Wednesday, November 27, 2013

In Praise of Hacks

Other than Bertolt Brecht, how many East German playwrights can you name? Okay, yes, there's Heiner Muller, but who else?

I've been reading up on Peter Hacks, a German playwright who emigrated east from West Germany in 1955. In the U.S. today, Hacks is probably best known for his children’s fiction, but he also wrote a number of fine plays, including Omphale, a hilarious send-up of the Herakles myth.

Having positioned himself as an orthodox Marxist (even supporting the erection of the Berlin Wall), Hacks should have had plenty of support from the East German state. However, censorship issues dogged him throughout his career. Authorities nixed his 1959 play Worries and Power claiming it did not represent the "authentic" proletariat. This was in spite of the fact Hacks had researched and written the play in close consultation with coal miners. Eventually, the piece was produced, but the official press continued to hound the play, claiming that workers had walked out of the production in droves. This, of course, was a complete lie, as the play had been a hit with miners.
After such trouble with Worries and Power, Hacks turned to adaptations of classic works. In his 1970 play Omphale, he retold the story of how Herakles was made into a servant of Omphale, the Queen of Lydia. Herakles must slay the monster Lityerses, whose superpower is bad breath so powerful it even kills plants. However, once he falls in love with the queen, Herakles turns effeminate, dressing in women’s clothing, wearing cosmetics, and anointing himself with perfume. Omphale takes to wearing the lion skin of Herakles and carrying his club. This all causes much confusion for Lityerses, who isn’t sure which of these two he is supposed to fight.
Hacks again turned to adaptation with Market Day at Plundersweilern, which completed an unfinished play by Goethe. The original play went through several versions, in some of which Goethe himself appeared onstage in performances. Hacks reworked the piece to give the play-within-a-play a fitting resolution, but he largely sidestepped political issues. Instead, he strove to write a play that was simply sheer fun. Its premiere in 1975 seems to have been relatively free of controversy.
In 1980, Hacks undertook an adaptation of another Goethe play, Pandora. In the hands of Hacks, however, it became an environmentalist parable rather than a philosophical musing. Eventually writers like Muller, who produced edgy avant-garde dramas that challenged theatrical forms, eclipsed more traditional writers like Hacks, but his plays might just deserve a second look.