I am currently playing Otto in Through the Leaves, a remarkable play about the relationship between a tripe butcher and a heavy drinking factory worker set in 1970s West Germany, written by that country’s most frequently performed living playwright. It is the most enjoyable, moving and funny play that I’ve been in, and I’m writing this because I want people to come who’ve never heard of Franz Xaver Kroetz.
Kroetz was born in Munich in 1946. In the ‘60s he attended drama school, and worked as a banana cutter, a truck driver, and an orderly in a mental hospital to support himself. In the ‘70s he became an active member of the German Communist Party, and in 1971 attained celebrity when productions of two of his plays were disrupted by neo-fascists, causing the German police to place guards around the theatre. His 1970s plays depict men and women reduced to silence by their social condition, and are remarkable for their unflinching realism.
Approaching Kroetz is difficult; his style might be Beckettian, his silences Pinteresque – but that doesn’t say very much at all. Playwriting is, of course, a literary activity, but being a playwright is also about making, about labour and scaffolding: there’s a lot of grafting involved that isn’t primarily literary, but has more to do with making the play work.
Reading plays comparatively is like assessing houses solely on their HIPS report: does it have cavity wall insulation? Does it have loft insulation? You can ask of a play: does it have meaningful silences?, or, is there a sink on stage? All you will get is a series of ticked boxes – but you can’t tell from them whether you’re dealing with a tower block or the Palace of Versailles.
What attracted me about Kroetz was not the undoubted literary achievement of his plays, but the root cause behind them. Through the Leaves was written at a time when German communism had extended, in a few extreme cases, into terrorism: the Red Army Faction, formerly known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, were at large in Germany and committing violent murders in the name of freedom, and Kroetz, like many of his communist contemporaries, became a target for neo-fascist groups.
He would leave the communist party in 1980, having drawn disapproval for his unheroic characters; but at this time, he was an avowedly political playwright, whose plays depicted the faults and weaknesses of a society he wanted to reform. His work is arresting and fascinating as a result of the passions that motivated it and the ideas behind it. Kroetz’s profile in England should be much higher: his plays deserve wider recognition for their passionate and moving intensity.