But three questions remain concerning the transplanting of this piece from the radio to the stage: might it have been possible, at the very outset, to depict death, this stuffed, belching demon in a frock coat, as less philistine, and have him speak somewhat less to the audience? Was it necessary that the personification of the Elbe appeared in person this time, visibly in the dress of the magic theater? And was it also necessary for “God” to come in person, an old, wobbly, whining man with the mask of an actor who does not know: should he play the painter Menzel or the graphic artist Zille?
These characters were intended for the radio play, for the play of voices, and perhaps it might have been possible to have God and the Elbe “appear” only as voices in the theater. In any case, there is no doubt that herein lies the weaknesses not only of the staging, but also of the play itself.
The soldier has returned from war and captivity to a place where he no longer finds a home, wretched, starving, sick, and with that disgusting mop of hair that the prisoners from Russian camps have to bring back; and so he drags himself – a young man full of good will – through the pitilessness, the fear, and the despair that today make up daily life in Germany; there he sees death devouring the starved, the emaciated, just like it devoured the soldiers during war; there he tears his heart bloody on the thorny thicket of phrases that is still proliferating profusely today, especially when young people are being assaulted by pallid teachings; and after he had sought death in the Elbe in vain, he dies “outside the door” of those who are doing better. No wonder that he had to despair of God! But there is a difference between despairing of a God who is harsh and cruelly great, harsher still and crueler than the God of the Old Testament, or of a God who has shriveled to a whining old man. Young playwrights should allow themselves to be advised, if not theologically or philosophically, then dramaturgically, to either entirely abolish the God of whom they despair, or to let him exist mightily in cruel mystery. A small God – and the play runs the risk of becoming small. And then to make a small God visible – so much the worse.
Incidentally, the speech that Wolfgang Liebeneiner inserted into this play, which moves between the extremes of black and white, is charged with that rare burning electricity that endows the penetrating urgency of the artistic device – namely the expressive repetition of the same phrases – with the greatest possible intensity of expression. Within the framework of Koniarsky’s set, which very felicitously traced the boundary between reality and supra-reality, the changing dialogue scenes still revealed the subtleties of the ensemble play that has moved into the background here.
Käte Pantow stood out because she made the eccentrically constructed role of a young woman believable through her natural temperament. Incidentally, it would be worth pondering why a young playwright like Borchert seems to look upon women the way they used to be generally seen (a long time ago): mostly as beautiful ornaments of life. Incisive, contoured: Hermann Schomberg as “Fat Death,” Erwin Geschonneck as a frivolous cabaret director, Gerhard Ritter as the type of those genuine militarists who do not cease passing off their tired old cadet school phrases as idealism.
Borchert, who was himself an actor for a time, dedicated his play to one actor of this stage: Hans Quest, who in suffering and accusation, in lethargy, and foaming explosion, as a returning soldier and central figure of the play, raced through all phases of thespian possibilities. A virtuoso achievement, and all the more impressive in that not only his skill was involved, but above all his heart.
Source: Josef Müller-Marein, “Da reißt er sein Herz blutig” [“He Tears His Heart Bloody”], , November 27, 1947
Translation: Thomas Dunlap