Vondel, Sudermann and Kliewer: Stretching the Invisible Canon of Mennonite Dramatic Writing

By Friesen, Lauren | Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Vondel, Sudermann and Kliewer: Stretching the Invisible Canon of Mennonite Dramatic Writing


Friesen, Lauren, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: This essay argues that Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679), Hermann Sudermann (1857-1928) and Warren Kliewer (1931-1998) should all be considered as Mennonite playwrights because each was influenced by a Mennonite cultural background and tradition. More important, the themes these playwrights address--compassion, reconciliation, critique of religious hypocrisy--have on-going significance for Mennonites. The paper explores a representative play from each of the three playwrights with the goal of identifying similarities in their work and recommending a few principles for reflection regarding the development of a Mennonite dramatic tradition. For Mennonites in the theater arts, the voices of these three playwrights are relevant to the dramatic tradition that is now forming.

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Mennonite playwrights face enormous obstacles in the pursuit of their art. While the demands of the discipline weigh heavily enough on any playwright, additional complications arise for those who attach the adjective "Mennonite" to their work. What plausible criterion distinguishes Mennonite plays from those that are not Mennonite? It might be tempting to assume that a theological litmus test could be developed that would cipher out the "Mennoniteness" of certain works and thereby establish the basis for Mennonite playwriting. Playwrights would find little comfort in such a test, however, because it would impose non-artistic criteria as a means to evaluate drama. In his survey of Mennonite literary themes, critic A1 Reimer has argued in favor of a broad definition of "Mennonite" writers:

   I prefer to view "Mennonite" writing through a wide-angle lens
   which includes in its focus the work of writers who spent at least
   their formative years in a Mennonite milieu--family and/or
   community and/or church-regardless of whether they now consider
   themselves "Mennonite" in a religious sense, or in a purely ethnic
   sense, or in both cases, or in neither case. (1)

This modest proposal, an inclusive definition, expands the potential for research into Mennonite writing. It has the double advantage of encouraging scholars to focus on quality of writing rather than on demonstrating the Mennoniteness of a given literary work. At the same time it frees playwrights from having to prove their Mennonite roots with clear or veiled references to Mennonite doctrines. Instead of ecclesiastical or theological criteria for defining art as "Mennonite," Reimer's sociological aesthetic makes it possible to establish new boundaries in Mennonite drama. (2)

DEFINING THE ISSUES

A significant increase in theater activity among North American Mennonites began approximately forty years ago as Mennonite colleges, congregations and church festivals and conferences began to incorporate drama in public celebrations. A number of playwrights were commissioned or otherwise encouraged to develop original material for these events. Many of these works were site- or event-specific in that they addressed themes associated with a particular place or time. (3)

Amid this flourishing of dramatic activity, paradox has also emerged for Mennonite playwrights. (4) Although nearly all of these plays received significant support for their first production, they have seldom been performed subsequently outside of their original contexts. Virtually all have suffered from a notable lack of revivals. Indeed, the Mennonite literary canon from the last forty years lacks even a single play that continues to be produced on a regular basis. In this sense, recent Mennonite plays fail to pass one essential test in aesthetics initially proposed by Immanuel Kant, the principle of repeatability. (5)

By contrast, the playwrights in this study, Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679), Hermann Sudermann (1856-1928) and Warren Kliewer (1931-1998), (6) did not write for commissions, Mennonite institutions or ecclesiastical festivals. …

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