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The Politics of Brutality: Toward a Definition of the Critical Volksstiick SUSAN L. COCALIS The critical Volksstiick, which has been enjoying a new vogue on the West German stage, is a dramatic genre alien to the Anglo-American tradition, and although recent English works like Bond's Saved, Pinter's earliest plays, or dramas ofthe kitchen-sink school could be related to it, no one would call them folk plays. I The term "folk play" in English would rather designate unliterary, impromptu dramatic performances like the mumming play that are usually accompanied by song and dance (sword dance, morris dance) and given at village festivals by the villagers themselves. These plays usually treat the themes of death and resurrection, honor local worthies, or celebrate heroic feats.2 Since this term does exist in English and does refer to a historical form of the drama, the German term "Volksstiick" will be retained throughout this paper. Moreover, it will be maintained consciously, despite recent challenges to the validity of designating as Volksstiicke certain contemporary, socially critical West German plays written in dialect, cant, ormediajargon and treating the problems of common people.3 For although one speaks of a revival of the critical Volksstiick in the late sixties and early seventies, although numerous dramatists have been named in conjunction with this genre,4 and although some of these authors explicitly label their own works as such,5 there is little or no consensus as to what actually constitutes a Volksstiick . Some critics advocate dispensing with the term altogether and replacing it with "milieu play" or "dialectplay";6 others suggestretaining itbut restricting itto a historical usage;7 and still others propose expanding its field to include East German works not written in dialect.8 This lack of consensus may be attributable to the paradoxical nature of the critical Volksstiick. It is an antigenre, or Gegenentwurf, which cannot exist without the foil of the totally uncritical, traditional Volksstiick; it purports to effect political changes by its very apolitical nature; it attempts to serve The Critical Volksstiick 293 humanitarian ideals by its ultrarealistic chronicling of the inhumane conditions governing social intercourse; it utilizes a naive mode of speech to demonstrate how mass culture has deprived the common people of the ability to think or to express themselves naturally; and it appeals to the instinct, pity, or compassion of the audience in order to provoke critical attitudes. Hence it attempts to be both conventional and critical, popular and political, compassionate and brutal, linguistically naive and sophisticated. Ifthe critical Volksstiick is to be defined at all, it would have to be in terms of these inherent contradictions. The following is intended as a step in that direction. The critical Volksstiick emerged as a genre during the Weimar Republic in the plays of Odon von Horvath and his contemporary Marieluise FleiBer, plays which were viewed as efforts to continue, renew, and politicize the traditional Volksstiick.9 The latter was a form of popular play that had evolved in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the Vorstadttheater, i.e., theaters in the outlying districts ofthe larger urban centers like Vienna, Munich, Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, or Darmstadt. 10 The Volksstiick was generally a farce, fairy tale, or satirical comedy written by one author in prose, verse, or the local dialect, and it usually included musical numbers. II Ithad a simple, unified plot, drawn from the daily life ofthe common folk, that was expected to demonstrate the just order of the universe. The action was initiated by some deviation from the normal order of things; a series of complications ensued (often involving temptations, mistaken identity, and reversals of fortune); and the suspense mounted until an actual deity, an influential patron, or an unexpected shift in fortune (shipwreck, lottery, inheritance, disclosure of one's true identity) intervened to reward the beautiful and the good and to punish the deviant and the evil. The normative social order was represented here by an intact family unit formed by persons of compatible social standing who interacted in accordance with culturally sanctioned, patriarchal customs. This ideal universe of just rewards was presented in a realistic manner as the natural, and thus normative, order of things...


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