Critics have frequently, and correctly, claimed that Martin Walser writes the story of the everyday. The characters that populate his plays are not the movers and shakers of history, but rather singularly unexceptional individuals. These antiheroes are generally struggling, somewhat neurotic types who display middle-class, even lower-middle-class, sensibilities and behavior. Often the larger moments of history are evident in the background, but the protagonists are usually far too passive and acquiescent to be major actors on that level. Walser’s perspective on history as well as on contemporary society is thus from below rather than from above, and although it is obvious that he is highly critical of his unheroic figures, it is also obvious that he identifies with them.
Several main topics run throughout Walser’s dramatic works, whether these focus specifically on dealing with Germany’s immediate past (The Rabbit Race, Der schwarze Schwan), on its more distant past (Das Sauspiel, In Goethes Hand), or on contemporary domestic (The Detour, Home Front, Ein Kinderspiel) or artistic situations (Wir werden schon noch handeln, In Goethes Hand). In all of his plays, Walser is concerned with power structures, master-servant relationships, and the tensions that are inherent in such structures and relationships. The tensions usually have a deleterious, even crippling effect on the protagonists, who struggle but never quite succeed in getting out of the dependent positions in which they find themselves. Exploitation, opportunism, and subservience are all important catchwords. Walser is consistently critical of those who abuse their power as well as of those who acquiesce and allow such abuse to occur. He is concerned as well with the German past, not for its own sake, even in his history plays, but because of the shadows it casts on the German present. Whether it is the Germany of the sixteenth century (Das Sauspiel), the nineteenth century (In Goethes Hand), or the Nazi era (The Rabbit Race, Der schwarze Schwan) that is in question, it is the patterns of behavior, the attitudes, and the traditions developed in those eras yet still present in Walser’s Germany, usually in infelicitous ways as far as he is concerned, that command his attention. The third major topical category found in Walser’s plays is that of the artist and intellectual—his (they are all men) status in society, responsibility (and irresponsibility) to society, and use of his position and talent either to legitimize or to challenge and criticize the reactionary and oppressive structures and characteristics of society.
The major literary influences on Walser, especially early in his career, were Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Bertolt Brecht. Although these writers may seem to make rather strange bedfellows, one thing they have in common is their break with traditional literary forms. Walser has followed their lead and, with few exceptions, has rejected traditional dramatic form, choosing instead a loosely connected, open, or epic (in the Brechtian sense) structure instead. As the individual scenes or sections of the play have gained in importance, the significance of overall plot or character development has decreased, at times becoming even minimal, as is the case, for example, in Wir werden schon noch handeln. The subtitle to Das Sauspiel, Szenen aus dem 16. Jahrhundert, which means “scenes from the sixteenth century,” and the subtitle to In Goethes Hand, Szenen aus dem 19. Jahrhundert, which means “scenes from the nineteenth century,” also point up the relative autonomy of the individual scenes over the general, chronological plot. Furthermore, where any substantial changes occur in the protagonists, it is clearly as disintegration or diminution rather than any positive growth.
Some of Walser’s earliest plays, particularly The Detour and Überlebensgross Herr Krott, display some elements of the Theater of the Absurd and, hence, the influence of Beckett and existentialism. Most of Walser’s plays, however—even though they can be read on one level as parables or allegories, and even though symbols play a very significant role—are far more grounded in clearly recognizable reality. Other significant features of Walser’s style are his strong sense of irony, a satirical bent, wit and witticisms, love of wordplay, and an inclination toward lightly grotesque situations and figures.
In his uncompromising attempts to confront his fellow Germans with critical portrayals of the past they consistently try to suppress, of the relationship of that past to the present, and of traits and developments in private and public behavior that inhibit progress toward liberation of all kinds, Walser is one of the most vociferous spokespeople in contemporary German letters for honesty, openness, and critical thinking. And even though some of his plays do show weaknesses in structure and consistently convincing style, others are masterpieces of postwar German drama. Walser’s refusal to follow trends in modern drama, to cave in to criticism of his unconventional dramatic forms, is one of his greatest strengths, even though it sometimes means that his plays, because of their experimental nature, fall short of “masterpiece” status. Although Walser’s major literary work during the 1980’s and 1990’s has been in the areas of fiction, for which he is rightfully regarded as one of the three or four most important German writers of the entire post-World War II era, his contributions to the body of German drama and theater during that same extensive period remain substantial and very significant. It is unfortunate that most of Walser’s plays, some of which are still performed on German stages, are still inaccessible in English to theatergoers and interested parties.
The Detour, Walser’s first play, enjoyed an enthusiastic response from West German theatergoers following its premiere in 1961, and it was staged in numerous theaters in the following few years. The play is divided into three parts: a prologue, the main section, and an epilogue. The prologue and epilogue consist of conversations between the now-successful West German businessman Hubert Meckel and his subservient chauffeur Berthold. More or less on a whim, Hubert has decided to take a short detour from the freeway and visit his former lover, now married, in Ulm. At the beginning of the main section, he has found her at home, but as Frieda responds to his lighthearted flirtation with accusations of shabby treatment earlier, the mood of the play gradually becomes tense, frightening, and even rather grotesquely absurd. When Frieda’s husband arrives home, the two of them decide to put Hubert “on trial” for the way he had treated Frieda several years before. A sense of terror arises when they bind Hubert and conclude that he should be put to death. Ultimately, however, this terror subsides, as Frieda’s husband shifts positions and aligns himself instead with Hubert against Frieda, in a show of a kind of “good old boys” solidarity.
The surrealistic, absurd atmosphere of the “trial” is thus abandoned, only to be replaced, however, by the rather grotesque and cruel irony of the men (in this case, the oppressors) joining forces against the woman (the victim). “Everyday reality” returns, Hubert bids adieu and rejoins his chauffeur, and they drive off. During the ensuing conversation between them, as well as in parts of their discussion in the prologue, the same kind of master-servant, oppressor-oppressed, exploiter-victim structures, attitudes, and behavior patterns become evident in the relationship between boss and chauffeur. Walser’s intent is to analyze various kinds of power structures and the negative tensions that are inherent in them, both in the more private realm of male-female relationships and in the more public, capitalistic business world.
The didactic thrust of the play is illuminated during the “trial” when Hubert, scared out of his wits, is forced to recognize the corruption of his behavior and the abuse of power that he exerted and exerts through his position and attitudes. For the reader or viewer, he clearly becomes a symbol of the system he represents. The fact that he is to remain a “negative hero,” however, whose cathartic moment of insight is only fleeting, is evident when he dismisses the whole episode as a “joke” as he and Berthold drive off, back into their everyday routines. Walser thus poses the challenge to repressive structures, but the reality of his society will not allow him to portray, optimistically, any real changes in that society, its structures, and attitudes. It is not possible to overlook the fact that Walser’s play can be read, on one level, as a kind of parable of how West German society, seduced into amnesia and a false sense of righteous security by its overwhelming “economic miracle” of the 1950’s, refused to deal honestly, openly, and self-critically with its own shabby past, even though the attitudes that prevailed in that past remain visible in the present for those who dare to look.
The Rabbit Race
In Walser’s next play, The Rabbit Race, he attacked this topic more directly. Divided into three main parts set in 1945, 1950, and 1960, respectively, the play follows Alois Grubel through his ill-timed political transformations. The audience learns that, during the Nazi period, Alois was a communist and was sent to a concentration camp for his views. While in...
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