World Literature

Fritz Hochwaelder

 

BORN: 1911, Vienna, Austria

DIED: 1986, Zurich, Switzerland

NATIONALITY: Austrian

GENRE: Drama

MAJOR WORKS:

The Strong Are Lonely (1943)

Donnerstag (1959)

Holocaust (1960)

1003 (1963)

 

 

Fritz Hochwaelder. Imagno / Getty Images

 

Overview

A significant German-language dramatist who is not widely known outside Europe, Fritz Hochwaelder wrote well-crafted plays that center on weighty moral issues. His plays are conventionally structured, emphasizing plot, fully developed characters, and thematic unity, and they appeal to both the intellect and the emotions.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Driven to Write. Fritz Hochwaelder was born May 28, 1911, in Vienna, Austria, to Leonhard Hochwaelder, an upholsterer, and Therese Koenig Hochwaelder. To escape capture and persecution by Nazi soldiers, Hochwaelder fled his homeland after the invasion of the German army in 1938. Like other Austrians, he entered Switzerland illegally, where he then spent time in refugee camps. Unfortunately, Hochwaelder’s parents, like millions of Jews and Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), did not escape the genocide of the Holocaust. They both died within the confines of the Nazi-run Terezenstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. Because Hochwaelder was categorized as a non-citizen in Switzerland and therefore barred from seeking employment, he decided to concentrate on writing plays instead.

World War II: Accepting the Reality of Atrocity. Hochwaelder’s play The Strong Are Lonely (1942) was a major success in several European countries during the 1940s. Like most of his early works, this play explores universal themes through historical settings. The Strong Are Lonely is based upon the rise and fall of a utopian Jesuit settlement in Paraguay during the eighteenth century. The settlement is ordered to disband by both religious and secular officials; Father Alfonso, the protagonist and head of the settlement, acquiesces to authority, but he later realizes that he should have trusted his own conscience rather than let others decide his fate. The emphasis on the consciences of the individual over the conscience of a nation is a theme that develops directly out of the problems the world faced during World War ii. The truth that people had to face and accept was that the atrocities that led to the deaths of so many during that war and the upheaval of Hochwaelder himself were committed not by countries but by individuals who chose to follow the imperatives of their superiors. Although Hochwaelder was never able to repeat the initial success of The Strong Are Lonely, his subsequent plays were well received, and he continued writing solidly composed works until his death in 1986.

Post-World War II Theater. After the end of World War ii, views on traditional German drama within the literary community shifted significantly. Much of the postwar drama produced during this period reflects these changing sentiments, with playwrights treating traditional German theater as passe, unable to stimulate social improvement or critical thought. The Germans were eager to perform imported works from America, England, France, and Italy. Hochwaelder was disturbed by dependency on foreign drama, techniques, and philosophy: He was equally concerned that the German theater was not producing enough of its own drama and—except for Bertolt Brecht—was not exerting a truly international dramatic influence. Hochwaelder criticized the German theater by comparing it to a tubercular patient, outwardly a sun-tanned picture of blooming life, but on the inside a moribund creature hastening to the grave. Generous subsidies to the theater by the cities and states suggest vigor, yet inwardly the theater is dying because it has intellectualized the drama instead of having encouraged vital, absorbing plays. His criticism was leveled at German drama in general, but it was especially applicable to the contemporary trend of the theater of the absurd. Where the theater of the absurd claimed that existence is meaningless because man is born and dies without a choice, Hochwaelder's philosophy maintained that life does have a meaning because man is rational. Where the theater of the absurd usually resists the traditional structure of imitation, Hochwaelder’s technique for the most part creates the illusion of reality through a lifelike stage setting. Hence, the drama Hochwaelder produced during this time differed significantly from that of his contemporaries.

Exploring Guilt through Drama. Fritz Hochwaelder presented unusual twists of religious and moral themes in Das heilige Experiment and most of his later plays. According to Frederick Lumley, the Viennese-born playwright first attracted attention in 1952 when Das heilige Experiment was presented in Paris, where it ‘‘caused an immediate stir through the relationship of its theme with that of the worker-priest controversy then topical.’’ The Inn (1955) is considered a transitional work in Hochwaelder’s career, initiating his increasing interest in contemporary topics. Hochwaelder’s later works display his skill with various types of drama, including comedy, mystery, social criticism, and plays based on legend. The Inn, about a corrupt usurer who is suddenly forced to account for his actions, is one of several later plays that explore guilt. In The Raspberry Picker (1965), Hochwaelder depicts a group of Austrians who repress their guilt for having profited from a nearby concentration camp. Lazeretti or the Saber-Toothed Tiger (1973) focuses on the problem of terrorism in its portrayal of hypocrites whose actions counter their professed ideals.

Critic Lumley summarizes Hochwaelder’s constant experiment both in ideas and form; the play 1003 (1963), for instance, has only two characters—the author and his imagination, with the author in the process of losing his creation, who seems more alive than himself. The development of Hochwaelder, Lumley notes, ‘‘makes him not only an important dramatist for the German-speaking theater, but together with Duerrenmatt and Frisch, also living in Switzerland, and Peter Weiss, another ‘exile’ living in Sweden, it may be said that the most interesting living dramatists anywhere today are to be found in these [four] representatives of the German language.’’ Three of Hochwaelder’s plays have been published in Buenos Aires, and several in Paris.

Hochwaelder died of a heart attack in Zurich on October 21, 1986; although he lived most of his life after World War II in Switzerland, he was buried in Vienna.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Hochwaelder's famous contemporaries include:

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956): American painter known as one of the leaders in the abstract expressionism movement.

Pierre Boulle (1912-1994): French author who wrote the novel Planet of the Apes (1963).

Arthur Lewis (1915-1991): Saint Lucian economist who was the first black to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Masaki Kobayashi (1916-1996): Japanese film director whose film trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-1961), explores the effects of World War II on a Japanese pacifist.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992): Russian-born science fiction author who wrote the novel I, Robot (1950).

Alistair MacLean (1922-1986): Scottish author who wrote the novel The Guns of Navarone (1957).

 

Works in Literary Context

Predominant influences on Hochwaelder’s theater include traditional classical drama, the work of George Kaiser, the atrocities of World War II, and, above all, the Viennese theater. Hochwaelder’s works characteristically focus on a secure protagonist who experiences a devastating moment of self-realization. According to Alan Best, ‘‘The shock of self-recognition, the trauma of coming to terms with an identity one did not even suspect in oneself, underlines Hochwaelder’s dramatic message: no one is safe from such a moment of unmasking.’’

The Viennese Theater. The Viennese Volkstheater stems from two basic sources: the baroque Jesuit drama of the seventeenth century, which presented metaphysical truths through the senses by means of plays rather than by intellectual discourses, and the Italian commedia dell’ arte, which was noted for its improvisations, fantasies, parodies, and Hanswurst (that is, vulgar and gluttonous) figures. Hochwaelder, influenced especially by the Jesuit theater, aimed to combine theatrical experience and understandable truth. He believed that the ideal theater should combine life’s serious and comic sides.

War, Militarism, and Violence. Hochwaelder’s plays display a hatred of war, militarism, and violence. They also call for a regeneration of man. Personal enlightenment and regeneration are possible and even attainable in many of Hochwaelder’s dramas. Outer conflicts, however, caused by external forces such as the church, the state or society, are never completely resolved. The lesson, however, that an individual is capable of interior change is meant to be a positive message to the audience.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Hochwaelder's dramas often revolve around issues of morality and, ultimately, guilt. Here are some other works that explore similar themes:

Crime and Punishment (1866), a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. After murdering a cantankerous pawnbroker, Raskolnikov, the protagonist, is overcome with guilt and experiences physical illness until he is at last punished for his crime, at which point he becomes well again, both physically and emotionally.

Oedipus Rex (429 BCE), a play by Sophocles. Oedipus, the main character in this play, unknowingly kills his father and marries his own mother. When he discovers what he has done, Oedipus, guilt-stricken, blinds himself.

Atonement (2007), a film directed by Joe Wright. In this movie—an adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel of the same name—young Briony Tallis falsely accuses her sister's lover of molesting one of their cousins. This false accusation ultimately leads to the death of the accused and a lifelong rift between the two sisters. Briony bears the guilt of her childhood lie the rest of her life.

 

Works in Critical Context

Hochwaelder’s dramatic output after The Strong Are Lonely has not been accorded the same critical acclaim as his earlier plays. Thus, the playwright’s reputation rests mainly on the uncompromising humanism of The Strong Are Lonely.

The Strong Are Lonely. Initial responses to The Strong Are Lonely, which critic Douglas Russell describes as ‘‘a brilliant look at power politics and ethics,’’ tended to privilege its moral vision in the wake of the Holocaust. In recent years, however, scholarly audiences have moved toward reading Hochwaelder’s work as both a mode of philosophizing and a piece in a literary tradition. Sarah Stanton and Martin Banham, for example, observe, ‘‘His most successful play, The Strong Are Lonely, uses the destruction of the autonomous Jesuit state in 18th-century Paraguay to discuss spiritual and religious utopias and the right of pacifism to self-defence.’’ In a more literary vein, Mary Garland notes, ‘‘Structurally and in the presentation of arguments the play follows the traditional idealist tragedy and ‘Ideendrama’ [drama of ideas].’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Do you believe Hochwaelder’s representation of his characters’ psychological change in The Strong Are Lonely is realistic? Why or why not? Use examples from the text to support your response.

2. How would you describe the moral dilemma represented in Hochwaelder’s The Fugitive? How do you think it should be resolved? Explain your answer in a short essay.

3. Compare and contrast Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment with Hochwaelder’s The Inn. Whose description of the feelings of guilt do you find more believable? Why?

4. Discuss Hochwalder’s interest in the French Huguenot wars as settings for drama.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Baker, R. Paul. A Question of Conscience: The Dramas of Fritz Hochwaelder. Dunedin, New Zealand: Department of German, University of Otago, 2001.

Demetz, Peter. Post-War German Literature. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

Kremer, S. Lillian, ed. Holocaust Literature: An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Lumley, Frederick. New Trends in 20th Century Drama. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Wellwarth, George. The Theater of Protest and Paradox. New York: New York University Press, 1964.