Jun 2013 Journal

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Germany on the London stage

It is not often that the London stage plays host to two productions about Germany in quick succession. The first, The Captain of Köpenick, an English adaptation of Carl Zuckmayer’s classic comedy Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (1931) and starring Anthony Sher, had a recent run at the National Theatre, while the second, a stage adaptation of Kressmann Taylor’s short novel Address Unknown (1938), opens at the Soho Theatre later this month. Both throw light on the troubled history of Germany in the first half of the last century, though the adaptation of The Captain of Köpenick restyled much of the play into knockabout farce.
That was a missed opportunity, for Zuckmayer’s play, based on a real incident that occurred in 1906, is the model of a very funny play that has serious points to make. Those who mistakenly believe that there is no such thing as German comedy would do well to compare Zuckmayer’s comic masterpiece with its British contemporaries, the best-known of which are ‘Oh Dahling’ comedies by Noel Coward or farces like Rookery Nook. There are few works of literature that challenge the authoritarian mentality more effectively, and with greater comic force, than Der Hauptmann von Köpenick. It was inspired by the exploits of a petty criminal and unemployed cobbler, Wilhelm Voigt, who, in desperation at his inability to obtain papers officially permitting him to work and live in Berlin, acquired a second-hand captain’s uniform, commandeered a unit of soldiers, marched them off to the town hall of the south-eastern suburb of Köpenick, declared a state of siege, arrested the mayor and absconded with the contents of the borough treasury. The way in which everyone he encountered, soldiers and civilians, kowtowed to the all-powerful aura of the army uniform caused a storm of hilarity across Germany.
The drama’s action skilfully weaves together the stories of its two main agents, Voigt and the uniform, over a period of some ten years, before bringing them together for the climax at Köpenick. One strand of the action traces Voigt’s dispiriting quest for the papers that would allow him a stable life, through scenes in soulless police offices, seedy bars, a prison and a dosshouse, while the other develops the story of the uniform. After initially adorning the person of a Prussian officer, Captain von Schlettow, the uniform passes to the aspiring young local politician Obermüller, at that stage also a junior officer in the army reserve, and ends up in a cheap Jewish second-hand clothes shop. There Voigt acquires it for his daring impersonation of an army officer, in which his principal victim is none other than the unfortunate Obermüller, now mayor of Köpenick.
Zuckmayer ironically subtitled his comedy ‘ein deutsches Märchen in drei Akten’, a modern ‘German fairy tale in three acts’, in which an unemployed cobbler disguised as an army officer triumphs over a soulless bureaucratic machine bent on denying him his basic rights. The play’s vibrancy and lasting appeal derive from its skilful exploitation of its principal comic theme: the collision between self-important bureaucrats, pedantically insistent on the observance of administrative regulations, and the slyly disrespectful, Schweikian outsider, who uses the tools of wit and irony to undermine pompous officialdom and who successfully turns the system’s own weapons against it in his escapade at Köpenick. Zuckmayer’s attack on militarism and the authoritarian, hierarchical mentality that flourished in imperial Germany is clad in exuberant, often hilarious comedy. He satirises the military spirit that pervaded so many German institutions, for example by showing how Voigt gains the knowledge of the Prussian army that enables him to pull off his impersonation from a spell in Sonnenburg prison (of all places), where the governor is bent on instilling patriotic, military behaviour in his charges.
The drama is also a variation on the perennial literary theme of ‘Kleider machen Leute’, illustrating how people are judged (or misjudged) according to the clothes they wear. In this case, the uniform guarantees the success of Voigt’s ruse, thereby demonstrating the continuing hold of authoritarian, militaristic attitudes on the civilian population of a supposedly constitutional, democratic state and the continuing unthinking deference of civilians, up to and including the mayor of Köpenick, to the militarised symbols and values of the ‘Obrigkeitsstaat’, the authoritarian state. That such attitudes spilled over from the era of the Wilhelmine Empire into the Weimar Republic, helping to undermine its democratic structures, was demonstrated in 1925, when Field Marshal Hindenburg, former head of the imperial army and symbol of its values, was elected president of Germany; in that office, he appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor in 1933.
Address Unknown, written in 1938 as a warning to a largely ignorant America about the insidious dangers of Nazi ideology, was the work of (Kathrine) Kressmann Taylor (1903-96); her publisher used only her two last names, thinking the story too hard-hitting to appear under a woman’s name. The novel takes the form of an exchange of letters between two business partners: a Jew, Max Eisenstein, who has stayed in San Francisco, and a German, Martin Schulse, who has returned to Germany; the exchange, beginning in November 1932 and ending in March 1934, reflects the seismic changes wrought by the Nazi assumption of power in January 1933.
Kressmann Taylor’s novel was a huge success when it appeared and, though it vanished from view after 1945, has sold well since its republication in 1995. The British edition is published by Souvenir Press (London) at £7.99. Its success derives from the author’s extremely effective use of the simple device of telling her story entirely through the letters of her two protagonists, allowing the deterioration in their relationship and the reasons for it to emerge from their own words, with no narrator or authorial comment intervening. The hallmark of the epistolary novel has always been to allow the reader direct, unmediated access to the thoughts, feelings and motives - real, pretended or concealed - of its characters. That applies to texts where the reader enters the emotional world of a single figure, as in Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) (1774), or those which chart the relations between two characters, like Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road (1970), or those written from multiple perspectives, like Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) (1782).
Address Unknown begins as a correspondence between two old friends, as Eisenstein in San Francisco expresses his envy of Schulse’s return to pre-Hitler Germany. But the cordial tone of Schulse’s reply of December 1932 cannot conceal the weaknesses in his character: while lamenting the poverty afflicting Germany, he boasts from Munich of the palatial residence that he has been able to pick up cheap, and his decision to take up an official position hints at an unattractive streak of self-interested ambition. His attempts to sing the praises of Eisenstein’s younger sister Griselle, an aspiring actress, ring false; the reader soon gathers that Schulse has had an affair with Griselle, but has abandoned her to return to his wife.
In Schulse’s next letter, dated 25 March 1933, his fickleness emerges all too clearly. Though impressed by Hitler’s fiery oratory, which he compares to an electric shock, he still has serious doubts about the methods, goals and even the sanity of the Nazi leader. But he leaves us in little doubt that he will follow the path dictated by his own interests as an official; he has already joined the Nazi Party. While deploring the Jew-baiting with one breath, with another he seeks to trivialise the Nazis’ ruthless use of violence: ‘But these things pass; if the end in view is right they pass and are forgotten. History writes a clean new page.’ A less than convincing attempt to justify the persecution of defenceless minorities.
Sure enough, by July 1933 Schulse has become a loyal Nazi, seeing Hitler as the great Leader sent to rescue Germany from the morass of defeat and poverty. He now argues that Eisenstein’s horrified condemnation of Nazi outrages merely demonstrates the defects innate in those of Jewish race, and that it is those defects that are to blame for the persecution visited on the Jews. In line with his new-found Nazi beliefs, Schulse insists to Eisenstein that their correspondence must cease. But Eisenstein is forced to disregard his ex-friend’s demand, in his desperation to discover what has happened to his sister, who, having rashly accepted a role on the Berlin stage, has now disappeared. Schulse’s reply to Eisenstein’s pleas is chilling. ‘Heil Hitler!’, it begins. ‘I much regret that I have bad news for you. Your sister is dead.’ From Schulse’s account of events, the reader can deduce that Griselle has fled to Munich, but that Schulse has refused her refuge, out of naked cowardice and fear for his position, leaving her to the tender mercies of the pursuing Storm Troopers. I will not reveal the means by which Eisenstein exacts revenge on his faithless friend; suffice it to say that it brings the novel to a compellingly dramatic conclusion.

Address Unknown runs from 13 June to 27 July 2013 at London’s Soho Theatre.

Anthony Grenville

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