Tuesday, May 2, 2017


Walter Hasenclever (1890-1940) was a young German Expressionist playwright who initially believed in the need for Germany to go to war.  He joined the military during the summer of 1914 and served as a translator and kitchen orderly. His play Der Sohn (The Son) premiered in Dresden during September, 1916. It was in this same year that he started writing his play Antigone.  Prior to its premiere in December, 1917 at the Schauspielhaus of the Leipzig Stadtheater, Hasenclever wangled a discharge from military service. 1917 proved to be a memorable year for Hasenclever since Antigone received glowing reviews and he was awarded the Kleist Prize for the play.  He was immediately acknowledged as one of the young leaders of the German Expressionist theatre movement.

I have read plays about Antigone since I was in high school and I was eager to read Hasenclever’s version. This Antigone is a strong antiwar play.  It is thought by scholars that the classical story obscured the play’s deeper meaning. Obviously the antiwar message was overlooked by the Weimar Republic censors.

The plot is divided into five acts with a total of twenty-five French scenes. The stage represents both the city and the palace of Thebes. The palace is the background. In the center the palace gateway opens on to a platform—this area is the theatre of the King. Steps lead down into the arena where there are three entrances: right, left and opposite the palace.  The arena is the theatre of the people. I will share an abbreviated idea of how the plot progresses on the described stage and how Hansenclever’s play follows Sophocle’s storyline.

Act I, Scene 1. People of Thebes stream into the arena. The gate of the palace opens and a Herald enters and announces that the war is over and the enemies are defeated. He explains that Eteocles, the king is dead. He was killed by his brother Polynices. King Creon, their uncle, proclaimed that Polynices, the enemy, is not to be buried and his body has been left outside the gates of the city. The joyful people celebrate the end of the war as they exit the arena.

Scene 2. Antigone enters the arena with Ismene, her sister. Antigone vows to bury her brother, Polynices and exits the area. The scene closes as a crowd of people surge into the arena and Ismene is swept away by them. The conflict is obviously based on the mythological story and it remains close to its model throughout acts one, two and three. However, the characters do not share all the same feelings as their ancient Greek counterparts. Hasenclever endowed some of his characters with feelings and actions that were similar to what the German/Prussian leadership and some of the people were espousing prior and during World War One. This is particularly true of King Creon.

While all the named characters of the Greek myth follow their destinies as they were originally prescribed, the feeling of this Antigone is more dramatic than the plays that follow the Greek model. Hasenclever’s citizens of Thebes do not serve as a Chorus who comment on the action. His people are highly opinionated and volatile.  This combination should create a tension in the arena that would be reactive and dynamic. In Act II, Scene 5 the crowd wants Creon to pardon Antigone, but he berates them. When no one obeys Creon’s command to seize Antigone, he calls the Horsemen to ride into the arena and seize her. This action occurs and one of the Horsemen grabs Antigone and “throws her backwards across his horse,” and races out of the arena using the center exit.

Acts IV and V track the basic plot points of the myth, but Hasenclever presents the story with many different details. Creon is finally persuaded to forgive Antigone and not have her entombed. In Act IV, Scene 3 Creon arrives at the tomb and learns that Antigone is dead. Haemon, Creon’s son and future husband of Antigone, stabs himself in view of the audience when he learns of her death during Scene 4.  Scene 5 adds to this tragedy with the burning of Thebes.

Act V relates Eurydice’s part of the story, she is Haemon’s mother and Creon’s wife. The fire burning Thebes is woven throughout the four scenes of this act. The people want to know who is guilty of starting the fire.

Hasenclever skillfully used expressionist traits in his version of Antigone. Antigone constantly confronted Creon, who symbolized the old order. The language in the confrontations is spare. Antigone also abandoned the strong belief in the use of the sword—she stood for love and unity. True to the final action of many expressionist heroes/heroines, Antigone commits suicide. The total destruction of the city of Thebes by fire symbolically eradicated the physical environment and opened the possibility for a new vision. Creon’s exit from his role of King allowed the possibility for a new order to be established. Although the language in the play is often spare, the speeches and actions are filled with Strum und Drang violence. 

Hasenclever’s Antigone received numerous productions during the war in Germany, but I have found no evidence of this play being presented in the Allied nations. The only announcement of the rights to this play being purchased was a newspaper article dated September 20, 1927 that appeared in the Asbury Park Press from Asbury Park, New Jersey.  This story originated in Vienna and it stated that Alexander Tairoff (1885-1950) the Russian theatre director, had acquired Hasenclever’s Antigone as one of the plays he was taking on tour to Sweden, Norway, Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Prague, Vienna, Paris and Italy. The music for Tairoff’s production was written by Alexander Shenshin (1890-1944) a Russian composer. 

I have found no evidence of Hasenclever’s Antigone ever being performed in either Great Britain or the United States even though other plays by him were. He was a well-known playwright during the years between the wars. He committed suicide in June of 1940 while staying in a French internment camp. His death coincided with France signing the armistice with Germany.

1.      I read J.M. Ritchie’s translation of Antigone.
2.      The play is dedicated to Tilla Durieux (1880-1971) an Austrian actress.
3.      Please share any additional information with this post about productions that I did not find.    

·         11/26/17--a reader of this post informed me about the following production of Hasenclever’s Antigone.  During spring 2007, the students at Hazen Union School in Hardwick, Vermont performed this play at their school March 19-23. They performed it again at the Regional Drama Festival in Johnsbury, Vermont on March 24, 2007. The production was directed by Marc Considine.

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