Thursday, April 23, 2015


This 1930 play written by Friedrich Wolf, a German physician and playwright, is based on a real life mutiny that occurred on the flagship of the Austro-Hungarian fleet of warships in February of 1918.  The location of the ship at the time of the revolt was in the Bay of Cattaro, an inlet of the Adriatic Sea. The mutineers demanded better treatment and better food, but their major demand was for an immediate end to the war. The revolt was not successful.  Friedrich Wolf did significant research in order to create an accurate account. Since the mutiny spread to several ships in the fleet, Wolf interviewed as many of the 6,000 sailors involved as he could find.  Wolf’s play incorporated as many facts relating to the actual situation as he could corroborate. His characters bear the real names of many of the sailors involved in the revolt. 

I find my own interest in this play is neither the plot nor the overarching political position inherent in the script. Many audience members in Western Europe, United Kingdom and North America objected to the Socialistic/Communistic tenets woven into the script.  I am more intrigued by the playwright’s history and the play’s production history. These two area are the major focus of this post.

Friedrich Wolf was born in 1888 to a Jewish family living in the western part of Prussia. He studied medicine as well as philosophy and art history in various cities of Germany between 1907 until 1912.  He became a physician in 1913. He worked as a ship’s doctor in 1914 sailing the Atlantic between Europe and North America, prior to becoming a field doctor in the war later that same year.  He was stationed on the Western front.  When the war concluded in 1918, Wolf became a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany. He started writing plays during the previous year. His plays were usually social problem dramas that dealt with real life situations based on political policies.  He also wrote novels and was extremely prolific despite his schedule as a practicing medical doctor.

His 1929 play titled Cyankali was very popular and it was staged in nearly every town in Germany. Wolf’s intention with this play was to have a national law against birth control abolished.  He was at this time a physician in Stuttgart, and he was arrested briefly on the charge of performing abortions.  This was a very popular play and Wolf was a highly recognized playwright in Germany.

The Sailors of Cattaro was his next play and it was the eleventh one he wrote in thirteen years. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported in 1934, when the play opened in the United States that “it has been hailed in Berlin, Vienna, Munich, Amsterdam and Moscow.”  The English translation of the play was the work of Keene Wallis and it was adapted by Michael Blankfort. The rights for production of this play in the United States were purchased in December, 1930 by the Theatre Guild.   The play opened December 10, 1934 and it was produced by the Theatre Union, Inc., a militant theatre group.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reviewer believed the play was worth the trip to the theatre by a thinking public. The review in the New York Times states that the play “is a serious piece of work, written out of keen respect for social justice and the valor of human nature.”  It ran for ninety-six performances which indicates that it was successful at the box office.

On September 30, 1936 BBC National Radio broadcast the Wallis/Blankfort English version of the play.  It was repeated several times after that date on BBC programs to regional areas.  There was a protest against the play in England by the Economic League.  This group took umbrage with the theme of the play since the action centers on mutiny and according to the letter of protest “it is written purely from a communist standpoint.”  The BBC responded to the protest by stating “it is an historical play, dramatic in essence.”  

By the time “Sailors” was presented in English on both sides of the Atlantic, Wolf had  emigrated with his family to Moscow upon the victory of the Nazi party in Germany. It seems that he did not stay inactive during those years. In March of 1935, he came to the United States to speak on the “Russian Theatre of Today”.  His speech was sponsored by the Theatre Union and the Drama Department of New College in New York City. He was also a guest at a banquet given in his honor by the Yale School of Theater.

In 1938, he went to Spain to work as a physician in the International Brigades.  Later while he was in France, he was interned in a concentration camp.  By 1941, he returned to Russia where he had gained Soviet citizenship. During these years of exile, he continued to write dramas and three novels.  His play Professor Mamlock written in 1933, was produced in Moscow during May of 1935.  It focuses on the Jewish situation in Nazi Germany.  This play was also produced in New York City from April, 1937 to July, 1935 and scored seventy-six performances.

Following the war in 1945, he returned to live in Germany.  He continued to write plays and novels.  When he died in 1953, he had written twenty-one dramas.  I hope you read “Sailors” since Friedrich Wolf wanted not just to provide an anti-war thesis, but to provide insight into the lives of common men who fight wars and to demonstrate the bond that binds them together.

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