The Broken Jug
is an eleven-scene satirical play by turn of the nineteenth-century German playwright Heinrich von Kleist. Written in 1806 after Kleist was challenged to produce a comedy, the play was first staged in 1808 by the renowned German literary titan Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The play’s humor works on several levels. On the most basic level, the play stages a trial to figure out who is responsible for breaking a ceramic jug – but the culprit also turns out to be the same person who tried to sexually assault a young woman in the village. “Breaking the jug” was a slang term for losing one’s virginity, so the play is riddled with double-entendres.
The play’s satire is aimed at the judicial system, which is built on ideals that simply cannot overcome the failings of human nature. Throughout the play, the audience knows that the judge who presides over the trial is actually the guilty man. Because of this, instead of being the objective arbiter of justice, the judge mostly just tries to desperately cover his tracks.
Finally, because the two people whose sexual encounter forms the core of the play’s premise are named Adam and Eve, the play recapitulates the Biblical story of the Fall. This time, however, it’s the man who is responsible for trying to corrupt the woman.
The first scenes of the play introduce us to Adam, a judge in Huisum, a small village near Utrecht in the Netherlands. One morning before court is in session, Adam appears covered in various injuries, including cuts on his face and a badly bruised leg. When his clerk Licht asks why the judge is so disheveled, Adam very unconvincingly lies that he had a mishap with a clothesline and a goat. Knowing his boss pretty well, Licht throws out a couple of double-entendres that tell the audience that a more likely explanation is some kind of sexual escapade. No matter how much the judge denies Licht’s implications, it is clear that Adam isn’t a trustworthy character.
Licht has news: Counselor Walter of the High Court at Utrecht has been touring neighboring villages to inspect their courts. In one village that wasn’t up to snuff, the clerk and the judge were fired, and the judge almost killed himself from shame. Today, Counselor Walter is coming to Huisum.
Adam freaks out because of the state of his court; just at that moment, Counselor Walter’s arrival is announced. Adam commits to his goat-and-clothesline story, but the Counselor won’t be put off. In a chaotically farcical scene, Adam tries to get dressed, realizes that his wig is missing, and is told by a servant that he didn’t have it with him when he came home after eleven o’clock the night before. Adam piles on even more denials, instead claiming that the cat has used his wig for its kittens.
Counselor Walter appears and demands that court proceed, wig or no wig. He claims that he is not expecting perfection – just business as usual.
The play’s last four scenes show us the trial that is on Adam’s docket for that day – someone has broken a jug belonging to Martha Rull, and she wants recompense from the guilty person. As the trial goes on, it is clear that whoever broke the jug is also responsible for either having sex with or raping the beautiful and honest Eve.
Martha accuses Ruprecht, a young man who is in love with Eve, but Ruprecht explains that he wasn’t really responsible for the damaged crockery. According to him, someone tried to force himself on Eve. When Ruprecht heard her calling for help, he ran to her room and broke Martha’s jug over the man’s head, but the would-be attacker fled out the window without Ruprecht seeing his face. Eve corroborates this story but refuses to reveal the identity of her attacker. This makes it seem as though both Eve and Ruprecht want to protect each other, and are making up the attacker to deflect attention from the fact that they had sex.
However, as more and more witnesses give their testimony about what they saw, the true picture of what happened emerges for the audience, and for Counselor Walter. Clearly, Adam is the guilty man. What is amazing is that the other villagers are so committed to seeing their judge as the voice of authority that they cannot conceive of him doing anything wrong. Only Licht asks Adam and the other witnesses questions that reveal Adam’s guilt.
Finally, when Adam is about to send Ruprecht to prison, Eve speaks up and decisively declares, “Judge Adam smashed the jug.” She explains that Adam had been trying to get her to sleep with him for some time and that last night he came to her room and told her that Ruprecht had been conscripted into the army. Since the young man would be leaving, Eve should now get with Adam instead.
Adam tries to once again deny the truth, but Ruprecht’s aunt Brigitte produces the final piece of evidence: Adam’s wig, which she saw falling off the head of a man jumping out of Eve’s window last night. Thus exposed as corrupt, Adam beats a hasty retreat from the villagers, escaping from their threatened violence.