Thanks to Goethe House New York, local audiences are being given a rare opportunity to acquaint themselves with an early 19th-century German work considered a comic masterpiece by drama scholars -- Heinrich von Kleist's "The Broken Pitcher."
"Probably based on historical facts," according to Kleist, it is a tale of justice threatened and restored, corruption on the magisterial bench, and virtue finally triumphant.
The central figure in the 1808 legal fracas is Justice Adam (George Ede), who presides over the court in a village near Utrecht, Mistress Martha Rull (Sylvia Short) is bringing charges against Ruprecht Puddle (Gary Kingsolver) for breaking her prized pitcher in the course of a forbidden nocturnal visit to her daughter, Eve (Marta Heflin), Ruprecht's fiancee.
Arrived to observe the proceedings is District Judge Walter (Richard M. Davidson), who finds himself hard pressed to preserve some kind of order in Adam's disorderly courtroom. As the action develops and the parade of peasant witnesses tell their stories, it becomes increasingly evident that the lustful justice is the real culprit. He had promised to release Ruprecht from military service in Indonesia (an Adam fiction) in return for Eve's favors. The justice's head wounds were actually caused by the falling pitcher when he fled through Eve's window upon the timely arrival of Ruprecht to the rescue.
The dramatic substance of "The Broken Pitcher" lies in the robustness of its comic action, its satiric and sympathetic portraiture, and underlying humanity. Considering the scant opportunities enjoyed by American actors to test themselves in such distinctly European period dramas, the cast at the Martinique Theater acquits itself honorably. While the authentic flavor of time and locale may only be approximated, there is no want of energy in the performance.
Mr. Ede blusters, cajoles, threatens, puffs out his cheeks and throws periodic tantrums as the rascally justice. Miss Short's Mistress Rull spares not even her innocent daughter in her fusillade of accusations. Miss Helfin and Mr. Kingsolver are appealing young rustic lovers. The production is particularly well served by Larry Pine as the opportunistic court clerk and Mr. Davidson as the suavely perceptive district judge.
"The Broken Pitcher" is being acted in a playable new version by Jon Swan and is performed without intermission. Although this helps dramatic momentum, the comedy proves but intermittently amusing. Perhaps we are too far removed from this early 19th-century tale, with its folkish milieu and foolishness. Nevertheless, the revival has its rewards.