Fascist Guns Failed to Quell Wolf, Playwright with Mission
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Fascist Guns Failed to Quell Wolf, Playwright with Mission

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If a certain Fascist firing squad had acted with more speed one winter morning fourteen years ago, Friedrich Wolf would not be alive today, and the Theatre Union would not be presenting “Sailors of Cattaro,” revolutionary play which has received the acclaim of New York critics.

A revolutionist before he is a playwright, this 46-year old German author in exile who has been sailor, soldier, worker, and physician has taken an active part in the struggle of the working class, so that instead of inhabiting a “Red ivory tower” and writing vicariously of strife, he creates from actual experience.


A syndicalist settlement for veterans set up at Wormswede, Germany, in 1921 provided Wolf with the material for his first play, “Colony Dog.” The colony was built up with the greatest effort by the soldiers themselves. Among them was Wolf, who dug peat.

Like the others, he had gone into the project, fired with enthusiasm, expecting that it would set a successful precedent for the establishment of similar colonies. But the settlement proved to be an illusion; the government withdrew its subsidies, and that was the bitter end of the experiment. He realized then the futility of such attempts and embodied in a drama his Wormswede experience.


After this, Wolf returned to the practice of medicine. He might have had a lucrative practice in the city. Instead, he chose to go out among the small farmers and poor weavers of Southern Germany. He lived with them, worked with them, and doctored them. “Poor Conrad,” his second play, dramatized one of the revolutionary traditions of these people— the peasant insurrection of 1514.

“Cyankali,” which came next, grew out of Wolf’s pre-Wormswede days shortly after the war, when he served as city physician of Remschied. Here he came in contact with the workers’ movement for the first time. He carried in his mind for years the bitter memory of these underpaid, half-starved metal workers, raising large families they could not support, and finally he wrote “Cyankali,” advocating legal abortion.


While Wolf was in Remschied, the first Fascist Kapp-Putsch took place, the event which almost prevented “Cyankali” and “Sailors of Cattaro” from ever being written. On March 3, 1920, the Whites seized Remschied. The workers resisted bitterly, and fighting side by side with them on the barricades was Wolf. He was captured on March 17 and sentenced to be shot. The next day the workers stormed the prison and freed him.

Although Wolf did not participate in the 1918 revolt of the Cattaro fleet, the nautical knowledge gained in his youth stood him in good stead in the writing of “Sailors of Cattaro,” his fourth plty. For according to the best storybook tradition, he ran away to sea when he was only twelve. They brought him back; he ran away again. Eventually, he returned and settled down to the study of medicine. But he had not abandoned the sea, for, during summer vacations, he shovelled coal in the “Black Gang” of a Dutch steamer Later, he served as ship’s doctor on several German liners.

Wolf’s most recent play, “Dr. Mamlock’s Way Out,” dramatizes his latest and most bitter experience—persecution by the Nazis. By 1931, his plays, novels and stories had established him as one of Europe’s leading proletarian writers: “Sailors at Cattaro,” his most popular drama, was played numerous times, not only in Berlin, at the Volksbuehne, German prototype of the Theatre Union, but in Dresden, Vienna, Munich, Amsterdam, and Moscow.

Naturally, he was a target of the Nazis. With the increased Hitlerization of Germany, he was placed under surveillance, and in November of 1931, arrested. The charge—he still practiced medicine—was illegal abortion; evidence—”Cyankali.” But the Fascists were not powerful enough to put across this vicious frame-up. Mass protests by German workers forced his release. Wolf intensified his vigorous campaign against Fascism. Immediately after his release, he organized a troupe of actors and toured the provinces, presenting revolutionary plays. Hitler banned the troupe in March of 1933. A month later Wolf had to flee the country.


A letter he wrote at this time to Charles Walker of the Theatre Union presents a vivid picture of the ruthless treatment accorded writers who dared oppose Fascism. “As you know,” wrote Wolf, “Hitler recently has burned all the books of Jewish, non-Aryan, and proletarian writers…. He has also banned production of our plays, {SPAN}rad##plays{/SPAN}, and films, thereby violating the Berne agreement. All German publishers and theatrical enterprises have been forbidden to pay any royalties to us Jewish and proletarian writers … we are consequently utterly helpless today; it is not our fault! I myself am being persecuted—my wife was refused a visa to see me, and my Postal Savings Account, where I had a little savings, was seized and confiscated, so that my wife and my two children are destitute.”

A few months after this letter, Wolf’s family managed to obtain a visa, and they joined him in the Soviet Union.


When Walker visited Moscow last summer, he found Wolf seated before an open window, stripped to the waist and surrounded by a litter of papers, sunbathing, pounding a typewriter: vigorous, youthful, dynamic. He has entered with full zest into the activities of a Soviet author; he writes prolifically for the trade union publications and newspapers, and at the same time keeps up his creative work.

“Sailors of Cattaro,” a play based on actual facts even to the extent of using real names for its principal characters, describes the abortive revolt of a squad of the Royal Austrian Navy during the last year of the war. The sailors—abused by their officers, underfed and tired of war—mutineed. They imprisoned their officers, flew the red flag and for two brief days ruled their own destinies.

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