July 2000 Friesen

Contents of Volume
July 2000 Number Three

Vondel, Sudermann and Kliewer:

Stretching the Invisible Canon of Mennonite Dramatic Writing


Abstract: This essay argues that Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679), Hermann Sudermann (1857-1928) and Warren Kliewer (1931-1998) should all be considered as Mennonite playwrights because each was influenced by a Mennonite cultural background and tradition. More important, the themes these playwrights address-compassion, reconciliation, critique of religious hypocrisy-have on-going significance for Mennonites. The paper explores a representative play from each of the three playwrights with the goal of identifying similarities in their work and recommending a few principles for reflection regarding the development of a Mennonite dramatic tradition. For Mennonites in the theater arts, the voices of these three playwrights are relevant to the dramatic tradition that is now forming.

Mennonite playwrights face enormous obstacles in the pursuit of their art. While the demands of the discipline weigh heavily enough on any playwright, additional complications arise for those who attach the adjective “Mennonite” to their work. What plausible criterion distinguishes Mennonite plays from those that are not Mennonite? It might be tempting to assume that a theological litmus test could be developed that would cipher out the “Mennoniteness” of certain works and thereby establish the basis for Mennonite playwriting. Playwrights would find little comfort in such a test, however, because it would impose non-artistic criteria as a means to evaluate drama. In his survey of Mennonite literary themes, critic Al Reimer has argued in favor of a broad definition of “Mennonite” writers:

I prefer to view “Mennonite” writing through a wide-angle lens which includes in its focus the work of writers who spent at least their formative years in a Mennonite milieu-family and/or community and/or church-regardless of whether they now consider themselves “Mennonite” in a religious sense, or in a purely ethnic sense, or in both cases, or in neither case.[1]

This modest proposal, an inclusive definition, expands the potential for research into Mennonite writing. It has the double advantage of encouraging scholars to focus on quality of writing rather than on demonstrating the Mennoniteness of a given literary work. At the same time it frees playwrights from having to prove their Mennonite roots with clear or veiled references to Mennonite doctrines. Instead of ecclesiastical or theological criteria for defining art as “Mennonite,” Reimer’s sociological aesthetic makes it possible to establish new boundaries in Mennonite drama.[2]


A significant increase in theater activity among North American Mennonites began approximately forty years ago as Mennonite colleges, congregations and church festivals and conferences began to incorporate drama in public celebrations. A number of playwrights were commissioned or otherwise encouraged to develop original material for these events. Many of these works were site- or event-specific in that they addressed themes associated with a particular place or time.[3]

Amid this flourishing of dramatic activity, paradox has also emerged for Mennonite playwrights.[4] Although nearly all of these plays received significant support for their first production, they have seldom been performed subsequently outside of their original contexts. Virtually all have suffered from a notable lack of revivals. Indeed, the Mennonite literary canon from the last forty years lacks even a single play that continues to be produced on a regular basis. In this sense, recent Mennonite plays fail to pass one essential test in aesthetics initially proposed by Immanuel Kant, the principle of repeatability.[5]

By contrast, the playwrights in this study, Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679), Hermann Sudermann (1856-1928) and Warren Kliewer (1931-1998),[6] did not write for commissions, Mennonite institutions or ecclesiastical festivals. Instead, they wrote for the commercial theater-with differing levels of success-in three different languages, centuries and cultures. These Mennonite playwrights did not assume a posture of “separation from the world” with their craft. They addressed themes that might seem all too common on the professional stage: a critique of wealth, an unmasking of military bravado or kingly authority, compassion for the poor and dispossessed, the reality of passion and emotional desire and a lament for the wandering stranger who searches but can seldom or only tragically find his way.[7] In writing for the commercial stage, the playwrights considered in this essay all explored issues that are valued within the Mennonite context, but they did so without employing explicitly Mennonite characters, terms (e.g., nonresistance, nonconformity) or theology as subjects of their exploration.

But even though the plays by Vondel, Sudermann and Kliewer may appear to have only vague and even unintentional thematic links to Mennonite theology and ethics, they should be considered as essential works in the Mennonite canon. Influenced by Mennonites in their formative years, these playwrights have each expanded and preserved dimensions of the heritage by exploring dramatic themes that essentially replicate Mennonite values. Many plays from these three authors have also met that demanding Kantian standard noted above: their works have been repeated in various cultural contexts and on numerous stages. Thus, Mennonites interested in the dramatic arts might be encouraged by noting that aspects of Mennonite life and faith can be expressed in enduring works written for the professional stage.

Until the 1950s only two prominent playwrights with Mennonite affiliation had emerged: Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679) in Amsterdam and Hermann Sudermann (1857-1928) in Berlin. Warren Kliewer (1931-1998) now needs to be added to this short, although significant, list. While these three dramatists worked in different languages (Dutch, German, English) and different centuries (seventeenth, nineteenth, twentieth), a number of shared principles emerge in their major works. Perhaps the most significant parallel is that the plays of each author reflect a struggle with the historical and stylistic movements most characteristic of their age. The baroque aesthetics of the Dutch Golden Age form the trademark features in Vondel’s plays-Vondel coalesced the traditional Baroque iambic beat and rhyming couplets with an innovative staging technique of placing silent actors in a visual tableau to illustrate the themes of long monologues. Sudermann was writing during a time of transition in the German theater when naturalism was displacing the popular dramatic form of melodrama, and new voices of “social criticism” were challenging the position of privilege enjoyed by classical writers such as Goethe and Schiller. Sudermann’s work reflects the struggle involved in shifting between these two forms. Kliewer’s dramatic works demonstrate a profound integration of diverse twentieth-century dramatic styles. His published works reveal a facility with poetic religious drama, realism, biography, farce and epic theatre. The variety of Kliewer’s styles does not camouflage the biting social satire that marks nearly all of his works. The figure of Bertolt Brecht and German political theater, with its emphasis on unmasking and critiquing the moral double standards, lurks in the background of many of Kliewer’s plays.


Mennonite dramatic writing began in Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, when the Netherlands experienced a flowering of the visual and literary arts. Early in the seventeenth century, as the Low Countries struggled for independence from Spanish rule and slowly began to assert their national identity, Amsterdam became a cultural center that attracted a host of art dealers, painters, playwrights and poets. Building on the long stage tradition of the Chambers of Rhetoric (Rederijkerskamers),[8] the Dutch were the first northern Europeans to construct an indoor theater, Amsterdam’s Schouwburg, built in 1635. The theater’s first production was the premiere of Vondel’s Gijsbrecht van Amstel.

Two Mennonites in particular, Carel van Mander and Joost van den Vondel, were leaders in the burgeoning arts movement of the Dutch Golden Age. Mander founded art academies in Haarlem and Amsterdam and authored the standard text on Dutch and German art, The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters. [9] He also wrote eight plays that have disappeared, although their titles are recorded.[10] Mander’s aesthetic project was marked by classicism, innovation and intellectual integrity. His influence on Dutch art was considerable, mainly because he established a climate that attracted artists to Amsterdam.

Eventually two of Mander’s contemporaries would leave their own lasting imprint on the age: Rembrandt in the visual arts and Vondel in the literary arts. Their friendship inspired Vondel to write poems in recognition of Rembrandt’s paintings and Rembrandt seems to have returned the favor.[11] Both incorporated the figure of Cornelius Anslo, pastor of the Waterlander Mennonite Church, in their work,[12] and some scholars have argued that Rembrandt’s famous “Nightwatch” was a rendering of the opening tableau of Vondel’s seminal play Gijsbrecht van Amstel.[13]

Vondel was born in 1587 into a Dutch Mennonite family that was living for a brief period of time in Cologne, Germany following their flight from Antwerp in 1585.[14] In 1596, following Holland’s independence from Spanish rule, the family returned to the Netherlands, settling in Amsterdam. There, Joost was raised within the Waterlander Mennonite Church where he eventually became a deacon. Sometime during his mid-fifties, however, Vondel withdraw membership from the Mennonite congregation.

Vondel wrote sixteen plays, of which Gijsbrecht van Amstel is the ninth and his last as a Waterlander Mennonite.[15] Dedicated to his intellectual friend Hugo Grotius-who had helped negotiate the end of the Dutch revolt against the Spaniards with the Peace of Westphalia-the play became Vondel’s best known work. Appropriately, the theme of international peace forms a central dimension in the development of the plot. The story of the play’s origins forms part of its mystique.

In 1635 Gijsbrecht was scheduled as the inaugural play of the newly-built Schouwburg Theater. But when Dutch Remonstrants heard about the content of the play, which they found offensive, they forced a postponement of the theater’s opening for two full years. Many elements in the play might have provoked this act of theatrical censorship: the dramatic portrayals of the two rape scenes, a Catholic bishop depicted as a sympathetic figure, the image of a defeated Amsterdam, the dedication to the exiled Hugo Grotius, or the call for religious and political tolerance. Kristiaan Aerche, the British translator of the play’s 1991 edition, has argued that the core issue was the theme of religious tolerance:

It is telling that Gijsbrecht is dedicated to the jurist Grotius; it was precisely due to Grotius’ influence that Vondel, who had after all been raised as a pious Mennonite pacifist, dreamed about a non-sectarian Christian community and about greater tolerance and understanding among Christians of all denominations.[16]

Finally, two years later in 1637 the Schouwburg Theatre opened and Gijsbrecht van Amstel was performed. The play-with its theme of the Dutch search for freedom during Spanish rule-became an emblem of both political liberty and the freedom of artistic expression; it was produced in Amsterdam every year from 1637 until 1968, making it the longest-running play in the Western world.[17]

Gijsbrecht is not a peaceful play; indeed, throughout its long history the story has always been rather unsettling. As the play opens, Gijsbrecht, the main character of the drama, seizes military leadership when peace negotiations with the Spanish fail. His military actions-aimed to free the city of Amsterdam from Spanish rule-sprang from a complex set of motives: to free Holland, to avenge the rape of his niece and to establish a “secular” government that would practice religious tolerance. Using military trickery-Gijsbrecht conceals soldiers in ships in a manner similar to the Greek Trojan horse-his attack on the city is nearly successful. Eventually, however, his strategy fails and Gijsbrecht leaves Amsterdam peacefully. Gijsbrecht’s peaceful departure, according to the unfolding of the plot, becomes salvific for Amsterdam and its people. If he had remained and continued the war, the city may have been utterly destroyed. With retreat and relocation Gijsbrecht saves his beloved city from further attacks and further destruction.

While in exile south of Danzig in Poland, Gijsbrecht is visited by the angel Raphael who explains the cause of his military defeat: “It’s useless to defend this house [Amsterdam]. Had God ever wanted to protect it, then Amsterdam would surely have been spared” (ll. 1825-26). The message is clear: military victory is in divine hands and even Gijsbrecht’s bravery and genius are not enough to resist the course of history. “Don’t despair,” the angel continues, “but follow and obey what God wants you to do. He [God] says: depart, and reach the fertile Prussian soil, where the Weichsel rushes down from Polish mountains . . .” (ll. 1857-58). Since Danzig was the area where Dutch Mennonites had fled during the persecutions of the sixteenth century, might Vondel have been suggesting a parallel between the Mennonite flight from suffering to freedom and Gijsbrecht’s heavenly ordered exile’[18]

Theater historians generally agree that Vondel’s play was a direct attack on the Remonstrant policies of censoring the arts, crushing religious minorities (Mennonites and Catholics alike) and legislating strong private moral codes.[19] On a number of occasions, the Dutch Protestants who ruled Amsterdam levied heavy fines against Vondel and threatened him with prison for his poems that attacked the ruling establishment. Several of his plays, including his peace play Leuwanders, were denied performance rights, and some productions of his plays were forcibly closed on opening night. Another play Palamedes was suppressed for thirty years, 1620 to 1650.[20] As a result of these struggles, according to historian Jonathan Israel, “Vondel evinced a fierce antagonism towards Tellinck,” the Remonstrant leader.[21] The search for active and effective opposition to violent coercion and political oppression is a major theme in Gijbrecht van Amstel.

The attitude of seventeenth-century Dutch Mennonites toward Vondel’s theatrical ventures is somewhat unclear. Significantly, his theatrical work did not jeopardize his status as a deacon, but it appears as if Mennonites did not support his work to any significant degree.

It was among the Catholics of Holland that Vondel found his most supportive audience. The Chambers of Rhetoric-which had enjoyed the support of Catholic bishops since the middle ages-produced Vondel’s plays and, in turn, he began to write on themes from Catholic history. In 1641, at the age of 54, Vondel left the Waterlander Mennonite Church and, instead of joining the politically powerful Remonstrants, became a Catholic. Gijsbrecht van Amstel was his final play as a Mennonite.

Vondel’s influence on the language and culture of the Netherlands has been profound. Until the early seventeenth century, Latin had been the language of learning and intellectual discourse in the Netherlands. However, Vondel’s poetry and verse drama-illustrated by plays like Gijsbrecht van Amstel-provided Dutch culture with an articulate, dramatic voice that addressed the major issues of the day.[22] His plays engaged contemporary crises related to religious persecution and intolerance, and gave consistent voice to the themes of peace, tolerance and compassion for refugees from persecution.[23] Such themes were rooted in Vondel’s Dutch Mennonite heritage. Gijsbrecht saves the city, in the end, not through violence but through a peaceful commitment to personal sacrifice and the ability to forgive one’s enemies. Though not in predictable or conventional ways, the legacy of Anabaptist suffering, pacifism and martyrdom does indeed find expression in Vondel’s Mennonite plays.


During the final decades of the nineteenth century, Naturalism-a worldview rooted in careful observation of human behavior and in the belief that human action and the development of culture are driven by biological forces-emerged as a significant new theatrical form. One of the primary voices giving shape to this new style was Hermann Sudermann.[24]

The Sudermann family was from the Mennonite community in Elbing, East Prussia, although by the time of Hermann’s birth in 1856, his parents had moved farther east near the Russian border (present day Silute, Lithuania). According to one biographer, his parents were “pious and poor Mennonites who owned a brewery.”[25] Because there were no Mennonite churches in the area and because his mother was Lutheran, the family joined the Lutheran church. Consequently his formative relationships with Mennonites were through his extended family. In his autobiography,[26] written only months before his death, Sudermann devoted a chapter and several other shorter references to his familial heritage. For a number of years he lived with his Mennonite relatives in Elbing while attending school there. During this time he also attended the Mennonite worship services in Elbing,[27] where his Uncle Jacob preached. Sudermann recalled looking out on the congregation, knowing that he was connected with them, which gave him a warm glow in his heart.[28] Nearly all of his 37 plays and 8 novels were set in East Prussia, and some of his characters use Low German phrases characteristic of the Dutch Mennonites from that area. Sudermann consciously retained his East Prussian accent, even though it shut many doors among the fashionable circles of Berlin. In so doing, he embraced the East Prussian world and his Mennonite origins while accepting the cultural scorn that resulted.[29] He addressed the snobbery of Berlin by filling his plays and novels with settings, dialects and characters from East Prussia in a significant exploration of regional sensibilities.

By the end of his career, Hermann Sudermann had become an international literary figure whose plays were successfully produced in numerous major cultural centers: Berlin, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Vienna, London and New York. Performers-including Greta Garbo, Sarah Bernhardt, Eleanora Duse, Marlene Dietrich, Otis Skinner, Mrs. Fiske and Janet Gaynor-vied to premiere a Sudermann role on stage or screen. Sudermann successfully made the transition from writing for the stage to the silent screen and finally to talkies; the German and American film industries released nine movies based on his plays and novels.

When they premiered in Berlin, Sudermann’s dramatic writings, many of which dissected the social ailments of the day, were sensational and even scandalous, evoking strong emotional responses. He particularly explored issues of justice: the conditions of poverty (especially the rural poor), the destructiveness of oppression, the dangers of rising militarism under Bismarck, and the lives of those on the margins of society, especially ethnic minorities within Germany. Sudermann issued a series of warnings about the ascending spirit of anti-Semitism in Germany, and, according to social activist Emma Goldman,[30] championed the “new woman.” Imperial authorities recognized the subversive thrust of this new drama and responded with increased constraints. Gerhard Hauptmann-a rival of Sudermann who wrote in a similar vein-spent time in prison for one of his plays, and Sudermann, with every new production, assumed that he might face a similar fate. [31]

These themes are illustrated well by Sudermann’s second play Heimat,[32] which created a sensation in 1892 when it opened in Berlin. Productions in Vienna, Stuttgart, London and New York soon followed, evoking controversy, emotionalism and melodramatic spectacle all along the way. One scholar notes that Sudermann’s fame spread across Europe the way that Chaplin and Fellini later captured the public imagination.[33] The morning after the play’s opening, a poster on the Schiller statue in front of the National Theater in Berlin announced, “Gestern warst du der Mann, Heute ist Sudermann [Yesterday you were the man, today it’s Sudermann].”

Magda, the central character of Heimat, is a woman from East Prussia who refuses to marry the man her father had chosen for her. Her father, Commander Schwartz, is a retired military officer who exhibits the iron-fisted rigidity of Bismarck’s servile army officer class. He is not accustomed to having his orders disobeyed. Following his daughter’s act of defiance, he denounces Magda and prohibits everyone in the household from communicating with her. She is to be shunned. The whole town, in fact, shuts their doors on the obstinate young woman, forcing her to fend for herself.

In defiance of her father’s strict commands, Magda flees to Berlin where she finds, in the anonymity of a large city, freedom from the oppression of East Prussian village life. In Berlin Magda pursues vocal training, adopts a pseudonym, Maddalena dall’Orto, and within a few years becomes the latest diva on the opera scene.

In an ironic twist, the music committee of her hometown hears of Maddalena dall’Orto’s fame and invites her to appear at the local music festival. They are unaware of her true identity until she steps off the train with her entourage. As word spreads of Magda’s arrival, they are in disbelief: How could a dishonorable child have gained such respectability and fame?

During the crisis that ensues over her father’s continuing animosity, Pastor Hefferdingt wisely urges him to consider a path of reconciliation. The Commander agrees to do so, but with the condition that Magda fulfill his desire that she exchange vows with the still-unmarried Herr von Kellner, who is a rising star on the local political scene. Hefferdingt offers the sensible, but unsuccessful, advice that the Commander put aside this ultimatum.

Eventually, Magda arrives at her father’s home where he receives her cordially, though coldly. The Commander insists that she meet with von Keller in the hopes that an engagement might follow. She agrees to a meeting. The moment von Keller arrives at the doorstep, Magda sees him coming through the window and begins to blush.[34] The meeting between Magda and von Keller begins pleasantly enough and, when they are alone, the question of marriage emerges. Magda gives the appearance of being receptive and then poses the question of the child-his child. Now the secret is out! He is stunned by the news. The audience learns that von Keller had visited Magda in Berlin, and from that visit a child was born. Marriage to Magda would mean that he must acknowledge that he fathered her child, which would surely ruin his political future.

During a lull in the conversation between von Keller and Magda, the Commander barges into the room, assuming that marriage plans are blossoming. Instead, he is informed that a child stands in the way. A stunned Commander Schwartz pleads with the pastor to condemn his daughter on religious and moral grounds and demands that, for the sake of appearances, Magda give up the child. Magda replies:

You blame me for living out my way of life without asking you and the whole family for permission. And why should I not? Was I not without family? Did you not send me out into the world to earn my bread, and then disown me because the way in which I earned it was not to your taste? Whom did I harm? Against whom did I sin? (156)

Deeply offended by this spirit of independence that he interprets as insolence, the old military officer grabs his pistol and yells at Magda, “You whore!”[35] Shortly after this outburst, he dies of a stroke. Throughout, the local pastor Hefferdingt continues to counsel compassion, understanding and forgiveness. And in the end, Magda is able to forgive her father’s hostility and rejection. The father, however, dies unable to forgive. Hefferdingt is also forgiving toward Magda for initially having rejected him as a suitor; and he accepts her status as a mother. The final image of the play is of Magda in mourning, being comforted by Hefferdingt.

While the play is not an endorsement of Magda’s life, it is certainly a criticism of the rigid sense of moral condemnation associated with Commander Schwartz. Pastor Hefferdingt, who advises understanding and forgiveness, is a significant character in the play. His unwavering posture becomes a weathervane pointing to the theme of moral compassion instead of censure. The play is a plea for compassion and empathy toward persons, especially women, who choose not to live within the ironhanded constraints of an oppressive German military culture. The work illustrates Sudermann’s lifelong critique of German militarism, a critique that continues to find relevance throughout the twentieth century.


Employing the linguistic elegance of poetic drama, the plays by Warren Kliewer reflect a profound struggle with his Mennonite roots in a quest for an ethical vision. Any portrait of this theatrical artist must also acknowledge that, in addition to being a playwright, Kliewer was a successful actor, director, producer, editor, company manager and academician at Bethany College, Earlham College and Wichita State University. In 1969, his artistic drive led him at the age of 38 to leave the academic world for the harsh realities of the professional stage. For nearly thirty years Kliewer pursued his artistic vision with theater activities in the New York City area, often supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Kliewer’s Mennonite roots go deeper than might be evident at first glance. Born in 1931, his life was shaped by his early years in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, where he attended the Bethel Mennonite Church. But Kliewer’s plays are not about Mennonite history, nor are they efforts to explicate in dramatic form a system of Mennonite beliefs. Indeed, only one of his plays The Berserkers employs characters that might be identified as Mennonites who live in a rural Mennonite community.

A twentieth-century North American playwright writing in English, Kliewer nevertheless shares a number of similarities with the two Mennonite writers we have already examined. In addition to his early biblical plays, the issues and themes he explored consistently aroused controversy. Like Vondel and Sudermann, he experimented with structure and style while avoiding the pitfall of nostalgic or pious artistic traps. Finally, at the heart of his dramatic experiments, one can see a delicate hand, dissecting major ethical questions of the time.

Of the more than 40 plays written by Kliewer, one in particular-A Lean and Hungry Priest: A Musical Picaresque[36]-illustrates his exploration of the complex contemporary dramatic style called “epic” theatre. Epic theatre began in Europe after World War I and came to a full flowering with Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble after World War II. According to Brecht, the primary goal of epic theater was to displace nineteenth-century bourgeois theater by employing scientific principles and presenting human problems in such a way that audiences would be challenged to make a choice, to seek solutions.[37] Epic theater is characterized by anti-heroes, the “alienation effect” (Verfremdundseffekt) and, in place of vicarious experience, instruction on political issues. Brecht assumed that this new style of theater would dominate the remainder of the twentieth century because it would reject the shallowness of other forms in favor of theatrical works that interpret the calamities of the century. Instead of plots that flowed logically from one event to the next, Brecht sought to establish the contradictions in human action, thought and feeling. These aesthetic principles of epic theater provide a framework for interpreting A Lean and Hungry Priest.

A Lean and Hungry Priest is set in the middle ages; its main characters are Hugo of Orleans and Madame Gertrude. They are the only named characters in the play since the nomenclature for the others is derived by social classification (a Mendicant, two students, Washerwoman, an Old Nun and a Priest), by physical attributes (Girl with a Scar, Blind Beggar and an Old Man) or by distinctive costume (Girl in Red). The significance of social rank, physical characteristics and dress in the medieval world justifies this convention. It is also characteristic of medieval morality plays, whose characters also have names based on rank or moral characteristic (e.g., Loyalty, Truth or Sloth).

The limited number of character names has great significance for this play, since character names tend bring the viewer closer to the personalities depicted by the actors. In his development of epic theater, Brecht used labels rather than names in a number of plays[38] in order to create a sharper sense of “distance” between the role and the audience. In contrast to names, labels reduce the degree of empathy between viewer and character; they engage the mind while distancing the heart.

Kliewer locates the action on a continent far from America (Europe) and in a distant century (twelfth). It was a glorious century marked by urban growth, the rise of guilds, the founding of universities and the transition from Romanesque to the more luminous Gothic architecture. The coronation of Frederick Barbarossa in 1154 as king of a re-united Holy Roman Empire encouraged new economic, communication and legal connections across much of Europe.

The organizing principle uniting the play is a pilgrimage that Hugo, the main character, makes across Europe. However, unlike traditional medieval pilgrimages that usually celebrated the death of a martyr, Hugo’s journey appears to be without purpose and a destination. Everywhere he travels-Cologne, Paris and Orleans-Hugo meets similar characters: students, beggars, young women and others at the marginal of society. And everywhere he goes, sin abounds. Like a modern Everyman, Hugo is summoned to action by new circumstances. But unlike the Everyman of medieval morality plays, who resisted temptation, Hugo seems to fall prey to each. He appears to have forsaken honesty, fidelity to his office, sobriety, financial responsibility, social decorum and even the vow of chastity. In contrast with the medieval Everyman, whose moral frame of reference guided his actions, Hugo seems devoid of any transcendent code of ethics. In his dionysian realm, human ecstasy and cunning reign. The play’s title is an uncouth irony because Hugo-a fat, unwashed, unkempt, conniving pilgrim-is running from his salvation rather than seeking it.

The play begins with a chorus, and thereby evokes nuances of Greek and Egyptian drama. This convention, as ancient as theater itself, is used throughout. The chorus, like the one in Oedipus, speaks of the pollution that has infested the city:

Come now, brothers and sisters, what is this body which your soul wears?

Is it not a mass of putrefaction?

Is it not worms, dust and ashes?

Consider not what it is but what it shall be: pus, slime, decay, and filth of obscene corruption. (165)

Immediately the break with classical tradition becomes clear: Instead of a lamentation about the pollution of the city, this is a lamentation on the decay of the body. Instead of assuming that there might be some explanations for the pollution in the divine realm, A Lean and Hungry Priest identifies the human community as the source and cause of its suffering.

The structure of Kliewer’s play is rooted further in Greek form in that a mood of doom infuses each line and concludes each scene. The opening lines of the play, normally a relatively high moment in the narrative, include these words: “Whoever does such shameful things / In church or in the churchyard / be careful, this is sacrilege.” From that moment onward the play moves in a downward spiral, showing with surety that the hand of judgment is pressed against every human life.

The anti-hero’s first entrance is sudden and disturbing: Gertrude, his phlegmatic Teutonic landlady, thrusts him onto the stage. While she stands above him, threatening him with his lute, Hugo shouts, “You killed me, you bitch!” Following that line comes the stage direction: “(She exits and we hear a door slam offstage).” Thus, the slam of the door begins the action. Again, consonant with the satiric devices of epic theater, Kliewer provides an inversion of Ibsen’s celebrated door slam that ends A Doll’s House. However, the reversal within the tradition is not limited to the action but applies also to the characters: Gertrude is not the pampered Nora, and Hugo is not the fastidious Tesman. The slam of this door is not an escape from the bondage of social conformity, but instead an imperative for Hugo to pursue his dionysian vision. This inversion establishes the sense of alienation that becomes characteristic of Hugo.

Hugo’s second line, “That’s right, slam the door on me. A priest,” is an act of protest against an innkeeper who is symbolic of the larger world of commerce. By setting this device at the beginning of the play, Kliewer has taken that harsh and alienating moment from Ibsen’s play and introduced new possibilities. While Nora’s slam of the door signals the end of marriage-and potentially of marriages everywhere-the door slammed into Hugo’s face signals the beginning of a journey. Under the guise of marriage, which is a socially and religiously sanctioned institution, Nora actually functioned as a “kept woman.” Because she did not find meaning and fulfillment in her status, she was the equivalent of a prostitute. On the other hand, Hugo, who has lowered himself to the house of debauchery, has been thrown from it and is forced to face his downward spiral. While Nora attempts to end her life of marital servitude, Hugo fails to recognize his own enslavement to his thrust for pleasure.

Hugo’s crude entry is, in a sense, a second birth into the coarse, cold and unloving circumstances that possibly paralleled his first birth. For Hugo, there is no room in the inn; he has been thrown onto the streets for failing to pay his rent. This prologue also informs the audiences that Hugo’s haunts are not the most respectable inns in Germany. Although the landlady confessed her sins to Hugo as a good monk, he appears to have provided absolution while also indulging in her pleasures.

The dramatic stakes are clearly stated in Hugo’s first monologue, uttered through his groans and moans while lying prone in the street. He can pray for the forgiveness for others, he can repent of his own sins, but prayer does not appear to change his life or that of the landlady. It has become a hollow exercise. Hugo promises to alter his ways if she will only open the door for him one more time. He will never again gamble, steal, lie, cheat or write poetry, but even this promise lacks conviction because the lure of the dionysian spirit of ecstasy lures him toward less than noble paths.

Hugo is not the only character in A Lean and Hungry Priest searching for their own salvation outside of the ecclesiastical structure. Indeed, the script is replete with references to whores, gambling, lechery and wastefulness and characters with few redeeming values: a woman who runs a rooming house that is in actuality a whorehouse; a priest who is a drunken, gambling lecher; a young girl who is a prostitute; and a beggar who is a priest. These main characters are provocative because they live on the seamy side of life without any apparent guilt or remorse.

Kliewer employs the principle of alienation (Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt) with a number of significant character reversals. The best example is the Mendicant, a blind beggar who quotes scripture in order to receive alms. The penniless Hugo has the effrontery to laugh at the blind beggar who throws off his monk’s cowl and attacks Hugo, thereby revealing that he is not blind. Blindness was part of this beggar’s “performance” to ensnare the trustworthy and evoke compassion. In this encounter, the dramatic device of Hugo’s derisive laughter serves to unmask the beggar’s deception and expose the truth. The incident reveals Hugo’s primary action in the play: removing the self-protecting masks of the other characters.

The principle of alienation is also present in the way the characters relate to each other. It is not character conflict, but character alienation that serves to propel the action in A Lean and Hungry Priest. For example, as Hugo wanders across Europe, he gains pleasure by distancing himself from others, especially by composing poems that repulse all who hear them.

When the wind arises and a chill sets in, however, Hugo realizes his plight: he is on the street without food and warm clothes. Concerned, he says, “I am planning to reform. Oh, how I will change my ways.” But his hope for change is quickly squelched when the Girl in Red appears. When Hugo attempts to seduce her, she abruptly stops giggling and runs off, shouting, “Help!” Hugo follows her offstage and the scene ends without resolution. The next scene is a tavern with the two students who are throwing dice. “Destiny,” says one student, “is in the dice.” Suddenly the two scenes are connected when the Girl in Red enters, pleading for help. She describes the horrors she has just encountered-an ugly old man chasing her and exposing himself. The students, who don’t want to get involved with her plight, halt the dice game and decide to rush off to class. But then Hugo bursts in and they recognize him as the Poet of Orleans. Their reverence for his poetry now sharply contrasts with his behavior with the young girl.

The First Student sings his song, not about a lady’s heart but about a “lady’s fart,” with the central line, “I’ll take Phyllis on her musical commode” (177). The Girl in Red, who has been repulsed by Hugo from the outset, now claims to love this song by the student. She departs with the student who sang the earthy ditty. The remaining Student, however, quickly learns that the song was penned by a lecher who has been pursuing the girl, namely, Hugo. The student exits and the Mendicant returns with his chant of poverty. During this short speech, time is compressed according to theatrical convention and the Second Student returns drunk, singing the “lady’s fart” song. In his delirium, he turns his attention to Hugo:

Second Student: Where are we going?

Hugo: East of the sun and west of the moon.

Second Student: Is that poetry?

Hugo: Yes, that is poetry.

Second Student: Is your poetry inspired by God?

Hugo: (this sobers him) Yes.

Later, Hugo breaks the wall of distance between performer and audience and makes his final entreaty directly to the audience for money to buy warm clothes. According to the stage directions, “If someone gives money, he is to thank that soul, if not, then follows this line, ‘You aren’t really interested in culture.'”

This direct appeal to audience involvement is a device that emerged from the street theater origins of Brecht’s epic theater. Kliewer has also captured Brecht’s penchant for an ironic twist because most audience members will likely be inclined to reject Hugo, the undeserving beggar. But despite his irreverence and sacrilege, Hugo seems paradoxically to gain our affections at the same time as he alienates the characters around him (185).

Immediately following this scene the action shifts quickly to a rural chapel where a priest is hearing a confession. Hugo proceeds to unload the burdens of his soul and confesses to many sins, admitting that they were committed “with great pleasure. Father. Every time.” Instead of being sorry or remorseful, Hugo delights in the sins that are the subject of his confession, thereby subverting the meaning of the ritual. Even his vocation as a poet becomes part of the confession:

Priest: Poetry is not a sin. Not always a sin. Poetry in the service of God is not . . .

Hugo: Poetry in the service of anything is a sin.

Priest: I don’t understand.

Hugo: Poetry does not serve anything. Poetry is God.

Priest: That is blasphemy.

Hugo: No, no, Father. That is worship.

Kliewer identifies a central problem of aesthetics and religion in this exchange. Is art a form of devotion in and of itself, or must it be tamed and made subservient to religious purposes? In contrast with the medieval setting of the play, Kliewer engages in a debate with modernity and its assumption of autonomy for art and the artist. Hugo, as a modern pilgrim, is articulating the Kantian principle that the quest for beauty cannot be subordinated to other claims.[39]

The play moves rapidly toward its fatalistic conclusion when the Nun enters, shouting, “The Plague! Beware the Plague!” She is adamant that Hugo must repent to avoid death from the plague. As an act of penance, she flagellates herself with a whip, all the while admitting that this scourge has precipitated her loss of faith. Hugo’s reply to the Nun arises from his hedonistic life: “Live anyway. Live. And sin some more. And be forgiven.” In the Nun’s loss of belief Hugo sees a kindred soul and, for the first time in the play, has compassion for another. He walks with the Nun until she collapses in his arms. While his body frames the frail and sickly Nun, Hugo does confess, acknowledging that he no longer believes in God, no longer sees the divine in the flesh. As she dies he pleads, “Tell God, Sister, how it feels to fail. God does not understand that.” In uttering that statement he recognizes the blood that seeps from his own mouth. During this one virtuous act, a deed of compassion for someone who is dying, he has sealed his own fate. This act of charity will lead to his own death because, with her breath, she has infected him. Instead of inhaling the breath of life, he has now tasted the kiss of death.

Hugo’s final attempt to discover meaning involves a series of songs he has written for various animals-a Bat, an Ostrich, a Unicorn and Lion-in an effort to establish communion with the natural order. These short, humorous poems serve as a comic interlude; but they also shift the plot to another realm-not necessarily upward to ontology, as a traditional Aristotelian plot would require, but downward on creation’s scale. When the animals dance and sing, Hugo joins until a coughing fit breaks the circle and he falls, bleeding from the mouth. Then the Lion seeks to comfort him with these words:

My part manners are the best

You’ve ever seen,

You’ve ever seen.

I eat the guest of honor last,

Before the host,

Before the host. (203)

The repeated reference to the “host” clearly serves as a double entendre. While the immediate reference may be to a congenial host of a party, it is also a reference to the liturgical setting and the presence of the Lord in the eucharistic Host. A lion is invoking the presence of divine grace. Kliewer thereby establishes another significant dramatic inversion where the impossible becomes possible and the bestial kingdom invokes the grace of God.

The devices in the play suggest a complete reversal of the “everyman” in medieval morality plays where virtue, after rejecting a series of temptations, finally defeats vice. When virtue rises victoriously over the universe, life is renewed. All this is inverted in A Lean and Hungry Priest. Hugo is not “everyman” but a specific person; and his single act of charity does not elevate his soul to heaven but becomes the cause of his demise. While medieval morality plays implied that “yielding to temptation” results in a horrific death, in Kliewer’s work all of life is doomed and the yielding to temptation at least provides those who are living with a momentary fount of pleasure.

Kliewer’s inversion of theatrical and moral norms is consistent with the altered conventions modernity brought to the stage. When Brecht claimed that the European theater ignored the causes of the great wars, the oppression of women, the destruction of Jews and the tolerance of poverty, he was assaulting a form of drama that failed to change human action. It was not simple morality, as in the morality plays of the middle ages, that concerned Brecht, but a commitment to justice, peace and a revolution in thought and social structures. According to Brecht, plays should be offensive to the smug and provoke the complacent to action. His theater of alienation thus pointed to a political task of challenging indifference and injustice.[40] He despised works of art that provided pleasure but did not incite action. As Adorno observed, “Art is the promise of happiness, a promise that is constantly broken.”[41] A Lean and Hungry Priest-in which Verfremdungseffekt serves as a principal plot device-captures the process whereby art breaks that promise of happiness.

The ultimate irony of Kliewer’s play is that it is the dionysian Hugo, a character seemingly committed only to physical pleasure-and not the ascetic Mendicant-who is eventually portrayed as the suffering servant. The spine of the play examines that paradox and thereby challenges the typical assumptions about the ascetic and the dionysian perspectives.


Vondel, Sudermann and Kliewer were each serious artists who took the risk of addressing some of the most controversial and divisive issues of their day. Even though Vondel and Sudermann were immensely popular during their time, their work always contained a strong critique of the social and intellectual climate of their age. They faced considerable condemnation from contemporary religious and political leaders. Kliewer also offers a strong social critique of prevailing assumptions of religious orthodoxy. His works embody a unique voice that incorporates an ethical vision informed by the tradition of epic theater and his own struggle with his Mennonite heritage.

Vondel, Sudermann and Kliewer all present priests or pastors as major figures in their best-known works-Gijsbrecht, Magda and A Lean and Hungry Priest. Vondel’s Bishop in Gijsbrecht is a sympathetic and reconciling figure; Sudermann’s Hefferdingk is a compassionate, forgiving and loving character; Kliewer’s is a dissolute who stumbles from one misery to another in a universe that is neither good nor evil but simply is. Vondel was attacked by the Protestant clerics of Amsterdam because he dared to develop a sympathetic portrayal of a Catholic bishop. Sudermann’s Hefferdingk was also vilified for his acceptance of the rejected Madga and for his compassion toward Magda’s errant ways. In Kliewer’s play, Hugo is the dissolute character who pushes the audience to their limit of compassion. Although he dies, his end is not a tragic one since tragedy implies a moral universe where evil is punished. Instead, it offers a discovery of the ambiguities of life and the abiding presence of loss.

The dramatic styles of Vondel, Sudermann and Kliewer differ widely because they wrote within vastly different contexts. At the same time, their works illustrate a shared effort to develop and expand on the prevailing styles of their time. Their efforts were largely successful in that Vondel had a substantial influence on Dutch language and literature, Sudermann on the development of German popular drama, and Kliewer received considerable attention from national and regional theatrical producing organizations.

While sociological criteria provide the most appropriate approach to classifying writers as “Mennonite,” this essay has also suggested that the plays written by Mennonites also have distinctive features that link their works, though these common elements are not the proclamation of any core theological or doctrinal ideas. The important features that link these three writers are the boldness whereby they addressed major contemporary social issues, the presence of religious figures who served as catalysts for compassion and understanding, and the portrayal of priestly forgiveness-not just a plea for tolerance-in national, familial and social relations.

In the end, however, the paradox of Mennonite playwriting persists in that the plays written for Mennonite contexts (churches or schools) have generally received very little attention beyond their initial productions, whereas those plays written by Mennonite authors that have received considerable attention within the profession have been largely ignored by Mennonite scholars, schools and (amateur) theater companies. From this analysis, it seems apparent that Mennonite playwrights should become fully engaged in the prevailing dramatic styles of their time. They should seek involvement with the professional theater community and not rely on the religious community for recognition or regard their plays as a means of dialogue within the tradition of Mennonite thought.

[*]Lauren Friesen is Director of Playwriting at the University of Michigan-Flint.
1. Al Reimer, Mennonite Literary Voices: Past and Present (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1993), 2.
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[2]. George Dickie, Art and the Aesthetic (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1974) provides a comprehensive analysis of a sociological theory of aesthetics. Even though he is primarily interested in establishing sociological criteria for evaluating art, his methodology also includes social influence as a factor in determining the classification of a work.
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[3]. A few festival works will illustrate this phenomenon: Cheyenne Jesus Buffalo Dream by Robert Hostetler, Blowing and Bending by Jim Juhkne and Harold Moyer, The Bridge by Esther Wiebe and Di Brandt, Dance of the Kobczar by Gene Caskey, Road to Emmaus by James Bixel, We are Witnesses by Maynard Shelley, King David by Lauren Friesen and the numerous plays by I. Merle Good that emerged from his professional summer stock company “The Barn Theater” in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His Today Pop Comes Home (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1993) explores universal themes of family unity and devotion. Few of these plays have been performed outside of their original contexts.
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[4]. Two recent studies include Lauren Friesen, “Dramatic Arts and Mennonite Culture,” MELUS 3 (Fall 1996), 107-24 and Anna Juhnke, “North American Mennonite Playwrights, 1980-1996,” MQR 71 (January 1997), 43-67. Neither article provides criteria for designating plays as “Mennonite.” Friesen’s essay is a general historical survey; Juhnke’s surveys production successes and pitfalls.
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[5]. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (New York: Hafner Press, 1951), 145ff.
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[6]. These three playwrights are apparently the only playwrights with Mennonite connections who have devoted and sometimes risked their lives for their theatrical commitment.
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[7]. Paradoxically, these very themes also find frequent expression in contemporary Mennonite essays.-Cf. Alain Epp Weaver, “Introduction: Mennonite Theology in Face of Modernity,” in Alain Epp Weaver, ed., Mennonite Theology in Face of Modernity (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1996), xi-xv and Merle Good and Phyllis Pellman Good, eds., What Mennonites are Thinking 1998 (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1998) where over half of the articles in this volume address issues related to ethics, peace or justice.
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[8]. Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 122.
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[9]. Karel van Mander, Het schilderboek: Het leven van de doorluchtige Nederlandse en Hoogduitse schilders. (Amsterdam: Wereldbibliotheek, 1995). Het Schilder-Boeck was first published in 1604. A recent translation is The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters (Doornspijk: Davaco, 1994).
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[10]. Theater Institute Library, Amsterdam. Anja Krans provides these titles: Noach, Nabugodonosor, David, Spel van Hieram Spel, Salomoos oordeel, Spel vande Koninghinne van Saba, Daniel, and Dina.-E-mail to the author, Sept. 15, 1997.
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[11]. H. F. Wignman, Uit de Kring van Rembrandt en Vondel (Amsterdam: N.V. Noord-Hollandische Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1959), 35.
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[12]. “He who wants to paint Anslo, must paint his voice,” wrote Vondel to Rembrandt while the artist was working on the large Anslo painting now in the Staatsgallerie in Berlin. According to art historian Bob Haak, Rembrandt appears to have changed the painting after receiving Vondel’s note.-Rembrandt (New York: Abrams, 1969), 175.
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[13]. Kristiaan P. G. Aercke, Gijsbrecht van Amstel (Bath, U.K.: Dovehouse Editions, 1991), 9.
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[14]. Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches (London: HarperCollins, 1987), 249.
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[15]. His first play Paschal (1611), perhaps the most “Mennonite” of his works, was about the biblical Passover in Egypt. He appears to have attempted a parallel between that time of suffering and the persecution the Anabaptists faced in Holland until 1587.
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[16]. Ibid, 35.
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[17]. The performances eventually became limited to New Year’s Eve celebrations.
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[18]. Peter J. Klassen, A Homeland for Strangers: An Introduction to Mennonites in Poland and Prussia (Fresno, CA: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1989), 13. “By the middle of the 16th century Mennonites had established themselves in villages outside the walls of Danzig. Menno Simons evidently spent some time here. . . .”
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[19]. Kristiaan P. G. Aercke, Gijsbrecht, 24. The translator comments, “Vondel . . . as a bold fighter for freedom and tolerance wrote against and suffered from Christian fanaticism during the greater part of his career.”
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[20]. Israel, The Dutch Republic, 765.
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[21]. Ibid., 476.
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[22]. The Dutch still refer to him as the “Shakespeare of Holland,” by which they mean that he was the first to demonstrate the literary possibilities of the Dutch language.
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[23]. “Vondel wrote . . . about peace and reconciliation.”-Israel, The Dutch Republic, 574.
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[24]. Sigfrid Hoefert, Das Drama des Naturalismus (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzlersche Verlagbuchhandlung, 1979), 85-124, and Hugh Garten, Modern German Drama (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1959) 30-34. Sudermann was a transition figure from melodrama to naturalism whereas his rival, Gerhart Hauptmann, was a more focused naturalist.
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[25]. Rainless, Herbert, Das Hermann Sudermann Buch (Mnchen: Langen Mller Verlag, 1985), iii.
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[26]. Hermann Sudermann, The Book of My Youth, trans. W. Harding (London: John Lane, 1923).
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[27]. Interestingly, Elbing is South of Danzig and near the village of Holland where Vondel’s Gijsbrecht fled into exile.
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[28]. Sudermann, The Book of My Youth, especially Chapter 4 “The Good Aunt in Elbing.”
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[29]. Alfred Kerr, Hermann Sudermann, der D…D… Dichter (Berlin: Verlag Helianthun, 1903). The odd spelling of the title appears to be making a cruel joke on Sudermann and his tendency, when excited, to have a slight stutter.
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[30]. Emma Goldman, The Social Significance of Drama (1914 rpt. New York: Applause, 1987), 11.
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[31]. Historian Gordon Craig has observed that most of the plays and novels written during this time included warnings about the corruption of absolute power.-Gordon Craig, Germany 1866-1945 (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1978), 212. John C. G. Rhl, The Kaiser and His Court (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1987) develops this theme further by linking the detrimental effects of absolutism to German culture during the post-Bismarck era.
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[32]. Hermann Sudermann, Heimat (Berlin: Cotta, 1892); Hermann Sudermann, trans. C.E.A. Winslow, Magda (New York: Samuel French, 1895).
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[33]. Artur Mller, Dramen des Naturalisms (Emsdetten: Verlag Lechte, 1962), 573. “Sein Name ging mit einem Schlage um die Welt, so wie heute der eines Chaplin, de Sica oder Fellini.”
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[34]. G. B. Shaw, Plays & Players: Essays on the Theatre (London: Oxford U. Press, 1952), 33-41. Included in this volume is his essay on “Duse and Bernhardt” playing “Magda,” dated June 15, 1895. It is a seminal essay on the definition of naturalism as an acting style. Sanford Meisner expands on the importance of this play as an illustration of realism acting and refers to this scene as “Magda’s blush.”-Meisner on Acting (New York City: Vintage, 1987), 89.
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[35]. The English translation “You Jade!” appears to sanitize the meaning of the German “du Dirne!”-Sudermann, Magda, 158.
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[36]. “A Lean and Hungry Priest,” in Playwrights for Tomorrow, Vol. 12, ed. Arthur H. Ballet (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1975).
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[37]. Martin Esslin, Brecht: A Choice of Evils (London: Methuen, 1984), 110-36. Chapter 6 “Brechtian Theatre in Theory and Practice” outlines the main features of epic theater.
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[38]. For example, this appears to have been his intention with Mother Courage, who is embroiled in a scene of war while seeming emotionally distant from it.
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[39]. Kant, Critique of Judgement, 145ff. Kliewer presents Hugo as a figure who cannot extricate himself from the socio-economic forces of his time. In fact, his future is defined by the inability of his art to save him from those humiliating conditions. Postmodern critics would observe that Kliewer’s Hugo is not as autonomous as he desires to be and that his inner journey is defined by his social context.
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[40]. Brecht coined the term Verfremdungseffekt to express the new theory from which epic theater derives. He rejected the German word Entfremdung because it implied a radical rejection; and he preferred the sense of “distance,” or “reversal of affections,” which the term Verfremdungseffekt implied.
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[41]. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), 196.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Vondel, Sudermann and Kliewer