Wednesday 27 September 2017
Border Crossings who directed it recently told me that it , “remains very powerful storytelling.” The play was inspired by reading a Grimmelshuasen novel, set in the 17th century German 30 Years War. Bertolt Brecht based 'Mother Courage' on another Grimmelshausen novel.
"Witty, bawdy, and as profound as anyone cares to consider it”. Financial Times
"David Wilson unfurls a sprawling, vibrant, bustling canvas of seventeenth-century German peasant life in the Thirty Years war”. Time Out
One of my favourite films is Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Set in the 1820s, a young man is discovered at night in Nuremberg’s town square, hardly able to stand. He is dumb and has been kept in a cellar, without human contact, since birth. Adopted by a local doctor, he learns to talk and proves to be wiser than those around him.
When I first saw the film, the friend I’d gone with told me the story reminded him of a character in a Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen novel. He said Simplex Simplicissimus was set in seventeenth century Germany at the time of the Thirty Years’
I discovered that the novel had been translated into English in the 1930s. Even though the language was archaic, I loved Grimmelshausen’s story of a peasant boy who’d been cruelly treated by his father and was hardly able to talk. As a mute, he was sent into the hills to watch over the family’s flock of sheep.
When soldiers attack his family’s farm, Simplex watches from the hillside as his parents are killed and his sister raped. He runs into the forest where he is befriended by a hermit who slowly and patiently educates him.
When the hermit dies, Simplex makes his way out of the forest and is found by marauding soldiers. Although he can discuss Plato’s philosophy and Euclid’s mathematics, he has no social skills. Thinking him a fool, Simplex is dressed as a goat and made a figure of fun. Since playing the idiot is infinitely better than killing, he willingly performs this role. He is eventually forced into one of the armies where he proves to be an invaluable military strategist.
I loved the book because its message was that humanity is basically good and is corrupted by social constructs and the institutions of power. What’s more, the powerful are very often very stupid. I jettisoned much of the original story, such as the absurd account of Simplex’s return from Japan to Germany, but kept the essence of the narrative: a journey towards wisdom.
I felt Simplex had a resonance for my own time, an antidote to the next three decades – our own Thirty Years War. This is one of the first scenes I wrote:
MAJOR: (to SIMPLEX) You’re in the army now, laddie, although your beard needs to grow a little if you’re to be a soldier.
SIMPLEX: I’m a match for any old man, Major. It’s not the beard that marks the man, else billy goats would stand in high esteem.
MAJOR: If your courage is as forward as your tongue, perhaps you’ll be useful. (To SOLDIERS) Now men, we’re going to seek out our enemy in that village. (He points) They have to be disarmed as we have information they have a cache of weapons.
SIMPLEX: How do you know that, sir?
MAJOR: (Laughing and winking at SOLDIERS) Because we sold the blunderbusses to them, you fool.
SIMPLEX: This is a poor village, sir. We should travel further south. The peasants there are richer.
MAJOR: Who asked your advice?
SIMPLEX: If we raid this village, we will find little and there will be nothing left afterwards, then we will be forced south anyway. Travel to those villages now and there will still be something to return to. It’s better than scraping at an empty barrel, even if that barrel is standing beside you.
SOLDIER: He talks sense.
MAJOR” Shut your mouth. Prepare to fire.
SIMPLEX: With respect, sir, wait—
MAJOR: Troop advance.
SIMPLEX: Sir, they know we are here. It would pay us to wait and watch where they hide their weapons, or whatever it is you are seeking. If we note their movements, it will save us time and blood. Here, sir. Take this pen and paper and please accept this as respectful advice.
MAJOR: (Waves quill about, as he is illiterate) You do it. I’m no clerk.
* Originally performed as 'Simple Writings' the play's title was changed to 'War Child' when I tried to stage the play to benefit the charity I had co-founded. The full story is in my memoir, 'Left Field'