Excerpts from The Theatre of the Manure,
Published in ENCORE, London, April, 1965
And accepted as an RSC report after publication
This play deserves to be known in English, as it is probably one of the great scatological classics of any age, a direct descendant in the long line from Aristophanes through Rabelais to Jarry. This in itself explains why it has yet to be produced (or published) here, for while sex in most of its forms is box office, excrement has yet to come into its own.
But Hercules has more to offer than a mild scatological thrill: the play succeeds in converting its subject matter into a functioning symbol for all of society, laughing at itself as it does so. It is even genuinely poetic, though here too laughter is never far away. Dürrenmatt has written in a single work a parody, a parable, and a paradox, and Hercules, though obviously the work of a human being, bears an imprint that is clearly demonic. As such it is perhaps best compared to Lolita or The Loved One: what Nabokov and Waugh have done for nymphomania and death in America, Dürrenmatt has done for excrement in Switzerland. And elsewhere. At the end of the play it would seem that the Ancient Greeks and Literature itself have been done for as well.
As the entire play takes place in or surrounded by excrement, there are clearly certain problems of scenography. The comedy openson a stage which the author carefully avoids describingwith the entry of Polybius, Hercules' private secretary, who enlists the aid of the audience in visualising the "primeval cowturd landscape". He boasts that dramatic art can do almost anything and explains that the management has thoughtfully provided a special platform for the "scenes played elsewhere, in more, shall we say, sanitary surroundings". The audience need not be shocked if "the material is not entirely housebroken", for "true poetry transfigures everything".
In one of the scenes translated here, Augeas, who is converted from a King to a President, convinces the Grand National Council of the urgent need for decrappification, and Hercules is summoned. The cleaning of the Augean Stables is of course, one of the mythical Twelve Labours which, according to Dürrenmatt, Hercules undertakes partly out of a staunch but naive faith in mankind but mainly for a fee. He is represented as a lusty freeloader who is nevertheless very concerned with being considered a civilised p erson while maintaining his image as Greek National Hero. Consequently he is easily dominated by his mistress, his secretary, Augeas, and finally a wandering Circus Impresario. Whenever he is angry, he takes it out on his secretary, who is on crutches by the end of the evening.
His mistress is a hetaira who wears practically nothing and who feeds him June Allysonish lines, like (when Hercules is reluctant to handle dung) "It isn't important what a person does, but how he does it. You are a hero, and you will shovel manure like a hero." In fact much of the dialogue is borrowed from Hollywood clichés which are used to ridicule not only themselves but the situations as well. The arrival of Hercules, his secretary, and his hetaira in Elis is reminiscent of the arrival of Claire Zachanassian in The Visit. Nothing is ready, the citizens do not know the words of their National Anthem, President Augeas muffs his welcoming speech. Hercules is horrified at the manure and swears to get rid of it, even at the risk of polluting the entire Ionian Sea.
His determination is shortlived. He is just about to get down to work when he is informed that he must first obtain permission from the Water Bureau. He discovers his hetaira involved in an affair with Phyleus, Augeas' son, which he is too gentlemanly to interfere with. Hercules is soon caught up in an unending mesh of bureaus while his travel expenses dwindle, his diet grows more meagre, and Iole, Augeas' daughter, attempts to sleep with him. We are treated to the real story of Hercules' love life. Decrappification grows more and more remote. And through it all Augeas sits happily milking his cows, boasting about their milk production, and praising the status quo of the dairy paradise. It is worth noting that Schweiz, the German word for Switzerland. also means something like Dairyland. And the word for shit, Scheisse (or Scheiss-) is a bit too close for comfort.
The manure goes on rising, and the Grand National Council holds another meeting to consider the situation. One Councillor is opposed to letting Hercules carry out his project of damming and flooding lest it wash away vast art treasures buried beneath the manure. A second National Councillor is worried that the flushing process may reveal that these art treasures never really existed in the first place and so undermine patriotism. An economist argues the necessity of manure to the export trade, while other Councillors are concerned that the needed sanitation may disturb the profundities of their religion, increase urbanisation, drive their women to excess and their voters into the arms of the Macedonian Workers' Party. Several commissions are set up to investigate these possibilities.
When Hercules' money runs out, he has no choice but to take a job with a local circus, where he progresses from weightlifting to wrestling an elephant and boxing a gorilla. The circus folds, its manager vanishes, and the unpaid hero is forced to move on to the next Labour, although he has not started, much less completed, the decrappifying of Elis. The manure continues to accumulate.
Polybius commiserates with the audience: he realises their image of the Greeks has been shaken by what has happened, but there is simply no other way out. "Justice does not exist, least of all poetic justice." As the play ends Hercules' hetaira is supposed to marry Phyleus but leaves him at the altar to follow her hero. Phyleus vows to pursue them and challenge Hercules to a duel which we know will end in Phyleus' death. He asks his father what meaning life can have in their manure. Augeas answers with an allegory that concludes the play. He leads his son into a garden, the only one in Elis, which he offers to give him if only he will not fight Hercules. He tells his son that one must make the best of life: politics cannot fashion miracles, but just as manure can with patience be transformed into fertile soil, so human beings may transform themselves as individuals even in the midst of manure. While this may seem a small accomplishment, it is the only one definitely open to us and therefore essential. Phyleus listens to his father's philosophising and then runs off to fight with Hercules On this note the play ends.
By placing a stylised modern state in ancient times Dürrenmatt has scored at least three points. First, the audience is amused and put off guard by the anomaly of modern nuisances in a classical setting. Second, anyone who would dismiss the situation as mere Germanic "grossness" is forced to concede that it is Ancient Greek grossness as well, assuming it is gross. And finally Dürrenmatt makes the spectator confront his notions of the Ancient Greeks with a possible reality and in this way manages to demolish, more thoroughly than anyone since Aristophanes, the myth of Hellenic perfection. Indeed, Aristophanes was writing for his own people who were at least minimally aware that things in Athens were not perfect.
But today, Dürrenmatt believes. we are faced with the tyranny of those who maintain that everything classical, everything of the past, is calm, perfect, and purely artistic while anything done today is rash, vulgar, and third-rate. Our Griechenbild, or image of the Greeks, is not a clear oneit has been muddled by Romanticism, Victorianism, and later by Imagism in England and Nazism in Germany. Because a few bleary-eyed German and English travellers in the early Nineteenth Century were blinded by the Grecian sun, it has been held up to us ever since as a sacred standard of brightness.
This problem is particularly prevalent in Germany, where the Classics are a solemn duty, but it is no stranger in England and America. Allegedly intelligent audiences are willing to accept blood, perversion, and psychosis in Shakespeare, where it is safely removed in the realm of Classicism, but cry out in protest when the same images are presented to them in the modern theatre. By attacking our image of the Greeks Dürrenmatt is drawing our attention to this modern hypocrisy. He is also striking a blow against Literature itself, or at least our concept of it. One of the dangers .of modern culture is that people will suppose themselves "civilised" merely be cause they can make correct comments about correct authors. One would imagine that a play both as simple and as deceptively complex as Hercules would have a rough time with the critics. Such is indeed the case, and Dürrenmatt is not ashamed to admit it. The dust jacket of Hercules is festooned with critical notices, but not the usual ones. "An uncommonly silly play," reports the Basler Nachrichten, and again, "If stones could blush, then the Zurich Schauspielhaus should have turned red as a tomato with shame that within its nonetheless not totally inglorious walls this play received its first performance." Die Weltwoche of Zurich observed: "It is hard to write a bad notice on this play. It is impossible not to write a bad notice on this play." The German reviews were little better.
The play is no masterpiece structurallyit was first written as a radio drama, then adapted for the stage, and some of the seams still show. But a great deal of technical ingenuity is also present. It is more than probable that the Swiss and German reviewers were not reacting to the play's structure at all but to its content, which they found needlessly outrageous. In any case, it is refreshing to pick up a play where the blurbs are honest put-downs.
The excerpts from Hercules were translated from the German Herkules und der Stall des Augias (Verlag der Arche-Peter Schifferli, Zurich), English version Copyright 1965, by Alexander Gross.
These excerpts are Copyright © 1965
and 1999 by Alexander Gross. They may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only.They may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.
to Hercules translation menu
to dramaturgical notes menu
to theatre menu