Big Wolf; Royal Court
The Times; London; Apr 19, 1972; Irving Wardle;
"Team that will be hard to forget"
As the dread word "Teutonic" is apt to descend like a rubber stamp disqualifying all theatrical importations from the Federal Republic, it is worth noting that Harald Mueller, the author of Big Wolf, is the fourth young German playwright to reach the British stage this year.
Something worth our attention is evidently stirring out there again; and it is good to see the Royal Court boldly acknowledging this with a production in its main house.
Speaking to Ronald Hayman (The Times, April 15), Mr Mueller declared a strong interest in Edwrad Bond's plays. Little played in Britain, Bond is a star dramatist in Federal Germany, and cynics might regard Mr Mueller as a huided missile dispatched to London in reprisal.
Big Wolf, although no country is specified, arises from the memory of war-shattered Germany. John Napier's stage is a waste-land of rat-infested rubble, with charred banners and the snapped husk of a burnt-out aircraft against the back wall.
"Normal" society no longer exists. only the movements of armed men andw e see little even of these. Mueller's characters are war children, who were born into chaos and have lost their families if they ever had them. Formed into a teenage gang they get on as best they can, organised into a military unity as this is the only social pattern within their experience.
They march from one pointless location to the next, practice combat training, and observe ceremonies of silence for fallen comrades for which a bone cross is reverently produced.
The pathos of the situation is that it is all quite pointless. Their Captain retires to study his maps; but in fact one place is as good as another and there is nothing to be done beyond scavenging for food and medicine.
The play takes it s shape from their own fantasy, and from the rules they have imposed on themselves. The Captain, for instance, lays it down that their unity should comprise four members.
In the first scene an unseen comrade is shot in the act of escape; so the second scene shows them recruiting a new member. This is Clumper, a legless boy who trundles himself about on a cart and who lives in hope of tracking down a friendly medical officer serving somewhere in the North.
Clumper also has supplies of lint which make him welcome to Bando, a boy whose face has been half erased by a flame thrower. However, the task of dragging Clumper about begins to pall when they enlist yet another recruit: Teddy, so called because they find him digging in the ruins of his home clutching a teddy bear.
Teddy may know nothing about sex and have never smoked anything more than a bubble pipe, but at least he has the use of his limbs, so Clumper's time starts running out.
You can see the portrarits slowly building up. Knife, the Captain, supplies their will-power and hands out commands and justice. Ansome, the second in command, is the dandy, manicuring his nails even as the shots ring out at the beginning; he is a looter carrying his spoils in a bag between his legs, and finally they strip and abandom him when he takes to whoring for his own profit.
It is a terrible and hopeless picture; rendered bearable by a basic humanity which just about balances out the horrors. Mueller's dialogue, like Bond's, excludes any reflection or expression of feelings.
They speak about action and they do so with tough gutter wit and occasional wintry bursts of sympathy. Sometimes Mueller stands back to savour what irony there is in the situation; as when Ansome cuts Teddy's hair and tries to teach him how to walk like a male tart.
Otherwise we are left with the unyielding fact of their situation, and with the response of characters who are worth caring about for their own sake.
As the gang finally march off bellowing the Horst Wessel Song, the unavoidable memory of Mother Courage springs up. Like her, the boys follow the war, losing whatever they had to begin with, but still trailing after the one kind of life they know.
This memory does not diminish the play. It is a searing piece, written by a man who knows exactly what effects he wants and how to obtain them. And the Court production, by William Gaskill and Pam Brighton, presents them to the life.
The full ironic horror of the situation would be increased if, as in Lord of the Flies, the cast could be 12-year-olds. On the stage this is impossible, but with a cast of adolescents it is hard to imagine any improvement on the performances of Nigel Terry's loutish Captain and Michael Grady's ruthlessly self-sufficient Clumper. Together with Leon Vitali and Billy Hamon they make a team that will be hard to forget.
Many thanks to Deb for digging out this review.