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  • An Introduction to Oskar Panizza's "Bayreuth and Homosexuality" (1895) "Checkmate," or, "A Heavenly Tragedy" and its Earthly Consequences
  • Isolde Vetter (bio)

Oskar Panizza (1853-1921) was, in the words of Kurt Tucholsky, "the boldest and most brazen, the wittiest and most revolutionary of prophets in his own country."1 But as such he was not only without honor in his own country (the German Kaiserreich at the turn of the century), the country in question repaid its prophet's boldness and brazenness in the basest possible coin. In 1895, it saddled him with a court case alleging that his stage play The Council of Love2—subtitled "A Heavenly Tragedy"—was blasphemous in nature, and then broke his spirit with a twelve-month prison sentence. Not content with that, the authorities in Germany proceeded to ban all of his later writings, issued a warrant for his arrest, and, when he sought refuge from persecution in Paris, forced him to return to Germany by impounding his assets. It was here in Munich that the German Reich dealt its final devastating blow: Panizza, this subversively troublesome subject who had been found guilty of blaspheming God, his Kaiser, and his Fatherland, was declared mentally ill and incapable of managing his own affairs. The doctors who were called in to examine the case assiduously discovered that he had "repeatedly changed his address because of the delusions from which he was suffering," and had "turned his way of life into that of a homeless and hunted refugee."3 Exactly: it is the victim and not the perpetrator of the crime who bears the guilt. Panizza, who had never joined a political party and who appears never to have sought the help of his fellow artists (Theodor Fontane, an old man at this time, described The Council of Love as a work "of enormous significance"), Panizza, the lone fighter who had once used the word "Checkmate" as his life's motto, finally saw himself placed in check by a superior force. In 1903, as his mind began to cloud over, he summed up his fate in the following far-sighted lines:4

Alle Grossen, alle Kleinenwissen, dass du wirst verendensich dein Schicksal nicht wird wenden,und du hältst mit Armen, Beinenfest dich noch an Felsenwänden.Welch ein Schauspiel! Dass dich rettenNiemand kann, das wissen alle,alle fragen nur und wetten,Wann du wirklich kommst zu Falle.

All men, great and small,know that your fatehas been unalterably decided,and yet you cling fast with arms and legsto the face of a cliff.What a spectacle! That no onecan rescue you, we all know;the only questionis when you will meet your doom. [End Page 321]

On October 19, 1904, Panizza carried out what he himself described as a "successful coup," running through the streets of Munich dressed only in his shirt. He spent the remaining seventeen years of his life in a mental institution near Bayreuth, fading away and silent to the world. His beloved fatherland could "breathe again."

In his "Heavenly Tragedy," Panizza made God the Father (a frail and peevish old man) convene a "council of love" consisting of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Satan, to devise a suitable punishment for humanity—first and foremost for the promiscuous Pope Alexander VI—in order to chastise their sin of fornication. The Devil responds to the challenge by inventing syphilis (in the Year of Our Lord 1495), a disease which, to the greater glory of God, destroyed men's bodies but left their souls intact, in need of redemption as the latter undoubtedly were. Satan then creates the prototypical dumb blonde, a stunningly beautiful but silent woman who wastes no time in infecting not only the said Pope with syphilis but the whole of the clergy and the "rest of the abject human race."

In spite of his play's highly satirical content, Panizza seems not to have had an eye for the sexual repressiveness that was typical of his age. Whereas before his imprisonment he had written of "the highest boon that fate can grant, the power to possess the one we love,"5...


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pp. 321-323
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