Rolf Hochhuth Hochhuth, Rolf (Vol. 4) - Essay

Hochhuth, Rolf (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hochhuth, Rolf 1931–

Hochhuth, a German-born dramatist now living in Switzerland, is well known for his controversial and much-censored play, The Deputy. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[Rolf] Hochhuth's tendency to make the individual accountable for the failures of the institution is a heritage of his German idealism, an influence which can also be seen in the shape and substance of his play. The Deputy is written in the ponderous heroic style of Schiller, full of vaunting speeches, generous sacrifices, and externalized emotions—angry confrontations dominate each scene, the verse pitches and rolls, and indignation keeps the tone at a high boil. As for the characters, they are larger than scale, and, therefore, not always very convincing. When the author permits himself artistic license, he can create an interesting and complex individual—the Doctor, for example, whose fatigued cynicism, experimental cruelty, and intellectual arrogance make him a figure of absolute evil, a creation worthy of Sartre or Camus. But more often, Hochhuth's characters are members of a cardboard nobility.

Robert Brustein, "History as Drama: 'The Deputy' by Rolf Hochhuth, Adapted by Jerome Rothenberg" (1964), in his Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions 1959–1965 (© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.), Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 204-07.

Though there may be doubts as to the merit of Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy as a play, there can be no question as to the absorbing interest of its material. The blunt fact is that I found myself so intent on the subject that I very nearly ceased to concern myself with the performance as an evening in the theatre….

It is nonsense to maintain that we see and judge plays entirely in the light of their "creative" values. If we have no personal relation to a play's human content we are not likely to understand it at all or care anything about it. Imagine a person incapable of passion at a performance of Romeo and Juliet or Tristan und Isolde. True, there would still be the language of the one and the music of the other, but even these would lose their affective force for such an auditor. He might well ask, "What's all the excitement about?"…

We always hope for and seek perfect unity between form and content in a work of art, but I suspect that complete "Apollonian" detachment from the sources of an artist's inspiration—the living matter which generates his work—is even more foreign to relevant judgment in the arts than is complete identification with those sources….

An evaluation of The Deputy at this moment is difficult, to begin with, because while it was written as a Schiller-like epic drama—the published text would take more than six hours to perform—each of its versions has had a different translator and has been staged and cut by a different director. Even more taxing to strict criticism, an ambiguity in the dramatist's motivation has led to a confusion in the audiences' reception of the play everywhere.

Apparently Hochhuth set out to write a dramatic "poem" on the existentialist question "Why should a young Jesuit priest, martyring himself on behalf of the Jewish victims of Nazi savagery, cling to his belief in God when all the evidence of his actual experience contradicts any rational justification for such faith?" But this theme was lost sight of in the development of the work because the author was carried away by the more burning question of why the Christian world—embodied in its most organized Church—failed to protest the blackest crime in history: the systematic slaughter of six million Jews between 1941 and 1944. The outraged moralist and historian in the author superceded the religious artist.

The climactic scene of the play becomes, therefore, the one in which Pope Pius XII (Pacelli) refuses to denounce the Nazi action against the Jews or to abrogate the Concordat between Hitler and the Church. It makes the play appear to be primarily an attack on the Pontiff and, by extension, on the Catholic hierarchy.

This is a distortion of the play's significance and value. It should not be construed as anti-Catholic. Even the Pope's role in the dramatic context should not be considered central. The play's real protagonist is Father Fontana, whose tragic outcry and assumption of Jewish martyrdom lie at the heart of Hochhuth's message. What the play tells us is that we all share in the guilt of those years, for none of us acted with sufficient vigor, none of us protested bitterly, clamorously, specifically enough. The governments of Britain and France, to go no further, are as open to the play's accusation on this score as was the Church's chief deputy.

If the audience misses this point, its failure is largely due to a weakness in Hochhuth's dramatic thinking, his inability to bring the play's larger issue and the detail of its scenes into focus. Father Fontana is less vividly and convincingly drawn than are his more compliant fellow clerics. Yet, despite these grave defects of dramatic statement, it would be false to deny the play's hold on our attention or its power to stir.

Harold Clurman, "Rolf Hochhuth: 'The Deputy'" (1964), in his The Naked Image: Observations on the Modern Theatre (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966 by Harold Clurman), Macmillan, 1966, pp. 80-2.

By far the most celebrated of all the works of art which take up the same functions of historical memory served by the Eichmann trial is The Deputy (Der Stellvertreter), the lengthy play by the young German playwright Rolf Hochhuth. Here we have a work of art as we ordinarily understand it—a work for the familiar theater of 8:30 curtains and intermissions, rather than for the austere public stage of the courtroom. Here there are actors, rather than real murderers and real survivors from hell. Yet it is not false to compare it with the Eichmann trial, because The Deputy is first of all a compilation, a record. Eichmann himself and many other real persons of the period are represented in the play; the speeches of the characters are drawn from historical records.

In modern times, this use of the theater as a forum for public, moral judgment has been shunted aside. The theater has largely become a place in which private quarrels and agonies are staged; the verdict which events render upon characters in most modern plays has no relevance beyond the play itself. The Deputy breaks with the completely private boundaries of most modern theater. And as it would be obtuse to refuse to evaluate the Eichmann trial as a public work of art, it would be frivolous to judge The Deputy simply as a work of art.

Some art—but not all—elects as its central purpose to tell the truth; and it must be judged by its fidelity to the truth, and by the relevance of the truth which it tells. By these standards, The Deputy is an important play. The case against the Nazi party, the SS, the German business elite, and most of the German people—none of which is slighted by Hochhuth—is too well known to need anyone's assent. But The Deputy also stresses, and this is the controversial part of the play, a strong case for the complicity of the German Catholic Church and of Pope Pius XII. This case I am convinced is true, and well taken. (See the ample documentation which Hochhuth has provided at the end of the play, and the excellent book by Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany.) And the importance, historical and moral, of this difficult truth at the present time cannot be overestimated….

It is the whole point of Hochhuth's play that he has barely transformed his material. Unlike the plays of Shakespeare or Schiller or Brecht, Hochhuth's play stands or falls by its fidelity to the complete historical truth.

This documentary intention of the play also indicates its limitations. The fact is that as not all works of art aim at educating and directing conscience, not all works of art which successfully perform a moral function greatly satisfy as art. I can think of only one dramatic work of the type of The Deputy, the short film Night and Fog by Alain Resnais, which satisfies equally as a moral act and as a work of art. Night and Fog, also a memorial to the tragedy of the six million, is highly selective, emotionally relentless, historically scrupulous, and—if the word seems not outrageous—beautiful. The Deputy is not a beautiful play. Nor does one necessarily ask that it be. Nevertheless, since one can assume the immense interest and moral importance of the play, the aesthetic questions need to be faced. Whatever The Deputy is as a moral event, it is not playwriting of the highest order.

Susan Sontag, "Reflections on 'The Deputy'" (1964), in her Against Interpretation and Other Essays (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966 by Susan Sontag), Farrar, Straus, 1966, pp. 124-31.

[Hochhuth] is perhaps the most traditional, the most tradition-conscious, of all modern dramatists, far less of a revolutionary than Brecht, far less daring than Ionesco or Beckett. His models are Schiller and Shaw. His aim is to explore the human condition on the basis of verifiable human reality and to penetrate to the tragic core of man's plight on earth….

In trying to write his two tragedies of twentieth-century man, Hochhuth has stirred up a series of gigantic wasps' nests. In each case the wild rumors and debates that preceded the performances of his plays provided them with publicity that must have been the envy of all public relations men. In fact, this kind of controversy made it irrelevant—from the commercial point of view—whether the plays were good or bad. By the time they opened they were bound to run on sheer news value….

Since the documents that [Hochhuth] maintains would prove or disprove his case will be locked away for another fifty years, it might follow that aesthetic and critical judgment on The Soldiers would have to be suspended till then. But that is clearly absurd. The question is not whether the facts are as they are depicted in the play but whether, in the play, they are wholly convincingly depicted. Had Hochhuth concentrated his tragic conflict on an event that is known to all—for example, the Mihajlovich tragedy—it would have been far easier for him to achieve this basic requirement. As it is, The Soldiers is somewhat encumbered by the author's excessive need to provide documentation, and by the fact that the documentation can never be wholly conclusive.

Nevertheless, Hochhuth's achievement is already very considerable. He has written only two plays up to now, but he has created a larger immediate and visible impact than any other contemporary dramatist. This in itself must be regarded as a boon for the theatre as an institution and as an art form. For it proves that, even in the age of mass media (or especially in an age of mass media), the theatre still is a forum for the airing of moral problems, for intense political and social debate. He has also, in an age of experimentation and a multitude of fascinating but recondite eccentricities in the theatre, drawn attention to the fact that there is still a lot of life in the traditional mainstay of the stage: large-scale, historical tragedies in verse, basically of exactly the same type as Shakespeare, Strindberg, or Shaw. It would have been difficult, before Hochhuth came along, to believe that plays of such venerable lineage could start riots in the streets outside playhouses….

[There] can be no doubt that Hochhuth can create character, that he can even perform the very difficult feat of making "great men" like Pius XII or Churchill wholly believable on the stage. His idealism, his savage indignation about the evils of his time, shines through Hochhuth's dialogues and gives them real fire and poetic force. He is anything but a documentary playwright. He is a very impressive, traditional historical dramatist.

Martin Esslin, "'Truth' and Documentation: A Conversation with Rolf Hochhuth" (originally published in The New York Times Magazine, November 19, 1967), in his Reflections: Essays on Modern Theatre (copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), Doubleday, 1969, pp. 127-38.

Initially banned in London, but eventually produced even there, Rolf Hochhuth's Soldiers stirred nearly as much controversy in some quarters as his earlier condemnation of Pope Pius XII in The Deputy. It was easy to see why—provided you were British, but more difficult otherwise.

Soldiers is in many ways superior to The Deputy (which is far from saying it is a really good play). But, like the latter, it is unlikely ever to be discussed primarily in those terms. For better or worse, Hochhuth has a way of making "technique" seem somewhat irrelevant. Whether or not one happens to agree with him, his concerns are a far cry from the soporific concerns of Broadway and his seriousness as an involved, even a tortured, participant in the life of his time is beyond dispute.

In Soldiers Hochhuth comes to grips with one of the greatest figures of our time as he confronts two of the most overriding questions of that time. The man is Winston Churchill; the questions, the morality of saturation bombing of civilian population centers and the extent to which the demands of war or other political necessities justify acts that, in the normal course of things, would be termed immoral. Both in their specifics and in extension they have as much relevance today as they did at the time Soldiers supposedly takes place….

Here, as was not the case with his depiction of Pius XII, Hochhuth permits Churchill the integrity of his motives, though he strongly questions the reasoning and consequences attendant upon them. He renders the prime minister as a blend of the heroic and the tragic (tragic in the Hegelian sense that both parties to the conflict must be right). Tragic, then, because of the rightness of his intentions in placing the interests of humanity above those of a quixotically, if not diabolically led, nation and because the innocent civilians who died in the firestorms of Hamburg and other cities possessed a right to live. And, he suggests, tragic also because the Poles, who provide the second theme of the play, were right in their demand for justice, while Churchill, on a quite different level, was right in acquiescing to Stalin's demands.

In an interview with Martin Esslin, Hochhuth observed: "I don't agree with those dramatists like Dürrenmatt who proclaim the end of tragedy on the grounds that the day of the individual is past forever, that nobody is responsible any more. Those people forget one thing: the number of individuals who did achieve something has always been very, very small, throughout history."…

Whatever one may think of Hochhuth as a playwright, it would be impossible not to acknowledge that he has employed the theatre as an arena in which the great moral issues of our time can be raised….

If that is the playwright's obligation—and it would certainly seem to be one aspect of it—perhaps it is the audience's to react, not with outrage at the challenge to myths (or realities) long considered inviolable, but with concern at questions that seemingly have no answers but someday must find them.

Catharine Hughes, "'Soldiers'," in her Plays, Politics and Polemics, Drama Book Specialists, 1973, pp. 117-24.

Hochhuth's theme [in The Deputy] is clear and hammered home in scene after scene: Pius XII, with an enormous bank of moral and spiritual credit to draw upon, should have condemned the Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Not to do so was to default not only on his role as the Vicar—the Deputy—of Christ on earth and leader of the most unified religious force in the world, but also on his role as a human being in a position to save other human beings at a time when he alone might have affected their fate. Pius "spoke," Hochhuth acknowledges, but in words that were so deliberately generalized, so hollow and equivocal, that Hitler felt no need to listen. He said nicely, in the carefully couched, fussily diplomatic pronunciamentos at which he was skilled, what should have been said in terms that would stir moral and emotional indignation….

Almost inexplicably, Pius did not speak; it is a fact and a completely valid subject for drama. The problem of The Deputy lies elsewhere—in Hochhuth's failure to acknowledge the moral complexities involved, his willingness to present his characters as not merely indifferent but altogether unaware of the human and spiritual dimensions of the question. Pius may have been precisely the cold and prissily unfeeling businessman-diplomat that Hochhuth presents. But to make him superficial, to exaggerate his concern with finances, the supposed menace posed by "the Russian colossus," and the necessity of his own role as mediator to a point bordering on caricature is unconvincing not only historically but dramatically.

One of the curiosities of The Deputy is that Hochhuth seems simply not to care about the inner workings of his "villain," about the why of his action. Nor, oddly, does he seem notably more interested in the motivations of most of the others. They are viewed almost exclusively in the light of their attitude toward the pope, on the one hand, and as one-dimensional automations on the other. Having decided there was no room for uncertainty, that it simply was not possible, Hochhuth will not permit it in his characters either….

It can, of course, be argued that Pius XII and Ricardo … are intended not as characters but as figures in a modern morality, vehicles for moral outrage and compassion on the one hand and inhumanity and evil on the other. But to suggest, as one critic did, that Hochhuth "does not have to understand" his character "because he does not have to forgive" him is hardly valid. Perhaps he does not have to forgive him—forgiveness is something beyond a human prerogative—but given the nature of the play, he does have to convince the audience. And to achieve this, it is more effective to acknowledge that there were areas of uncertainty and to respond to them than it is to deny their possibility….

If, in the end, The Deputy still manages to move us, to be one of the most significant dramatic works produced in the 60s, it is despite its essentially simplistic characterization, failure to explore motivations, and the ponderousness of its free-verse form. It forces us to face once more the question of power and responsibility—and perhaps the question of Grace—and to face it in terms of an event that to this day almost defies the imagination.

Catharine Hughes, "'The Deputy'," in her Plays, Politics and Polemics, Drama Book Specialists, 1973, pp. 127-38.