Sunday, December 22, 2013

Hercules and the Augean Stables

Friedrich Durrenmatt's play Hercules and the Augean Stables started out as a radio play in 1954, was later staged by several amateur groups, and eventually received its official premiere in Zurich in March of 1963. The play nominally takes place in The Heroic Age of Ancient Greece. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Durrenmatt is writing about contemporary Switzerland, not some distant Mediterranean past. The result: pretty darn hysterical.

From the beginning, Durrenmatt makes it clear that the mythical land of Elis is a stand-in for the dramatist's native Switzerland. In the prologue, Hercules's private secretary Polybius announces that the play deals with "man's zeal for cleanliness." This poking fun at Swiss stereotypes continues in the next scene, where Hercules chases the Erymanthian Boar through freezing mountains, which--much like the Alps--are prone to avalanches. In the third scene, Augeas describes the climate of Elis as "temperate--like our morals." This vision of a middle-of-the-road people continues when he describes the country's religion as "moderate Dionysian tempered with orthodox Apollonarian." Even Switzerland's history of relative tolerance for both Protestants and Catholics is fodder for laughs.

Most importantly, however, Augeas is not a king, as he is in the original myth, but merely president of a small republic. This honor falls to him not due to any great ability, but simply because he is the wealthiest of a number of peasant farmers. The original audience probably recognized Augeas as a version of Rudolf Minger, the successful farmer who rose to become President of the Swiss Confederation in the 1930s. Even if audiences today miss this point, however, they will undoubtedly catch that Augeas is precisely the type of moderate politician produced by small democracies like Switzerland. After his lengthy introduction, Augeas uses a bell to call parliament to order and suggests his plan: Hire Hercules to clean the dung-filled stables so the Eleans can have time to tend cattle and to produce cheese and butter. Durrenmatt does everything to associate Elis with Switzerland short of stating that Elean cheese has small round holes.

In spite of his humiliation at the idea of a hero being reduced to a glorified janitor, Hercules accepts the job of cleaning the stables simply in order to clear his debts. (Elis, Durrenmatt later informs us, is known for its sound currency, yet another resemblance to a certain other country, and there are frequent allusions in the play to a flourishing banking industry.) Unfortunately, the problems of the modern world are not suited to the brute heroics of an earlier age. Before Hercules can damn up the rivers and wash out the Augean stables, he must get a permit from the Water Board, and before he can do that, he must register with the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Works, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Dung. The battle with bureaucracy turns out to be a more Herculean task than any of the hero's famous twelve labors.

The 1960s saw the awakening of an environmental consciousness in Western society. Hercules and the Augean Stables premiered only a year after the publication of Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book Silent Spring in the United States. A growing concern for the environment is apparent in Durrenmatt's play as well. In the world of the piece, humanity is choking on its own filth. Pollution, in the form of bovine waste, is threatening society with complete collapse, but to wash it all away could "pollute the entire Ionic Sea."

Reflecting the environmental movement of the early 1960s, Durrenmatt echoes calls for a greater respect for nature. In Scene 10, Hercules's mistress Deianira rhapsodizes on the earth, which produces all that man requires. While Augeas's son Phyleus is determined to dominate nature, Deianira's vision is of a harmonious world in which humanity loves the earth, and the earth requites that love with its fruitfulness. No one listens to Deianira, however. The dung becomes an unqualified environmental disaster, submerging the landscape, burying trees, and suffocating a once pristine brook.

Environmental concerns in drama go back at least as far as Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. Like Ibsen, Durrenmatt is less concerned with physical pollution than he is with the moral pollution that is tainting society. Just as Ibsen takes aim at democracy in An Enemy of the People, Durrenmatt uses Hercules and the Augean Stables to attack the inability of democratic governments to deal with any serious crisis. As Augeas's servant Cambyses remarks, "the dung is deepest in the minds of the Eleans. And you can't purify them with river water." Hercules fails to clean out the Augean stables not because he is unable to do so, but because the government will not allow him to do so. As in the public meeting in Act IV of An Enemy of the People where the crowd turns on Dr. Stockmann, the citizens of Elis turn against Hercules in the parliament scene of Durrenmatt's play, placing more and more obstructions in the way of his job.

The bitterest satire comes at the end of the play. After Hercules abandons Elis, Augeas shows his son Phyleus another plan for dealing with the catastrophe. In a private garden, Augeas has been composting small amounts of dung, slowly converting it to soil. Democracy has failed, but like Ibsen's Dr. Stockmann, Augeas is doing what little he can to improve his country. Multiple critics have compared the ending of the play with Voltaire's final chapter of Candide. However, the ending even more closely follows the final scene in An Enemy of the People. Augeas rejects politics as doomed to failure and exhorts his son to prepare the way for enlightenment, just as Stockmann turns his back on the majority to train his sons and a few other young people for the future.

Durrenmatt goes one step further than Ibsen. Stockmann can envision an improved democracy somewhere in the distant future where his descendants can continue the fight for truth. Augeas has no such comfort.  His teenage son ignores his advice and goes off to fight Hercules, an action certain to be fruitless and fatal. Not only does democracy not work now; there is no prospect for it to ever work in the future if the youth of Elis refuses even to try.

The play originally ended with Augeas's hopeful speech, but Durrenmatt decided to add the twist ending of the son's rejection after the opening night performance. In the new ending, the playwright offers a sliver of hope only to pull it away at the last moment, a technique he used the previous year in the bleak conclusion of The Physicists. The optimism of Augeas masks the play's pessimistic nature. The audience can sympathize with the patient farmer-president even as the play proves him to be wrong. While Hercules and the Augean Stables seems like good-natured fun, its critique of democracy actually cuts quite deep.

Tomorrow, I'll be posting my thoughts on another play dealing with the Herakles myth, Omphale by Peter Hacks.