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The Broken Jug

by John Banville / after Heinrich von Kleist

From Utrecht to Ballybog

German drama doesn't travel well, at least to the British Isles. You'd have to wait for years in order to see anybody but Brecht performed outside a university. Even Faust only had a handful of professional productions in Britain since the war, and modern drama doesn't fare much better; a couple of years ago in London, for instance, the first (and almost certainly last) Heiner Müller season was met with incomprehension by the reviewers and the few spectators alike.

There is one notable exception, though, and that is Der zerbrochne Krug, Heinrich von Kleist's comic masterpiece. The story of Judge Adam's misdemeanours and their consequences is simply too good to be ignored, and Kleist's treatment is a marvel of pace. The way he shows us the judge's downfall in super slow motion, as it were, has captured audiences for almost two hundred years. Strange to think that its first public performance in March 1808 was a failure - since then, however, Kleist's story of Adam and Eve has gone from strength to strength.

But even the best play from a foreign culture needs to be changed, by translators who know what they are doing. John Banville is such a man: an influential critic, he is literary editor of The Irish Times and, more importantly, a poet and novelist as well. Thus his Broken Jug, first performed in 1994, is not simply a translation from the German, but an adaptation after Heinrich von Kleist, as the printed version is at pains to stress. We'd notice anyway: Banville translates Kleist's "Die Handlung spielt in einem niederländischen Dorfe bei Utrecht" as "The action takes place in Ballybog, a small town in the West of Ireland, in August, 1846." It is the time of the potato famine, as close as colonial Britain was ever going to get to genocide. This is the grim background to Banville's comedy: very Irish, very specific, and the character's speech, while retaining some of Kleist's versification, is anything but Deutsche Klassik, as you will presently hear.

The source is German, the language English, and the mode Irish. Thus Banville achieves a dramatic fusion of the most heterogeneous elements, hilarious and horrific, which is the recipe for good comedies. The Tübingen Anglo-Irish Theatre Group has always regarded its unwieldy name as its mission statement: a German theatre company that performs plays by (mostly) Irish authors in English. The Broken Jug could have been written for us.

A Note on the Historical Background

"No event in Irish history has had a more emotional effect on Irish national feeling than the Great Famine of 1845-9. It was an experience for the Irish people that is sometimes seen as comparable in its impact on popular national consciousness to that of the German 'final solution' on the Jews. Indeed it is not infrequently thought that the Famine was something very like that: a form of genocide engineered by the English against the Irish people. Certainly, the story of what happened in Ireland in those years is deeply disturbing. It provides an emotional legacy in what is experienced in Ireland today."

Kee, Robert Ireland: a History (Abacus, London 1982)