Tankred Dorst’s plays are distinguished above all by their craftsmanship and theatrical sensibility, which arise no doubt from Dorst’s early preoccupation with puppet theater and his conviction that the stage is an instrument through which a dramatist can filter his creative ideas. With his first performed play, Gesellschaft im Herbst, Dorst exhibited his talent for presenting not only the characters of his play but also the setting and situations in which they find themselves as a theatrical artifice. Only rarely does he allow “the truth of life” or “the tragic sense of disillusionment” to be sensed from behind the scrim that he intentionally places between his play and the audience. Although this first play may remind one of Jean Giraudoux’s La Folle de Chaillot (pr., pb. 1945; The Madwoman of Chaillot, 1947) in its effete, aristocratically seedy milieu as well as its burlesquing of the material greed of the aggressive commercial class, Dorst’s play fundamentally differs from the older model. His play seems to be concerned less with the conflict between old values and twentieth century avariciousness and barbarism than it is with the prevalent human tendency to prefer illusion to reality, the ease with which people are ready to believe in the most preposterous suggestions—in this case, that an enormous treasure lies buried in the foundations of a castle. Thus, from the very beginning, Dorst was less interested in psychological realism than in playing out universal themes by way of theatrical magic.
Dorst’s next performed dramas reiterate some of his basic ideas, which are expertly developed in three one-act plays that immediately followed. In Freedom for Clemens, he subtly manipulates the conceit that human beings can readily be convinced by others to accept the conditions of slavery as being those of freedom; in The Curve, the common assumption of social order and purpose in the world is quickly turned upside down to reveal a vision of frightening absurdity; and in Great Tirade at the Town-Wall, the authorities toy with ordinary citizens until they are reduced to ranters lamenting their fate with no one to hear them.
Dorst’s dramas, however, should not be reduced to a few overriding ideas, for this would deny his virtuosity, the skill with which he constructs his plays. The Countess de Villars-Brancas in Gesellschaft im Herbst appears at first to be easy prey for unscrupulous treasure diggers and other social vultures and hangers-on. Soon, however, she is revealed as a metaphor for an “autumn society” that has outlived its usefulness and is ready to decamp, but not before the rest of society’s dregs and their frenzied “dance around the Golden Calf” are exposed. In Freedom for Clemens, Dorst underscores the Everyman features of Clemens, who is imprisoned for an undisclosed transgression, by giving him and other actors in the play puppetlike movements. They are supposed, however, to possess the agility of jugglers and acrobats.
Although Dorst borrows from the French absurdist theater, the techniques employed in several of his plays hark back to the old Italian commedia dell’arte and beyond, including masks and plays-within-plays. The absence of seriousness on the surface of his plays is contradicted, however, by disturbing thoughts at their core. Thus in Freedom for Clemens, the question arises as to the meaning of freedom in general: If one is nestled comfortably in any one place, protected from viewing the outside world—like Clemens in his cell—and thus voluntarily relinquishing the freedom of often precarious commitment outside, preferring the safe containment within the four walls, is one then free or captive? Can one avoid seeing, by extension, parallel examples in the world at large? Is the word “freedom” merely a slogan to be placed on banners, a cliché without any deeper meaning?
The grotesque one-act play The Curve is similarly disturbing. It presents two symbiotic brothers (one works with his hands, the other with his head, like Gogo and Didi in Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot, pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954) who exist in an almost idyllic way at a dangerous bend in the road. They are creatures of ordinary, even cozy, domesticity who make their living from accidents that regularly happen at the curve. Their absurd profession—fashioning coffins for victims, burying them with proper ritual, repairing and then selling the victims’ cars—parodies respectable and industrious ways of making a living. The latest victim, a highly placed government official who ignored the brothers’ letters to him in reference to the dangerous curve, while appearing dead, suddenly recovers from the accident and pledges to remove the fatal hazard. At the prospect of losing their livelihood, the brothers murder the official and he is solemnly buried like the rest. The conditions whereby some people die and others benefit from their death are thus perpetuated. The farcical tone and the absurdity of the plot are underscored by the hypocritical rhetoric, the contrast between those who have “our best interests at heart,” on one hand, and the gruesomeness of the underlying reality, on the other.
Great Tirade at the Town-Wall
Great Tirade at the Town-Wall, which has as its source an ancient Chinese shadow play, immediately impresses the spectator with its simple but powerful setting, which recalls the Chinese costume plays by Bertolt Brecht. A fisher-woman beats against an enormous wall guarded by the imperial army, pleading that her soldier-husband be returned to her. Because he is dead, another soldier feigns to be her husband, and the imperial officers decide to have fun at the expense of the unfortunate woman. She is to prove that the man who claims to be the missing soldier is indeed her husband, for she is quite prepared—though knowing the truth—to take him as such. She fails, not because she cannot pretend, which she masterfully does, but because the passion with which she pursues her cause frightens...
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