Wednesday, March 28, 2018


Georg Kaiser (1878-1945) wrote The Burghers of Calais (Die Burger von Calais) in 1913, a period of both national and international tension.  This three-act play was published during 1914, in Berlin by S. Fischer, shortly before World War One commenced. It did not garner much attention until 1917, when many of the German people were growing weary of the war. The Burghers of Calais gained the reputation as a powerful denunciation of war.

Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) a leading theorist on anarchism in Germany mentioned Kaiser’s play in his essay Ein Weg deutschen Geistes (A Way of the German Spirit). This essay was first published in 1916. It inspired Arthur Hellmer (1880-1961), the founder of the New Theatre in Frankfurt, to stage the premier on January 27, 1917. The message in The Burghers of Calais as well as its new style of Expressionism made it a popular choice for private theaters in other German and Austrian cities.
Scholars believe that Kaiser was inspired to write his drama by Auguste Rodin’s (1840-1917) sculpture Les Bourgeois de Calais, first displayed in 1889. Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) met Rodin in 1902 and the following year he wrote about this particular Rodin sculpture detailing the gestures and the sense of movement derived from this powerful piece. It is claimed by scholars that many of these details were incorporated into Kaiser’s character descriptions and stage directions.
Another possible resource used by Kaiser is the Chronicles of Jean Froissart (1337-1405).  This volume relates to events that occurred during the first part of the Hundred Years War (1326-1400). Foissart’s history includes the siege of Calais beginning in 1346 and concluded a year later. It is thought that since Kaiser uses the actual names of only four citizens involved in the events at Calais, he must have read the second edition of Froissart’s account since all six citizens are named in the fourth edition. Kaiser’s plot follows the general historical events, but he was not interested in historical accuracy. He selected historical incidents and individuals as background for creating creditable opportunities to layout his own theories about reshaping human behavior.
Act I of The Burghers of Calais takes place in 1347 at the town hall, a red-brick building with wide steps that serve as seats.  On the steps stand six of the Councilors of the city of Calais. The seventh Councilor named Eustache De Saint Pierre is seated. During this act these seven citizen leaders are faced with the choice of defending their city, which has the closest French port to the English shore. The Councilors receive the message that the French King has been defeated by King Edward III (English) as the French monarch and his soldiers were rushing to aid Calais.
 Edward III now demands six prominent citizens of Calais to be selected to bring him the keys to the city while they are dressed in sackcloth and ashes, with a rope around their necks. This surrender must happen before sunrise of the following day.  If this does not occur, Edward III claims he will have every person in the city killed as well as destroy the entire city.
Eventually, the Councilors, led by Eustache, decide to offer themselves as the sacrificial victims.  However, all seven of them volunteer. Since six are needed, they agree to meet again in the afternoon for the drawing of lots to grant life to the seventh volunteer. Act II is set in the main chamber of the city hall. The Councilors attempt the drawing of lots, but it provides no solution.
Act III takes place prior to sun-rise in the market place. It was determined in Act II that the last Councilor to arrive would be spared.  Only Eustache is missing at the appointed time. He is quickly denounced as a coward. Eustache’s ancient, blind father arrives with his son’s body. Eustache committed suicide so that the remaining six men may know the way of self-sacrifice for a common cause. It is Eustache who represents the emergence of Kaiser’s idea concerning the development of the “New Man.” Kaiser envisioned that the “New Man” embodied new values for society to embrace such as humility and love instead of power and heroism.
While The Burghers of Calais became widely produced in German speaking countries, the script was not translated into English for a number of years. I read the translation by J. M. Ritchie and Rex Last published in 1971 by Calder and Boyars Limited, London. I found a reference to a 1946 translation titled The Citizens of Calais by Bayard Quincy Morgan as well as another with the same title by Adam I. Weiss dated 1965. This latter book was published by the University of Denver and it includes two other plays and “an explanation of the Social Image Expressed in the Plays.”
The Burghers of Calais was translated into Japanese and it was produced by a theatre in Tokyo either late in 1920 or early 1921. This information appeared in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 2, 1922.  A 1956 production was part of an outdoor German Festival.  It was presented on the steps of St. Michael’s Cathedral at Schwarbisch Hall in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany.  The steps of this historic church are a perfect setting for this play. In November, 1978 BBC Radio 3 aired its version of the play throughout many sections of England.
Kaiser’s reputation as a pacifist playwright began with The Burghers of Calais in 1917. Walter H. Sokel, in his book The Writer in Extremis: Expressionism in Twentieth-Century German Literature, considers this drama as “one of the most powerful dramas of Expressionist pacifism.”

  1. Photo of Georg Kaiser from Georg Kaiser by B. J. Kenworthy, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957    
  2. The Burghers of Calais Statue photo by Arpingstone at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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