Female Playwrights, Playwrights of the Past

Hennie Raché

Unknown Playwrights is finally back posting about…unknown playwrights! Following a summer of deviant debauchery diligent study, the exciting world of unknown theatre comes alive.

This week we feature our first German-language playwright. No, it isn’t Schiller, Goethe  or Brecht. I know, I know…Germany has actually produced more than three playwrights.

Our playwright’s name is Hennie Raché and she was born Hennie Fock in Hamburg in 1876. She married the writer Paul Raché in the early 1900s.

Hennie_Raché
Our playwright…

Finding any online works of hers was difficult. The extant one act play I found pretty much has one thing to recommend it: a very evil villain. In fact we could coin the word “evillain.”

The play is entitled Belsazar. It draws upon the Biblical story of Belshazzar. For those unfamiliar with the story, Belshazzar was a Neo-Babylonian king. Previously, the Babylonians had defeated Judah and looted the Temple in Jerusalem. In the book of Daniel, Belshazzar has a big party and uses the cups from the Temple. God doesn’t like this. A hand writes something the wall. Belshazzar freaks out. All his wise men can’t read it. But Jewish captive Daniel can. He saves the day by explaining the meaning.

“MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed … and found wanting;” and “PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

Note: this where the English idioms “the writing on the wall” and “have been weighed…and found wanting” come from.

Belshazzar rewards Daniel, but is killed that night and the Persians take over his kingdom.

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Belshazzar’s feast, according to the film Intolerance (1916). I doubt Raché’s one-act on the Hamburg stage looked much like this.

The Biblical story provides the skeleton of the play.

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Things ae getting pretty wild here at Unknown Playwrights. Should that illustration be our new logo?

But Raché has made this a play a conflict between Belsazar and a Jewish female captive named Rahel. It’s pretty melodramatic, and not in a Sirkian way, either.

The only points worth exploring in this post that might be beneficial to other playwrights are:

  1. How thoroughly evil Belsazar is.
  2. How does the Queen react to Belsazar getting all rapey with Rahel?

Belsazar is talking to his military aide Issar:

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Belsazar: It’s good, Issar. Then the party should begin. But before that one more thing: Tell me, where is the Jew, who you have captured because she does not want to worship Baal and Astarte?

Issar: She is here, King. I left them under the care of two soldiers.

Belsazar: No harm done to her?

Issar: No, sir, she is intact and her defiance is unbroken.

Belsazar (pensive): She was beautiful, the Jewish woman – she pleased my eyes well … (to Issar): Go, Issar and bring her here to me … maybe I’ll succeed, what you can not do. Go, let her come.

[I’ve chosen to translate the feminine noun Jüdin as “Jewish woman” and sometimes “Jew” because “Jewess” sounds like something Trump would say. But there is an opposing viewpoint about that word. ]

[And…”maybe I’ll succeed” – sure hope you don’t. Primo douchiness, right here]

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Two soldiers bring in Rahel. She has magnificent flowing strawberry-blonde hair. Her loose robe is white. She stops a bit to the right of the canopy. The king waves for the two soldiers to leave.

Belsazar (looks at Rahel for a long time): Do you not know how to greet a king?

Rahel: Like every human. I bowed my head as I entered. (short break)

Belsazar: You are one of the Jewish women brought here from Judea?

Rahel: It’s as you say!

Belsazar: You do not like to be here?

Rahel (bitterly laughing): Like?! I curse the moment I had to leave home, and I curse the hour when my eyes saw Babylon. (short pause) The life of the captivity seems to me unbearable!

Belsazar (somewhat mocking): But – you live?

Rahel (rigidly): I live! I am waiting for the hour when the Lord God will redeem us out of your hands! I live and wait for the hour that will make you our servants!

[One way to make a tough villain is (obviously) to have a tough protagonist.]

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Belsazar (smiling): You will have to wait a long time! The gold of your hair will bleach, your eyes will be closed for a long time, and still Judah will be a part of Babylon!

Rahel (heartfelt): Our God will not let his punishment last forever. He will be gracious to his children!

Belsazar: Your God? – You have been found sacrificing to your god.

Rahel: I did it.

Belsazar: Do not you know that the penalty for it is death?

Rahel: I know it. I do not fear death.

Belsazar (smiling): Maybe not death. But there are tortures that make even the most fearless shudder. Remember that, proud Jew!

Rahel: I’m not afraid of the pain either!

[Jeesh, you mean her strawberry blonde is gonna go full blonde because she’ll be dead and the sun will bleach her hair??? So cruel.

And if she isn’t afraid of death, I doubt she’s gonna fear pain. I mean, what’s the point?]

Here Belsazar tries out the “getting-to-know-you” routine. He learns her name is Rahel.

Screen Shot 2019-09-03 at 8.19.21 PM
“Hey, this isn’t proper stageplay format! The name indents more than the dialogue” saith every theatre ever in 2019.

Belsazar: Rahel … Who is your father?

Rahel: Joshua, the rabbi – you killed him.

Belsazar: I remember. He also sacrificed to his god and was burned. (musing) What god is he for whom you suffer death and torture? Tell me, is he a god of love?

Rahel (loud, convinced): He is a god of revenge! And he will crush those who blaspheme and deny him!

So Belsazar, with all the smoothness of Donald Trump a creepy old dude who’s gotten his way his whole life tries to convince Rahel by pointing out the hedonistic virtues of Baal.

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Belsazar: A God of Vengeance? A miserable god! (He gets up and walks down the two steps, stops in front of Rahel) Shall I tell you about our gods? Do you want to hear about Baal and Astarte? They are gods of love – shall I tell you, Rahel? Shall I tell you about the gardens of love in which Baal sits enthroned and gives a thousand joys to those who serve him? Would you like to become a priestess of the Astarte? Do you know how sweet the love is and how full of bliss the dizziness of the senses? – Look at me, Rachel, shall I tell you about love? Shall I teach you how to serve Baal and Baaltis, our gods? – I will be a good teacher, Rahel, for I have been in the gardens of love for a long time! – You will be a goddess in my arms, Rahel, we shall be like Baal and Astarte … my love shall warm you like the sun and you will desire her as you desire for the light of the sun … ( urgently) Look at me, Rahel … (he wants to take her hands)

[He wants to be her “teacher” because he’s hung out in the “gardens of love” for a long time. No thanks.]

Later he offers her to be his queen. Surprise, surpeise, she turns him down.

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 Rahel (with contempt): Do you believe that you can buy Rahel’s love for a throne and purple? Verily, you judge the pride of the Jew low! Are the women of your people for sale for a handful of gold? And me? O you, whom I respect no more than the dog that lies at the threshold of my house!

Belsazar (uttering a hissing sound of rage, slowly approaches Rahel and stops in front of her, hissing): If you do not fear death and pain, I will torment your soul until it dies in your womb. Should not my power be stronger than your defiance? (he approaches the curtain) Hey, Issar!

Okay, so “hissing sound of rage” might’ve been scarier in 1904 Hamburg than in 2019 Internet. But threatening to “torment your soul until it dies in your womb” is a bit much.

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Belsazar (hissing to Rahel): Woman! I will defile the altar that you have built in the heart of your God!

Rahel wants to leave. [I do not blame her]

Belsazar: Stay! You should stay! I will look for the place where I can wound your proud heart! And if you do not want to give me your love, let your pain be my lust.

[Some women do like a “bad boy” but this is venturing into Idi Amin territory now]

So Belsazar has his little party.

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This party.
babylon
Last month’s church social.

He invites Rahel to sing. You can guess how that goes.

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Belsazar: You don’t want to? Should I loosen your tongue so that it becomes as pliant as a snake’s tongue? – Should I pour molten lead into your throat to make it supple? Maybe you can sing then?

Rahel (proud): Do as you like!

Belsazar (to the people): Do you hear the Jewish woman? She has the courage of a lioness. Do you see how she shows the claws? Oh, I like that!

[Belsazar certainly is one vicious bastard. And he goes after emotionally unavailable women.]

Now the king drinks from the Temple cups. Rahel refuses to do so. One cool thing Rahel does is that when Belsazar orders his wives to drink from the cups, Rahel convinces them not to, thus sparing his wives from the God’s wrath.

The mysterious words are written. Belsazar freaks. He calls his wise men. They know nothing. The queen shows up. Doesn’t say anything about his rapey ways, but she does suggest Daniel can interpret the writing. Yes, that Daniel.

Daniel pops in and tells Belsazar what’s up. Belsazar doesn’t like what he hears (that he’ll lose his kingdom and die). He goes into a tizzy, lashing out at his minions, Daniel and Rahel. He also says:

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“Oh Prophet, your words were cheap…Jew, I laugh at you”

A couple things here:

  1. I dunno if it’s the zeitgeist, but in 1901 the German playwright Hermann Sudermann published a tragedy about John the Baptist. It contained this line: Screen Shot 2019-09-04 at 1.26.15 PMHerodias: You see, I laugh at you, you great Prophet! (She laughs) [Did German theatre had a thing for laughing at prophets then?]
  2. This is the Charles Bronson moment in the play. The villain does something and you know he’s got approximately 10 seconds to live.

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Rahel (drowning out the noise in a strong voice): Kill him! Kill him! He cursed God! (the peasants attack Belsazar, who extends his hands defensively) Kill him, kill him, the wicked man the Lord has marked! Kill the Blasphemer!

Belsazar (in a horrified voice): Rahel!

Rahel (again, drowning everything): Kill him!

Belsazar sinks to death on the steps of the throne.

Rahel lets out a loud cry of triumph.

Curtain.

[Curtain indeed]

Yay God! Yay Jews! Boo hissing rapey misogynistic anti-Semitic rulers of Neo-Babylonia.

This was the only play of Raché’s I could find online. It was performed in 1904 at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg (the theatre has been there since 1843!). It was then published in a theatre periodical, Bühne und Welt. This is really an amazing resource for early 20th Century German theatre.

WELThvd.hnype8-1-1567705335
Look at the artistry involved. This is the cover of the bound volume containing Belsazar.
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Holy hair rollers, 1904 Germany!!! (from inside the above volume)

Bio: adapted from her obituary.

Hennie Raché was born as Henni Fock on August 15, 1876 in Hamburg. She was an orphan by age 16 and worked as an educator and tutor.

She published some poems and short stories in her hometown’s Hamburger Fremdenblatt. This brought her to the attention of editor Paul Raché. They married at the end of 1900. She achieved success quickly. Her plays were performed in Hamburg and even overseas. She became sick in October 1904. The disease was pronounced incurable. She suffered with admirable patience and fortitude before succumbing on June 18, 1906 at the age of 30.

Links….

Her life:

German Wikipedia

Obituary

Her work:

Several poems.

Liebe (a novel) 1901 [Love]

Nocturno. Pathologische Liebesgeschichten 1902 [Pathaological Love Stories]

Über der Liebe (full-length play) 1902 [About Love]

Die Scham. Geschichte zweier Ehen. 1903 [The shame. The history of two marriages]

Das heilige Leben (play) 1903 [The Holy Life]

Ecce Ego [play] 1902.

Belsazar (one act play) 1904.

Das Gasthaus zum deutschen Michel. 1905. [The Guesthouse of German Michel]

Töff-Töff. (one act play) 1906

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