Der Hauptmannvonköpenick

(The Captain of Köpenick) by Carl Zuckmayer.
   Premiered 1931. Most German audiences were familiar with the subject matter of this comedy by the time Heinz Hilpert premiered it at the Deutsches Theater, as it was based on an incident that took place in 1906. The incident was also the subject of several books and articles in the popular press, popular songs, and a best-selling novel by Wilhelm Schäfer in 1930. Zuckmayer fashioned the episode of a homeless cobbler, whose mastery of military jargon prompted every German he met to knuckle under in servile obedience, into one of the German theater's most enduring comedies. It ran to full houses immediately after its premiere, and its popularity throughout Germany until 1933 was nearly without parallel. Joseph Goebbels assured Zuckmayer that he would share the cobbler's fate of a lengthy prison term in Berlin's Moabit Prison once the Nazis took power; the Nazi government banned the play almost immediately upon their assumption to power.
   Wilhelm Voigt (1850-1922) was a cobbler who could never get a real job in the booming Wilhelmine years, so he augmented his meager earnings with minor burglaries. In the play, as in real life, his luck changed when he received a lengthy sentence to Moabit Prison, where he came under the tutelage of an eccentric prison warden whose passion was Prussian military history. Voigt gained a thorough knowledge of military jargon from the warden and upon his release he bought a Prussian captain's uniform. One afternoon in 1906 he commandeered a platoon in Berlin and ordered them to accompany him via trolley car to Köpenick (a Berlin suburb), where he demanded from the mayor a work permit and the municipal strongbox. The mayor and other Köpenick officials immediately complied with the captain's requests because Voigt blustered with an authentic air of military bombast. Good Germans obey orders, after all, and Voigt made a clean getaway. The mysterious captain turned himself in soon after the Köpenick escapade, but by that time he had become a minor celebrity. Kaiser Wilhelm II gave Voigt an audience and a lifetime pension, noting with unconscious irony that Voigt, more than any real soldier, had demonstrated the reverence Germans felt for a uniform.
   Zuckmayer's innovation was to use the uniform itself as a central character in the play; it appeared in every scene, passing from its creator (a Jewish tailor in Potsdam) through the hands of several owners and ingeniously intermingling with the cobbler's various misadventures. When Voigt and the uniform are finally united, the play became comically inevitable. It gave Germans a well-deserved chance to laugh at themselves and their pretensions to greatness as a military power. Zuckmayer's bogus captain thumbed his nose at nearly everything German nationalists represented, while illuminating the stupidity of fawning obsequiousness in the face of authority.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.