Thursday, February 23, 2017


Naval Encounter is J.M. Ritchie and J. D. Stowell’s English translation of Reinhard Goering’s (1887-1936) Expressionist play titled Seeschlacht. It was written in late 1916 and early 1917.  The play is set during the Battle of Jutland (Skagerrakschlacht) that actually occurred May 31 and into June 1, 1916. This encounter is considered to be the major sea battle of the twentieth century.  It was between the British Royal Navy and the German High Seas Fleet. Neither side won this battle since it was considered a draw, however, both sides claimed victory.

Goering clearly marks his script with references to this battle. The sailors are aboard a German war ship and are manning a gun-turret. During the first segment of this One-Act play, the sailors continually refer to the time of day. Shortly after the play commences, the time of four o’clock in the afternoon is established. Time continues to be referenced in the play until that moment when the actual Battle of Jutland had commenced. 

Goering also refers to the location of the ship at specific times. “The Second Sailor: “Quarter to five. We must be close to the Skagerrak now.” Goering places the warship, at this moment in the drama, in the area of the Jutland peninsula.

During this first segment of the play, one begins to think that the play will be a story about the Battle of Jutland.  Before the battle, the sailors attempt to go to sleep. When The Fifth Sailor who cannot sleep begins talking to himself, the focus of the dialogue quickly shifts. He is joined by The First Sailor and the two engage in a lengthy philosophical discussion about “Our fate lies within ourselves” verses “If one’s country commands, then it has to be done.”

The next segment of the play occurs when The Second, The Third and The Fourth sailors wake-up. They join in the discussion and the possibility of a mutiny is discussed.  The naval encounter commences and the sailors’ attention are dominated by their work as gunners along with their thoughts of death. After a brief lull in the battle that marks the first loss of life in the turret, the battle resumes.  Within a short time, the gunners in this turret are either dead or dying.

Once the philosophical discussion commences, it is obvious the focus of the drama is not the actual sea battle. This play emphasizes a number of other issues relating to warfare during World War One. Goering is illustrating modern warfare that no longer is the romantic/heroic vision of singlehandedly destroying one’s opponent. This situation illustrates war in the industrial society and man’s feelings when placed in such circumstances.  It further emphasized this idea when The Third Sailor is killed and his body is removed. Within a couple of minutes, The Seventh Sailor enters the gun-turret as the replacement. 

Goering also demonstrates how passion during battle may overcome reason and the individual becomes heroic. The final speech of the play illustrates that point clearly.  The Fifth Sailor, who took over the gunner’s position when everyone else is either dying from an earlier explosion or feeling the effects of a gas bomb, states as he is about to die: “I make a good gunner, eh? I’d have made a good mutineer, too! But firing a gun came easier? Eh? Must just have come easier?”

The most obvious elements of the expressionist style have undoubtedly become evident to you.  The characters are identified by a number instead of having a proper name.  This devise reduces them from possessing developed individual personalities. An individual’s identity marker is frequently assumed by another sailor when the first one dies or cannot contribute to the mission.  An obvious example of this occurs when The Fourth Sailor becomes incapacitated by the gas attack and The Fifth Sailor begins to shout commands.

There is also a considerable amount of shouting and screaming in this play from the opening moment to near the end.  Many Expressionist plays are labeled “Scream plays” since they contain a lot of shouting, loud exclamations or actual screaming.

The first publication of Seeschlacht appeared in December, 1917.  This edition was published in Berlin by S. Fischer Vertag. Only a few thousand copies were printed for each subsequent edition. In 1926 the thirteenth edition was printed. The number of editions demonstrate that there was a continuing interest in this script. Part of the interest may have been spurred when Seeschlacht won the 1922 Schiller Prize.

Several editions of Seeschlacht were also published in English between the years 1958-1969.  The German title has been translated as Sea Fight, Naval Encounter, Naval Engagement or Seabattle. 
Seeschlacht premiered on February 10. 1918 before an invited matinee audience composed of members from the Dresden Literary Society. This was a test audience before staging Seeschlacht for public consumption. The initial performance unleashed commentary that this play was not appropriate material for audiences to experience during that particular time of the war. The February 24th opening for the Dresden performances was canceled.

Another production of Seeschlacht was in rehearsal at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) was preparing a production that was scheduled for a March 3, 1918 closed matinee performance. This performance was sponsored by a group of the theatre’s patrons to allow Reinhardt’s theatre to avoid the military censor when preparing Expressionist dramas. Once again this drama came under attack after the preview and the play was not presented for the general public.

Seeschlacht was staged in other cities throughout Germany: August 1918 in the small city of Bad Pyrmont, 1918 Munich, 1919 Hanover and 1919 in Jena by the University’s drama society. Seeschlacht eventually played in Berlin during 1928 and periodically was produced in other German cities into the 1960s.

 Reinhard Goering’s health was fragile during the time of heated debate about his war play. He was out of the mainstream of activity since he was convalescing in Davos, Switzerland at the Waldsanatorium. He wrote several more plays despite the controversy over Seeschlacht, but it is this drama that is considered by many scholars as Goering’s masterpiece.

Davis, Robert Chapin. Final Mutiny: Reinhard Goering, His Life and Art.
     Stanford German Studies, Vol.21. New York: Peter Lang, 1987.

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