To Be A Monologue Or Not To Be

Some thoughts on my first read of anything Peter Hacks.

“Der Staat ist ohne Minister, der Hof ohne Spielmeister, das Theater ohne Direktor, das Land ohne seinen großen Mann.” (The state is without its minister, the courtyard is without its master, the theater is without its director, the country is without its best man.)

And so lingers the word “ohne” (without) as my eyes dabble across the pages of Hacks’ monologue “Ein Gespräch im Hause Stein über den abwesenden Herrn von Goethe” (A Discussion in the House of Stein Absent of Mr. Goethe). Along with those words my “ohne” continues the task of trying to get along with the Germans. Have I found someone to help me in my task? Not only do I wonder who this “großen Mann” (best man) is that Hacks writes about through the eyes and thoughts of a woman, but I think: I probably shouldn’t have begun my Hacks journey with this play.

Well, I guess it’s a play. At the least, it is a monologue, right? The thing is, I don’t really like monologues. A monologue within a play is OK. You know, to-be-or-not-to-be. Or what about Monologuing? Where would James Bond be if the villains didn’t explain so much about their deeds and hence provide enough time & space for the world’s favorite secret agent to think of a way out. There are also comic monologues but – as much as this pains others – comedy just doesn’t work in German.

So where did Hacks get the urge to write something that one actress would have to perform all-by-her-lonesome for what seems to be umpteen hours? Oh yeah. I almost forgot. This “großen Mann” is Goethe. Right?

“Goethe beleidigt, indem er ist.” (Goethe insults because he is.)

Prior to this I never gave the relationship between Goethe and Charlotte Albertine Ernestine von Stein any thought. In a titillating kind of way, it was always more interesting to think about Johanna Christiana Sophie Vulpius or the other Charlotte in Goethe’s life – Charlotte Buff. But Hacks got me thinking.

What starts out to be almost a seething criticism of her ex-lover, ends up being a soothing of her own soul. Hacks makes it clear – at least to me he does – that Charlotte Stein can go right on and forgive herself for what happened because Goethe was nothing more than an old typical genius male who had his way with the ladies. Or something like that.

You know, some people compare Goethe to Shakespeare. I suppose from a literary point of view the two were… dramatists. But such a comparison never really worked for me. For one, I think Goethe has been – much to his own making – misunderstood. Secondly, I don’t think Goethe was even meant to be a “writer”. And if he should be compared to anyone, that would have to be: Leonardo Da Vinci.

Goethe had two problems, only one of which is partly addressed by Hacks. One, Goethe was/is the last living polymath. Secondly, unlike Da Vinci, Goethe was a slave to the German world of mediocrity and status-quo that reared him. Come on, this was a time in history when America was going independent, the jugulars of Robespierre and Danton were beginning to thump, and the passion that could have been Sturm & Drang got caught up in the Order & Virtue of all things (that would become) German. Is that an environment where great literature can spawn? Sure, why not. It worked pretty good for Schiller – if you ask me. Unfortunately, there’s also a bunch of wordy, boring krapp (from Goethe) that motivated me to spend more time on, among others, Greek classics and philosophical works by men that actually did find their calling.

Thank goodness there was Schiller in that whole Sturm & Drang thingy…

“Nun, Goethe ist dieser Mensch; denn er ist Gott. Wenn Gott morgens an Schläfrigkeit leidet, freilich, dann kann ja doch die Sonne nicht aufgehn” (Well, Goethe is this man; he is a God. If God suffers mornings in somnolence then certainly the sun cannot rise).

It’s been more than ten years since I touched anything of Goethe other than the only work that I really dig: “Die Leiden des jungen Werthers” (The Sorrows of Young Werther). With that in mind, I must ask: where is/was Hacks going with this monologue? Is the story Frau Stein tells interesting? Do we learn anything about their relationship that is new? Are the joyous and sad themes of love presented motivate us to go on reading… a frickin’ monologue? The answer is: This isn’t a monologue. It is a “Solospiel” (monodrama). And with that revelation you can move beyond the ideology of story telling and on to the ideology of political remorse. This is, in fact, a monodrama with huge metaphorical implications. At least that’s what I got out of my first Hacks read.

As mentioned, monologues work best if they are somehow part of the/a story. At the least, a monologue should give something away in order to help the reader/audience. I like to refer to it as a trick. A trick in the form of an anecdote or metaphor that highlights threads of the story-quilt. I’m thinking of the monologue by Eddy towards the end of “Fool for Love” by Sam Shepard. Eddy explains the history of misguided love between half siblings and this leads to a fire and hence the potential of the rising of the love-Phoenix (metaphor). Then there’s the monologue by Lucky in Samuel Beckett’s Godot which shows how man is so easily and willingly controlled. But a whole monologue about a misunderstood love affair, from the point of view of a WOMAN! – even if that affair includes the greatest monologue writer that ever was? I don’t think so. So what was Hacks intention?

In this case, Peter Hacks has tricked us (me). And he’s done so with brilliance. This Solospiel is, in fact, a political statement at a time when such things weren’t allowed. I don’t know how long he worked on it nor do I know anything else about how he wrote it. I’m just guessing here based on what Hacks churned inside me as I read it/him for the first time. You see, I’ve been battling with these Germans for the majority of my adult life. This has something to do with the other half of who I am – or could be. And let me tell you: German literature hasn’t helped in my quest to figure it out.

Until (maybe!) now. I don’t know why and I might be way of base with this, but my guess is that this is a pretty good example of a monodrama that wants to be something else. Perhaps it’s a criticism that goes beyond the misunderstanding of Goethe? Or is it praise for the Weiber (chicks) that have molded great German men(*)? Then there’s the perverse thought that maybe Hacks just wanted to get into the head of a woman who cheated on her husband – since, by the early seventies and the introduction of Honecker in his world – what else could a lost idealist write about? Obviously, I am clueless to what exactly Hacks was trying to say with this play – but I enjoyed reading it because it opened up something new regarding Goethe – who I have lazily left to collect dust on my bookshelves.

If, on the other hand, I were asked to go out on limb and try to say something about what I think this monodrama is about. Then I think I’d say: Goethe is the state, Frau Stein is Das Volk (the people), and once the conflict is over, all that is left is the regret and the shame of both having missed their calling.

So much for “Das Land ohne Seinen Großen Mann” (The country without its best man).


*Kaiser Wilhelm: “Give me a woman who drinks beer and I will conquer the world.”