February 08, 2013

The Captain of Kopenich

On Tuesday I went to a play at the National Theatre with some friends- an adaptation of a German classic the Captain of Kopenich.

We opened at a prison with all the men (disrespectfully) listening to an old warden recounting stories about Sedan and the victory of the Prussians over the French. One of the prisoners to be released that day- Voigt- has no papers to be released with and therefore no legal personality in outside society. Those two sentences set up what is interesting about the Captain of Kopenich- as adopted at the National at the moment- on the one hand the cult of reminiscence and the military, on the other the man who has no name and therefore no chance within society. That is until he, by chance, comes across the uniform of a captain within the Germany army, masquerades as said Captain to get a passport, fails and eventually only succeeds in doing so by... you'll have to watch the play to find out but the realisation of his plan is amusing.

The point of the play seems to be specific to its time. The play is set by the director as though it was the 1930s in Germany. Great displays that resemble the silent film Metropolis are set up behind the set. You can see and feel the atmosphere of pre-war jingoism: we are off to fight the French at every opportunity. Perhaps its just what I've been reading recently, but there is a certain poignancy about those scenes- if the stress on Prussian militarism plays a bit much to type and prejudice. The point though is well made. Germany in 1910 and in 1930 was a heavy militarised society. Something of that cult of the military went into what happened in 1914. Jonathan Steinberg argues as much in his book about Bismark: so do Chris Clark and Norman Stone in their books which I have written about on this blog. The cult of the military was important to Germany: Prussia, founded as an army with a country attached, had founded the new German empire and founded it through military success.

The second dilemma is also true and perhaps even more interesting. Voigt has no papers and therefore no personality. The play doesn't really play with this as an idea enough. The play is set in 1910 when two things drive the creation of papers for people (don't forget that until 1914 most European states did not have passports). The first thing was conscription- the Boer war in Britain revealed that the British poor were just unable to fight for example. The second related phenomenon was the welfare state. To have either conscription or the welfare state you need to know who your citizens are. Taking England as an example, in the 18th Century noone knew how many Englishmen there were- quite simply because services were administered by parishes. As long as the clergyman or local notable knew who was who: it didn't matter what Whitehall thought. In a world with conscription and welfare, Whitehall and its equivalents have to know who people are. Voigt's dilemma is a real one but it is a much more modern one than the director gave it credit for: and its a German one for Bismark's welfare state was amongst the most advanced in Europe.

These are interesting ideas but the play at the National disappointed me because it did not really take them further- and the points it did make- gestures towards 1914 and the Nazis were too broad. Much of the first half of this Captain was made up of broad humour and platitude- both of which left me tired and grumpy. I confess at the interval I walked out in a mood, wondering if I should walk back in. The second half focussing on the military issue was much better but still just played either issue for laughs: both issues have more to them than the play revealed- a pity as it was based on a real case and the original text is supposed to be a classic (no doubt this was heavily adapted).