In this issue

The early suspicion of drama, theater and film by Mennonites is succinctly discussed by Harold S. Bender in his article on “Dramatic Arts” in The Mennonite Encyclopedia (1959). The more recent burgeoning interest by Mennonites in drama and theater is discussed in the 1989 supplement to the same encyclopedia article (1989) by Lauren Friesen, a contributor to this issue.

Ironically, two of Europe’s classic dramatists began their lives as Mennonites. The more important one is Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679), sometimes referred to as the Shakespeare of Dutch literature for his poems and verse dramas. Vondel and his wife Maeyken de Wolff joined the Waterlander Mennonite Church, which he served as deacon from 1616-1620. However, in 1639 or 1641 he joined the Roman Catholic Church, for unknown reasons.

In 19th century Germany, Hermann Sudermann (1857-1928) became one of the most popular and highly regarded dramatists, rivaled only by Hauptmann in his day and still regarded as a classic German author, as Lauren Friesen’s profile (below) indicates. Sudermann’s father was a Mennonite, and Hermann spent some years of his youth living with Mennonite relatives in Elbing, Prussia, although he was confirmed at a young age in the Lutheran Church. Friesen makes a case for the presence of Mennonite attitudes and ideas in the dramas of Sudermann, as he does elsewhere for the persistent presence of Mennonite themes in the plays of Vondel. Lauren also publishes here his apparently exhaustive bibliography for Sudermann, which will serve as a welcomed reference tool for years to come. Readers of the Journal can benefit from the bibliography by seeking out the many films listed in the bibliogrphy that have been based on narratives by Sudermann.

Vondel is virtually unknown to English-speaking audiences, but the work of Sudermann sometimes surfaces in public attention today. In the spring of 2011 a New York Times article referred to the DVD re-issue of the 1933 film, The Song of Songs, based on the Sudermann novel (and starring Marlene Dietrich) and also referred to the film “Sunrise,” based on Suderman’s story, “The Trip to Tilsit.”

In North America, Dutch-Prussian-Ukrainian Mennonites early on supported the comic folk plays written by Jacob H. Janzen and Arnold Dyck. Swiss-Alsatian Mennonites came to drama later, beginning with the historical pageants written by Urie Bender and the Lancaster County dramas written by I. Merle Good, both active in the early 1970s. Warren Kliewer may have been the first Mennonite to earn a living in the theater. More recently, Mennonite audiences have embraced the comic biblical skits of Ted and Lee, and the Mennonite theater scene in Canada, especially the Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre Society, has blossomed.

Two playwrights from the Canadian Mennonite community are featured in this journal issue. First is Vern Thiessen, who was introduced to CMW readers by the long interview of him by Hildi Froese Thiessen in the “Working with Scripts” issue of the CMW Journal (November 2010). A prolific playwright, Thiessen recently won the Governor-General’s award for drama. For this issue he has kindly allowed the first publication of his dramatic monologue with projections, “Bungalow,” which has explicitly Mennonite content. It was first produced in the summer of 2010 in Winnipeg.
Watch a scene from the play.

We also publish a review of the first drama written by Armin Wiebe, The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz, which was produced in Winnipeg in April 2011. Wiebe is a novelist, but it is not surprising that he has also moved into drama. The genius of his novel The Salvation of Yasch Siemens lies in Wiebe’s brilliant, deft use of an English dialect hilariously affected by the Low German habits of its native speakers. Drama is inherently an oral literature, and Wiebe’s mastery of oral discourse helped make his new drama a theatrical and popular success. His drama adds more food for thought to the discourse on the role and use of Plautdietsch introduced by Magdalena Redekopp’s essay in the first issue of this journal (January 2009), on “Orality.” Talia Pura, who wrote the review on short notice, has been active for many years in dramatic and other performances in Winnipeg.

Like Vern Thiessen, Don Yost was also introduced to readers of the CMW Journal in the “Working with Scripts” issue, which included an interview of him and Joel Kauffmann regarding the filmscripts that they have written and helped produce. Don’s longest career, though, was as founder and director of Bridgework Theater, located in Goshen, Indiana (later also in Harrisonburg, Virginia). Bridgework was a project in professional theater that produced playscripts by Yost dealing with pressing issues facing school students, such as sexual abuse and bullying. Don has kindly allowed us to publish, for the first time, a play that he wrote for adult audiences concerned with imprisonment and its effect on family members outside the walls.

Don’s “Waiting on the Outside” is in the long tradition of the “social problem” play, or “discussion” play, as pioneered by Ibsen, especially in A Doll’s House, and his disciple, Bernard Shaw. Both playwrights crafted scripts with unsatisfactorily resolved plots that provoked audiences to think about the social issues raised in the plays. Or perhaps Don’s play should be called a “socio-drama,” since it raises issues found in the local, daily newspaper and is less ambitious, literarily, than the plays of Ibsen and Shaw. Its goal is debate, not in a theoretical sense but in the actual sense of asking members of the audience to literally discuss what they have just seen. In fact, the nature and meaning of “Waiting on the Outside” cannot be fully appreciated without reading Don’s description of the creation, performance and reception of the play in the brief essay at the end of the script.

Finally, I exercise an editor’s privilege by adding my own note on Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt, a Mennonite trickster from Sudermann’s neighborhood, who entered into German lore and drama despite himself. His almost unbelievable story, I hope, will inspire a modern comic dramatic version of his trick by the right Mennonite dramatist.

-- Ervin Beck

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.