Volker Braun’s plays are concrete expressions of his dissatisfaction with the present, his unwillingness to accept the current state of things in his own society and in the world. His plays focus, therefore, on the unresolved problems and troubling contradictions of a socialist state, not so much as a criticism of its failings—although this criticism is clearly important—but as a challenge to his audience to join in the enormous task of building a new society. Braun’s dramatic method is, as the critic Katherine Vanovitch has observed, to present his audience with the challenge that a socialist society in its imperfection offers and “to excite them, as individuals, to share in the poetry by grasping their opportunity to mould their own environment and, in the process, themselves.”
One basic question is at the heart of all Braun’s drama. It concerns the dialectical relationship between the various contradictory forces that reside within all revolutions. Braun’s plays portray in manifold variation the continual struggle between utopian vision and reactionary impulse. They examine in the lives and fates of his individual protagonists the conflicts between the desire for progress and the conservative tendency to preserve what currently exists, and between the subjective desires of the individual and the objective limitations inherent in real-life situations. In Braun’s view, these conflicts are most apparent in the contradictory relationship between the political leaders of the society “who consciously orchestrate the transformation of the society or who consciously or unconsciously impede it,” and those who are led and “who consciously or unconsciously put the plans into action or who criticize and resist them.” Accordingly, the relationship between the political leadership and individual citizens is an important focus in his plays.
A second, related question posed in Braun’s drama concerns the costs, in particular the human costs, associated with the building of the new society. Therefore, Braun’s plays often examine the effect that larger political and economic issues have on the lives of individuals—that is, on the people who either willingly or under duress have taken on the task of moving the society forward.
In terms of both the choice of subject matter and their dramatic approach, Braun’s plays fall into two fairly distinct periods. The first extends from the early 1960’s and his first work on the play Die Kipper (the dumpers) through the mid-1970’s and the completion of the dramas Schmitten and Tinka. During this roughly fifteen-year period, Braun’s plays focused almost exclusively on the problems connected with the development of socialism in East Germany. With the lone exception of the play Lenins Tod (Lenin’s death, written during this time but not produced until 1983), which deals with the taboo subject of the transition of power in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s, all the major plays of this period are set in the German Democratic Republic of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, in the so-called Aufbau, or “building,” period, in which the fledgling East German state struggled to build a new industrial economy.
In his first play, Die Kipper, Braun focuses on the continuing existence of demeaning and dehumanizing work in the context of socialism. The case in point is the physically and spiritually ruinous work of the dumpers, who spend their entire shift dumping trainloads of sand and dirt. Although it is technologically possible to automate the dumping process, the country’s fragile economy in the 1950’s does not make automation feasible, and workers remain bound to the methods of production borrowed from the old system.
The play begins with a prologue in which one of the actors presents a short synopsis of the play’s essential content, a synopsis that should focus the audience’s attention on the play’s central concerns. The play will recount one year in the life of the unskilled worker Paul Bauch, who discovers one day that “in addition to the arm that he needs for his work, he has yet another arm, and what’s more two legs and even a head.” Braun’s point is clear: The new society does not make use of the entire person. The individual worker now, as before, is reduced to the one procedure he or she performs, and the traditional division between headwork and handwork, between the “bosses” who lead and the workers who follow, is kept intact.
In the figure of Paul Bauch, Braun embodies the energy and legitimate aspirations of the individual worker, who demands that work be meaningful and that he be involved in it completely, head and hand. Like the figures Hinze and Tinka in later plays, Bauch demands an immediate and complete change in the methods of production. He demands an ideal socialism while disregarding the very real factors that still hamper its realization. When, through an unlikely series of events, he is made Brigadier, the foreman of his work brigade, he throws himself into his work, driving himself and the brigade on to meet ever higher production goals. By making the tedious labor of the dump into a kind of sport, he is able to help each of his coworkers to realize the importance of the individual’s contribution to the success of the whole. His innovative measures are at first successful in increasing both the level of production and the involvement of the individual brigade members in their work; they ultimately collapse, however, as Bauch’s subjective demands surpass the objective reality of the young country’s ability to support them. Bauch’s methods culminate in an accident that destroys some of the brigade’s antiquated equipment and seriously injures one of the workers. Bauch, who is held responsible, is relieved of his post and sent to prison.
On one hand, by not being content to accept that which is “objectively possible” under existing conditions, Bauch is able to accomplish something previously considered impossible. On the other hand, his individual efforts frustrate the ultimate goal of true collective work, for the brigade members have become mere extensions of his energy. They have become his “arm,” relying on his head rather than using their own. Somewhat ironically, Bauch’s revolutionary energy, while contributing somewhat to the society’s progress, serves to frustrate the ultimate goal of the socialist revolution. In like manner, the outdated and inadequate machinery that the dumpers must use suggests the limits within which the revolution must proceed. The young socialist state does not yet possess the objective basis for true and complete socialism, a fact that dictates the country’s continuing reliance on remnants of the old social order.
Although Paul Bauch fails, the play nevertheless ends optimistically. Bauch’s “unreasonable” demands have awakened a new consciousness among his coworkers, who will now proceed on their own in the direction that Bauch has pushed them—if now at a more measured and moderate pace. As foretold somewhat enigmatically in the prologue, in the end, Paul Bauch “loses a brigade, but the brigade wins.” Braun’s protagonists are not exemplary figures; they are not the positive heroes and heroines called for in the literary program of Socialist Realism. This fact is suggested in the title of the final 1972 version of the play, which places the dumpers as a group in the forefront, while two earlier versions of the play, entitled first “Der totale Mensch” (the total person) and then “Kipper Paul Bauch” (dumper Paul Bauch), emphasized the individual’s central importance.
Hinze und Kunze
In his second major drama, Hinze und Kunze, Braun returns to some of the same issues he examined in Die Kipper. Like his first play, Hinze und Kunze went through a number of revisions and rewritings before it appeared in its final form in 1973. (An early version of the play with the title Hans Faust had premiered in Leipzig in 1968 but was withdrawn from production shortly after its premiere.) One significant result of the long revision process is reflected in the changing of the play’s title, which in the 1973 version gives equal billing to the play’s two central figures. The play follows the career and development of the construction worker Hinze, the Hans Faust of the earlier version. A figure in many ways similar to Paul Bauch, he is impatient and discouraged by the slow progress of socialism. Although he no longer goes by the name Faust, Hinze’s impatient dissatisfaction with the status quo clearly links him to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s hero, and the text is full of allusions to Goethe’s masterpiece. The most obvious point of connection to the Faust theme is made in the pact between Hinze and the local party secretary Kunze. Like Mephistopheles in Goethe’s play, Kunze will urge Hinze on to new experience; rather than diverting him in the manner of his predecessor, however, his Kunze will ultimately keep Hinze on track. Here, each partner is dependent on the other if their common cause is to succeed. Therefore, they agree to remain together as long as either is dissatisfied.
In the relationship between Faust and Mephistopheles, Braun has discovered a useful model with which to explore what he has termed “the most disturbing contradiction” in the socialist revolution: the contradiction between the society’s leaders and...
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