Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Finding Goethe, Finding Götz

Setting: Burgfestspiele Jagdshausen (summer theater festival in the castle at Jadgshausen)
The Play: Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand)

Quote of the evening (for me):

Götz: Ach! Schreiben ist geschäftiger Müßiggang, es kommt mir sauer an. Indem ich schreibe, was ich getan, ärger ich mich über den Verlust der Zeit, in der ich etwas tun könnte.

Oh! Writing is busy idleness--it infuriates me. While I write about what I've done, I could have used the time to do something else.

As I sat in a sturdy scaffolding-style seating area erected in the castle courtyard for the summer festival, my eyes and ears darted to follow the words and actions of the characters in a complicated historical play. Suddenly, the main character, then imprisoned and being encouraged by his wife to get back to his autobiography, shot out these words of writerly frustration. To me, it was one of those moments when the playwright steps forward to speak his mind.

So, Goethe the prolific writer of poetry and plays and prose also struggled, perhaps? The comment by the character Götz seems particularly suited to writing autobiography or memoir: the challenge of living versus writing about the lived versus living and thinking all the while about writing about it.

Götz von Berlichingen [g-u(e)h-ts try British pronunciation of "shi(r)ts" with a "g" at the front; BEA(R)-li(h)-hching-en]. Götz von Berlichingen is a name you hear all the time around here in the region of Heilbronn. "Götz slept here" or "Götz was imprisoned in this tower" or "this was his castle". The historical Götz lived c. 1480-1562. He might have been born in the castle at Jagdhausen where we saw the play last night, or a nearby location. He died at Burg Hornberg high above the Neckar river in Neckarzimmern. I know Hornberg--now a picturesque ruin plus renovated hotel plus thriving vineyard--from a pleasant wedding anniversary get-away in 2011 and subsequent birthday celebrations in the restaurant. I've linked to the German wikipedia page because it has excellent pictures.

But Götz von Berlichingen (such an awkward name for the English-speaking mouth) and his lasting appeal have only slowly begun to reach me. The historical figure, a knight ready for service in myriad conflicts and also a man from a family of means, seems to have tread the line between respecting and defying authority. As a young man, he lost his right hand in battle. He wore an iron prosthesis, which became a kind of trademark. Often imprisoned and kept under extended house arrest at the end of his life, he nonetheless lived into his eighties.

Despite his ubiquity in the culture, during our first year in Heilbronn I had not become aware of the man or the play, which is covered as standard literature in school around grade 8-10. I first heard about it sitting in a semi-dark theater next to Miriam's English teacher on a school outing to see a play (A Christmas Carol presented in English by a German-based American drama group). She mentioned a barely intelligible name of a work based on complicated history. For clarity I asked if it was a play. Yes. And was there discussion of how the author(s) dealt with the writing, I asked (being a writer). Only with some difficulty did I realize we were talking about Goethe.

To be fair, Goethe had been for me up until then mostly a "lyricist" of some famous songs (Lieder), like Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" and "Erlkönig" and dozens more. (I am aware that he cared little for the efforts of Schubert and others to corrupt his work by adding music.) It turns out he also wrote plays, fine examples of Sturm und Drang to teach in school and permeate a culture. Now, at last, I've seen the Götz play, too. Perhaps our outdoor theater evening will help Miriam just a little when the work comes up in school.

The final thing that everybody knows--and I mean everybody--is the famous "Götz-Zitat" [g-u(e)h-ts tsee-tat] or Götz quotation. Not the one I posted here, but an expression that Goethe uses to carve his character's defiance into the minds of generations and into the language itself. While facing attack in his castle in Act Three (of five) and being told to surrender, Götz, with all due respect, gives his reply: "er kann mich im Arsche lecken." (In "good" English: "he can kiss my ass.") Interestingly, the Projekt Gutenberg version of the text cost me some time in finding the exact quote: they have censored it out with a stage direction to slam the window shut! Last night's Götz gave the full line from an upper balcony, loud and clear.

In any case, should you want to make a rude comment in the German context, you may simply refer to this scene from the play. For example, you can say: "Götz-Zitat" (what Götz said…). Or you can invoke the "Schwäbischer Gruß" (the Swabian greeting), as in "She gave him the Swabian greeting."