1952; the horse and the spinster) and “Er hätte besser alles verschlafen” (1963; better if he had slept through it all).
Fegenfeuer in Ingolstadt
Fleisser’s first play, Fegenfuer in Ingolstadt, is a milieu study of a Catholic town in the Germany of the early 1920’s, and, at the same time, an intuitive portrayal of certain realities that made possible Hitler’s great election victories in the provinces. It focuses on a small band of high school students who are the exemplars of the milieu at large. Actually, this group within a group can be described in terms of a pack or a gang, for it is characterized by mean-spiritedness and narrow-mindedness. Its members reflect the ugliness of life in a small town that, to borrow the words of the West German theater critic Benjamin Henrichs, is caught between a clerical past and a Fascistic future. The young people of Fleisser’s play are trapped in their own vicious world of hatred and envy, of spying and extortion, of humiliation and oppression, of excruciating loneliness and emptiness that cries out for a redeemer. This redeemer can only be somebody who will appeal to the baser side of their nature.
The type of Christianity practiced by these young people (and, behind the scenes, their elders) is actually a perversion of religion because it excludes its most essential component—love. The negative Catholicism of the play puts its emphasis on a harsh God eager to pounce on sinners, on rigid commandments, stern moral principles, and endless prohibitions. In the process, self-esteem is torn down and the personality deformed; the major concern is with one’s own sins and salvation rather than the liberation of the neighbor from oppression. The central sacrament of this negative Catholicism is penance; the central sin is impurity. All morality tends to become equated with sexual morality; as a result, the social, political, and economic aspects of life are excluded from the moral sphere or relegated to its outer fringes. The religion of the milieu fosters a spirit of exclusivity that makes it easy to look inward and hard to look outward. Unwilling to reach out to the “otherness” of the neighbor, the milieu concentrates almost exclusively on its own survival and on parochial issues, on questions of dogma and morality connected with its myopic view of the world.
In her tersest description of the plot content of Fegenfeuer in Ingolstadt, Fleisser said simply that it is “a play about the law of the herd and about those forcefully excluded from it.” Postwar studies have confirmed the existence of this “law of the herd,” or Catholicism of negation, and its disastrous consequences. Scholars such as Carl Amery, Guenther Lewy, and Gordon Zahn have demonstrated that the religion of the milieu brought on “that moral collapse of German Catholicism which made possible the successful realization of the policies of National Socialism” (Amery). Many Catholics welcomed Hitler as a staunch ally in the fight against indecency in general and pornography and homosexuality in particular, while exploiting this kinship as an excuse to overlook the immorality of his ideology and the criminality of his politics. On “house” issues, such as euthanasia, sterilization, and the removal of crucifixes from the schools, milieu Catholicism bravely stood up to and bested Hitler. On the issue of the “excluded neighbor,” the Church suffered its greatest moral defeat: There was never a public utterance of protest against the incarceration of gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, socialists, and pacifists, or against the extermination of the Jews.
In anticipating the failure of the Church to respond actively to Christ’s summons to love God in and through one’s neighbor, Fleisser’s play becomes one of the most remarkably prophetic literary documents of the century. Equally remarkable is the way in which she chose to approach her subject matter. The so-called reality of everyday life in Ingolstadt is combined with a spiritual dimension that in no way betrays the world of the senses. This intertwining of the psychosocial and metaphysical is complemented by a highly stylized form of dialogue unique in its fascinating and untranslatable mixture of High German, Bavarian dialect, and slang spoken by youngsters who talk past one another, who at times sound like their grandfathers, and who are not permitted by Fleisser to distinguish between important and unimportant words.
At the heart of the play is a struggle between the forces of good and evil in which the former are overwhelmed. The human capacity for love is embodied in a Christ figure who is driven to insanity. Fleisser’s point is made startlingly clear: Not even Jesus Christ would stand a chance against the hellishness that pervades Ingolstadt. An atmosphere of terror and fright, based on the fear of Hell and the Devil and relentlessly sustained throughout the four acts of the play, serves as the backdrop for a hierarchy of evildoers. At its helm is the terrestrial counterpart of Satan, a certain Dr. Hähnle. Engaged in conducting scientific experiments on people, he is reminiscent of the infamous doctor of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (wr. 1836, pb. 1879; English translation, 1927). Fleisser created her character without having read a line of Büchner, yet both doctors are a frightening portent of Dr. Joseph Mengele and Auschwitz, of the first massive application in history of science and technology to genocide.
Directly below Dr. Hähnle in the hierarchy of evil are his two assistants, Gervase and Protase, correlatives of the fallen spirits the Devil assigns to individual humans to offset the influence of their guardian angels. They seem almost nonhuman, if not antihuman, in their ability to dart in and out of the play at will, always appearing out of nowhere to do their dirty work for the doctor, which consists mostly in spying out the sins and weaknesses of others. They are a major factor in creating an ambience that smacks of the police state with its system of block wardens and neighborhood denunciations, even within the bosom of one’s own family. They introduce themselves as bloodless humans—which means not only that they associate themselves with the spirit world but also, and more important, that they see themselves as direct antagonists of the Christ figure, Roelle, and his spiritual twin, Olga, as well as of the Gospel of Love that these two try so very hard to promote.
The point is sharply illustrated in the last act, when the audience learns that Protase “happened” to be a disinterested (bloodless) spectator during Olga’s attempt at suicide by drowning in the Danube. Roelle, on the other hand, overcomes his morbid fear of water and risks his life in a successful effort to rescue the girl. The inaction of Protase and the action of Roelle represent, respectively, the negation and affirmation of the supreme test of neighborliness as set up by Christ shortly before his death on the Cross on behalf of all humankind: “This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” Fleisser borrowed the names of her human devils from Saint Gervase and Saint Protase, early martyrs celebrated for their fraternal love for each other and for the Christ in whose name they laid down their lives. Because in Fleisser’s topsy-turvy world the pious are really the wicked, the saints can readily serve as examples of how the Christians of Ingolstadt hate, rather than love, one another. These Christians, populating the bottom level of the hierarchy, constitute the pack or gang. When their leader Crusius, as the last gang-member to appear onstage, explains and excuses his past injustices to Roelle as an experiment, the audience is abruptly brought back to the top level of the hierarchy. It becomes very easy to visualize Crusius as an SS doctor in a concentration camp some ten or fifteen years hence.
The forces of evil in Fleisser’s play are straightforward and relentless. The forces of good are marked by ambiguity and equivocation, for their arch-representative, Roelle, has been fashioned into a Christ figure defiled by the stench of his environment. One of the most complex monsters ever to appear on a German stage, Roelle becomes a liar, a thief, and a blackmailer in a world in which the best are made the worst. Robbed of his self-esteem and suffering from a tremendous inferiority complex, Fleisser’s hero tries to reclaim his dignity in sadomasochistic ways. At times he evinces a desire to be punished for the sins that are weighing on his scrupulous conscience. At other times, there is the urge to lash out at those around him: hence the act of cruelty perpetrated on a dog by sticking its eyes full of needles as an outlet for the agony in Roelle’s soul; hence, too, his willingness to humiliate in public the girl he loves after he has been humiliated by her. His religious mania is psychologically connected with his attempts at self-assertion. By becoming a holy man, he hopes to solve his chief problems: inability to win the affections of Olga because of a warped and twisted sexuality, and a need for recognition. As a religious leader, he can win the love of Olga on a sublimated level (he in fact dubs her his Saint John, the disciple whom Jesus loved the most), and he can secure the reverence and respect of the common herd.
There is, however, much more to Roelle than can be provided by an analysis à la Freud. Fleisser’s main concern is not with her hero’s inability to have normal sex and the problems attendant on this. Her focus is, rather, on the metaphysical aspects of Roelle’s capacity and need to love. As one dimension of human love, sex is subsumed in charity. This is something Herbert Ihering, one of the most perspicacious theater critics of the Weimar Republic, sensed when he observed that the decisive element in the play is the fact that “behind all the bigotry lie the roots of a very deep piety, behind the urge to dissemble lies the urge to truth, and . . . within these fettered human beings there is clearly a spiritual potential for creative liberation.” The deepest piety is love of God and neighbor, a total love that liberates one from narrowness and provincialism. Roelle’s desire to perfect and spread this love is central to his role as a Christ figure, as is evident from the symbolism most obviously tied in with his outsider status. Everybody makes fun of his bloated neck, which he can stretch a good distance in wormlike fashion as he aspires to reach a higher and better world (at one point his neck is called “spiritual”). His hydrophobia, too, is notorious. Roelle must overcome his horror of water if he is to be liberated.
Fleisser makes it very clear that she is using water as a symbol of healthy sexual contact with a woman. At the moment when he is about to be stripped and bathed and shortly before his relationship with Olga will suffer a...
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