He Tears his Heart Bloody
A review by Josef Müller-Marein
Shortly before the premiere of his play at the Kammerspiele in Hamburg, the playwright died in Basel, for his friends had taken him, ill as he was, to Switzerland, where he was supposed to recuperate. He called for his family and friends when he felt the approach of death, which had long since been familiar to him, confined as he was to the sickbed for years. But just as he could not do them the favor of getting well, they could not do him the kindness of coming to him. The borders. [ . . . ] “Is there no one who answers? Is there no one, no one who answers?”
The playwright had his hero speak these words, provided one can speak of a hero, since this is a man who is broken by the “hero’s duty” of the war. They are the words with which the play The Man Outside ends. Nearly a minute after the curtain had come down it was quiet in the theater before applause erupted. So powerful was the shock of this play, which revealed itself more and more as the biography of an entire generation and, in many respects, as the playwright’s self-profession.
He has now died lonely like his hero, lonely and “there, outside the door.” Wolfgang Borchert was his name, twenty-six years of age. And in view of this coincidence of success and death it is almost frivolous to say that contemporary German literature has become poorer by one hope. For in view of the events of our time, what does contemporary German literature matter! A lot of these feelings were palpable at the premiere.
The writer Peter de Mendelssohn, who was persecuted by the Nazis and thus given an opportunity to examine the Germans at an objectivizing distance, recently said something to the effect of: we all tend to move the problems onto the stage instead of inside of us, so that we can then return home reassured that nothing more is necessary. Though that may sound harsh and rejecting – there seems to be much that is correct in his observation.
Now to Borchert’s piece! If one did not know that it was not originally intended for the theater, one would have immediately felt it anyway. And strangely enough: the traits foreign to the theater did not make the work any less effective. To be sure, the subtitle declares it “A play that no theater will want to put on and no audience will want to see,” but the playwright was wrong. Thirteen stage companies have taken the play into their repertoire, a play to which Ernst Rowohlt, as the publisher of Borchert’s remaining – of course, not very extensive – work, has devoted an almost loving book edition. And let us not be mistaken, it will not soon disappear from the repertoires. And what is today seared into our heart is likely to remain interesting later on, at least as evidence of the Sturm-und-Drang experience of our days. It was Ernst Schnabel, the dramaturgist of the Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk [Northwest German Radio], who was the first to discover Wolfgang Borchert’s talent, this young man from Hamburg, who had returned incurably sick (Russian hepatitis – according to the doctors) from political incarceration and the war. And if one figures the broad circle of those who listen to a radio play, one can say: no piece had ever become so widely known before its theater premiere.