Steve Martin may be the most famous name attached to The Underpants, but he wouldn’t be anywhere if not for the initial efforts of German dramatist Carl Sternheim.
“Sternheim’s play is ribald, satirical, self-referential, and quirky. I hope I have retained those elements and assured my place in heaven – I mean, served the playwright’s intentions,” Martin wrote in his introduction to the play.
Sternheim was born in 1878 to a wealthy family. This influx of cash – and a fortunate later marriage to an heiress – allowed him to throw off the middle class mantle he seemed to have been destined for and gave him the freedom to write for the theatre. While he fancied himself the German version of Moliere – The Underpants was in part based in part on some Moliere material – Sternheim’s strongest influence was found in the crowd-pleasing boulevard comedies he saw as a child at his uncle’s theatre, the Belle Alliance in Berlin.
Sternheim found success in the 1910s poking fun at the burgeoning German middle class in a series of plays he called “Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class,” of which The Underpants (1911) was included. Because of the lewdness of the title, something we at Long Wharf Theatre didn’t shy away from, the play was banned by censors. It took the intercession of a lovely actress with the police to get the play performed.
Sternheim’s world is one of bourgeois bureaucrats spouting nonsensical legalese and fretting over the tenuous hold they have on their small part of society. Martin took Sternheim’s original satirical genius, and layered on his own particular brand of comic absurdity.