Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It shakes accepted values–disperses former glory–dismays age-long courage - Georg Kaiser's The Burghers of Calais

One last German-language play.  Last for now.  Georg Kaiser’s The Burghers of Calais (pub. 1914, perf. 1917) is, I am told, the signature Expressionist drama.  I do not know what Expressionism is, exactly, or to the extent that I do know, I cannot see the relationship between Kaiser’s play and Expressionist artists like Franz Marc and George Grosz.  Let’s not make this post about my ignorance, though.

The Burghers of Calais is inspired by one of Rodin’s most famous sculpture groups (here’s the plaster version at the Musée Rodin), itself inspired by an episode in Froissart’s Chronicles.  During the Hundred Years War the English besieged the port city of Calais.  Rather than sack the town, they demanded that six leading citizens surrender themselves while dressed in sack cloth and a noose.  The humiliation and presumably execution of the six, in exchange for safety.  Six leaders, including the city’s wealthiest merchant, volunteered for the sacrifice.  Rodin’s sculpture enacts their most pathetic moment, as they leave the city to their deaths.  Presumed, as I said, since the men were spared by the intervention of the Queen of England.

Kaiser takes advantage of the men’s humiliation in the play’s final act, where the public removal of their ornate garments and donning of the sack cloth and noose gains, as it is repeated, a ritual power that a much worse playwright could hardly damage.  But Kaiser has a stranger, ahistorical purpose.  He adds a number of ludicrous complications to the story – mainly that seven men volunteer when only six are needed – in order to test the meaning of the sacrifice.  Ordinary concepts of glory, honor, or duty are somehow insufficient, not meaningful enough.  The volunteers go through a scourging or purging process before their sacrifice, overcoming their fear of death and attachment to the world.  I think.

Thick smoke swirls about your heads and feet and shrouds the way before you.  Are you worthy to tread it?  To proceed to the final goal?  To do this deed–which becomes a crime–unless its doers are transformed?  Are you prepared–for this your new deed? –It shakes accepted values–disperses former glory–dismays age-long courage–muffles that which rang clear–blackens that which shone brightly–rejects that which was valid! –Are you the new men? (114-5)

That passage is just a scrap of a characteristic two-page monologue.  I picked it because the Nietzschean or visionary overtones are unusually clear.  New men, huh?

I do not know if the odd use of the dashes in the translation is straight from Kaiser or if the translators are attempting to recreate one of the many peculiar features of Kaiser’s anti-naturalistic text.  The play begins in crisis, at a high rhetorical pitch, and maintains the tone almost to the end – once the men have reached their apotheosis, the tension is allowed to relax.  I was reminded of the unrelenting intensity of a contemporary drama, Charles Péguy’s The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, with which Kaiser's play shares the theme of transcendent sacrifice.

I read the translation of J. M. Ritchie and Rex Last found in Kaiser’s Plays Volume One, 1985, John Calder.  An admirably modest blurb on the back cover says “This book was worth publishing”; I agree.  Kind of a low standard.

Oh yes, thanks to the Caroline and Lizzy for the poke in the ribs that was German Literature Month.


  1. I haven't read this but I'm familiar with the sculpture we have one of them here in our museum's courtyard.
    I have a feeling there aren't all that many expressionist plays but I'm adding only my own ignorance to the subject.

  2. Good question. Expressionist theater is a completely new area for me, too.

    I saw a cast of the sculpture at the Tokyo Museum of Western Art.