Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Walter Hasenclever

When the German playwright Walter Hasenclever wrote his own version of Antigone, he took some of the Kaiser's statements and put them word-for-word into the mouth of the villain, Creon. Now that's guts.

Legend has it, Hasenclever wrote his Antigone while actually at the Western Front during the First World War. After writing his break-through expressionist play The Son, in 1914, Hasenclever had volunteered for the army. Once he saw what war was really like, however, he turned against it.

Unlike the Antigone of Sophocles, Hasenclever's Antigone makes Creon unambiguously a tyrant from the very beginning. In his very first speech he declares:

     God, who defeated our enemies, has
     Raised me up as king. Heralds have 
     Proclaimed my will.
     (translated by J.M. Ritchie)

Later on, when he changes his mind, it is only because of the most dreadful of visions. In the stage directions, Hasenclever describes: "Heaps of dead. People with gaping wounds. Women, men with knives in their chests. Demented bleating like animals. Smashed limbs. Children stumble among the bodies." These images of war were clearly personal for Hasenclever.

Faking mental illness, he got out of the war, but then had to spend years in a sanitarium. That didn't stop him from winning the Kleist prize for drama with Antigone, though. The following year, he wrote the play Humanity, which also takes on the traditional German power structure, but which utilizes brief staccatto lines of dialogue rather than long speeches.

Hasenclever later turned to film and supplied dialogue for the Greta Garbo movie Anna Christie. Once the Nazis came to power, however, his career was over. He moved to France, and died there during the war, a sad end to a great anti-war playwright.