Zuckmayer, Carl


Zuckmayer, Carl
(1896-1977)
   Playwright. Zuckmayer was the most popular comic playwright during the Weimar Republic, and in the seasons immediately after World War II his straight plays dominated repertoires in the Western occupation zones. During the 1950s his presence remained dominant, as most theaters in the new Federal Republic staged Zuckmayer plays in large numbers. During both the Weimar Republic and the postwar period, Heinz Hilpert staged nearly all the Zuckmayer premieres, recalling the artistic relationship Otto Brahm and Gerhart Hauptmann had shared.
   Zuckmayer was exceptional in many ways, not least of which being his ability to write widely popular plays with literary and intellectual merit. He usually structured them after the Volksstücke that had enjoyed enormous popularity in the Wilhelmine period; such was the case with Der fröhliche Weinberg (The Merry Vineyard), Zuck-mayer's first hit comedy, which ran for years after its premiere in late 1925. It also earned him the enmity of Joseph Goebbels, who accused Zuckmayer of profaning the German Volk in his earthy portrayal of village Rhinelanders blissfully coupling and copulating. Both Zuckmayer and Goebbels came from the Rhineland, but Zuckmayer used the Rhine as a metaphor in praise of what he considered truly "German," the mingling of peoples through the centuries. Goebbels posed Nazi doctrine in diametric opposition to such thinking, preferring to regard the Rhine as a mystical artery of German purity.
   In 1925 Zuckmayer won the Kleist Prize. Following the success of The Merry Vineyard came two additional hits in the 1920s: Katherina Knie (about circus performers) and Schinderhannes (the German embodiment of Robin Hood). His later efforts included the screenplay for Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), the translation for the German premiere of Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings's What Price Glory?, and with Hilpert an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms, titled Kat.
   Goebbels continued to attack Zuckmayer into the 1930s, particularly after the 1931 premiere of Zuckmayer's most popular comedy, Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (The Captain of Köpenick). Theaters performed it more often in 1931 and 1932 than any other play. In it, Zuckmayer again used the Volksstück format, this time resembling one Adolph L'Arronge had employed in the 1870s. It presented Germans with a humorously scathing picture of themselves, based on a familiar 1906 episode in Berlin when an unemployed cobbler so effectively imitated a Prussian captain that every German in sight snapped to attention and assisted him in robbing a municipal treasury. The spectacle of Germans behaving stereotypically obeisant in the presence of authority outraged most Nazis; it prompted unrestrained laughter among nearly everyone else. Zuckmayer's skepticism about authority had begun as a soldier in World War I. He had volunteered at age 17 for infantry duty, and the war had had a profound effect on him—but unlike many of his contemporaries, it was an effect that caused him to celebrate the hopeful and humorous side of human existence.
   When the National Socialist government banned his work in 1933, Zuckmayer retreated to his Austrian estate and later emigrated to Switzerland. However, he periodically returned to Germany in disguise and with forged documents, which led him to begin working for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) after he settled in Vermont during the 1940s. There he ran a farm and wrote reports for the OSS, while in the process of completing Des Teufels General (The Devil's General). Zuckmayer based that drama on the career of his friend Ernst Udet, a World War I flying ace and Goering confidant who supervised the development of fighter-bombers for the Luftwaffe. Udet had committed suicide, and Zuckmayer constructed around his death a convincing drama about a German general's pact with the devil. Zuckmayer's depiction of bonhomie among the Nazi elite created a stir of controversy after Hilpert premiered it in 1946, but controversy helped the play to become one of the most frequently staged of any during the remainder of the decade.
   In the 1950s Zuckmayer proceeded to finish or rewrite many of the plays he had begun in Vermont; Hilpert premiered them as usual, but in most cases the results were disappointing. Their last collaboration was Die Uhr schlägt eins (The Clock Strikes One), which met with vituperative critical derision. Zuckmayer received several awards in addition to the Kleist Prize; in 1952 the city of Frankfurt am Main awarded him its Goethe Prize, and his subsequent citations included the Greater Austrian State Prize in 1960 and the 1972 Heinrich Heine Prize for his entire body of work. Zuckmayer was a gifted essayist whose two autobiographies remain among the most readable of any that chronicle the modern German theater.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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