Mihail Sebastian: Jocul de-a vacanța (The Holiday Game)
The #1936Club week may have ended, but my interest in the literature of that year hasn’t. I’ve read a number of other works dating from that year, as well as a few other books that relate to that. The #PlaysinMarch theme also continues, with this first play by one of my favourite Romanian authors, Mihail Sebastian, about whom I may have written once or twice before.
The play is popular in Romania, and has been frequently performed and filmed, both during Communist times and afterwards. It is usually perceived as a sprightly romantic comedy, but there is something less Noel Coward and more Arthur Schnitzler to its tone. Traditionally, in Romania (just like in France, Spain, Greece and other European countries with very hot summers) pretty much the entire country goes on holiday in August, and this is reflected in the play. Six mismatched holiday-makers are gathered that summer in a pleasant but rather isolated mountain chalet called Pension Weber. The six characters are: a retired major; an over-dramatic middle-aged woman Madame Vintilă (a bit of an Emma Bovary, one might say); Jeff, a schoolboy in his late teens who has to revise for his maths exam, but would much rather go off fishing or dreaming about girls; middle-aged lowly civil servant Bogoiu, who always dreamt of running away to sea; rude young man Ştefan Valeriu (the character also appears in Sebastian’s novel Women); last, but not least, young, cheery Corina, who tries to tease and befriend them all, solve all their problems, and generally be the social glue.
It starts off almost like a murder mystery. The radio is broken, the telephone is no longer working, and they haven’t received any newspapers or letters for several days. Even the bus doesn’t seem to be stopping on the main road close to them anymore.
MAJOR: Are they here? The newspapers (He looks through them, reading the dates out loud.) 28th July, 23rd July, 25th July. All out of date. No papers for the past five days. I can’t bear it anymore! If this goes on, we’re all going to be completely out of touch! Dumbed down. Not knowing what’s going on in the world. There might be a war on… The government might have fallen.
BOGOIU: So what? You worried they need your permission to fall?
MAJOR: Look here, sir, this is no joke! No time for jokes. This is serious. If we don’t get any newspapers today either, I’m done. I’m leaving. This is no life! No paper, no radio…
MADAME VINTILĂ: No letters, no phone…
MAJOR: Nothing but last week’s news to read. It’s enough to drive anyone to call out: ‘Bucharest, hey, can anyone hear me? Please answer!’
MADAME VINTILĂ: But they can’t hear us. No one can hear us. Not a soul. We’re stuck here in the middle of nowhere. Shipwrecked. Lost.
MAJOR (unhappy sigh): Ach!
MADAME VINTILĂ: Where are we? What island? What continent? Where?
[Corina appears at the top of the stairs. She looks even younger than her real age, which is twenty-five. She’s wearing pyjamas, which she is buttoning up as she comes down the stairs. She catches Madame Vintila’s last words]
CORINA: We’re right here! 342 kilometres from Bucharest, 36 km from Gheorghieni. Altitude: 1285 metres above sea level.
They soon realise that all of these mysterious events started when Ştefan Valeriu joined them – but he refuses to answer any of their questions, merely hogs the best chaise-longue and reads all day, or else goes off for walks by himself. Is he planning to isolate them from the rest of the world and murder them off one by one?
It soon emerges, however, that Ştefan has no murderous intentions: instead, he merely wants to forget about the wider world and escape reality. He wants the others to join in his game ‘playing at being on holiday’ – a proper holiday, which to his mind is a liminal world where they can shed their worries and identities from ‘back home’. He shows them how to construct an utopia where they can be anyone and do anything, be more truly themselves, live closer to their dreams, and forget that they will have to return to the everyday in a month’s time. Of course the game goes deeper than any of them could have imagined, and of course Ştefan and Corina fall in love. Jeff also hero-worships Corina, while Bogoiu is not immune to her charms either. In a touching moment, as the end of the holiday approaches, they stop seeing each other as rivals for Corina’s affections and instead imagine living with her in a little house somewhere, all three male dreamers – basically the same character at three different stages of his life. A bit like Snow White and the Three Dwarves!
There are few writers that capture that sense of wistful yearning to show your ‘own true self’, to be able to live your dreams, in a world that crushes your spirit daily than Sebastian. This desire to escape from reality, to create a cocoon of wellbeing and hope, while certainly a universal human longing, acquires added poignancy when you think of the time at which this play was written. From Sebastian’s journal, we know that he was already experiencing significant anti-semitism within his circle, and that he was very much aware and fearful of international developments.
He wrote this play in 1936, while he was inflamed by his love for actress and singer Leny Caler. Leni (as he liked to call her, he didn’t approve of all of that fancy ‘foreign’ spelling) was very popular at the time on the Bucharest stage and, despite being married, she was the muse and lover of many famous writers, including Camil Petrescu, who happened to be one of Sebastian’s best friends.
By the time Sebastian met and fell in love with her, her affair with Camil Petrescu was over, but she was somewhat half-hearted in her romance with Sebastian. The Holiday Game was written more or less as a bet: the author joked that within a month he would write a play with a great part for Leny. The young woman Corina is probably the Leny that he would have liked her to be: charming, cheerful, with all the men in love with her, yet very tender-hearted and loving underneath her facade. After a quarrel with Leny, he briefly considered giving the part to another actress, Marietta Sadova, but the latter profoundly disappointed him with her enthusiasm for the right-wing Guardist movement in Romania at the time. So it was back to Leny, who was Jewish like him. Meanwhile, Valeriu appears to be a stand-in for the author, an outsider, doomed to forever stand on the edge of any social gathering, observing, often accused of judging, of not being a ‘team-player’.
The play premiered in September 1938 and was an instant hit. Both the sparky writing and Leny’s performance were admired – and yet the play closed down after a rather limited run. The pretext was that Leny had to go on a tour, but after she returned, there was no attempt to restage the play. Anti-semitic sentiment and the fear of war were making it difficult for either of them to be fully active on the Bucharest stage right then.
The great love of Sebastian’s life was probably not equally enamoured of him. She was clearly charmed by his writing, and keen to have good parts written for her, but she was rather coquettish, handling several affairs simultaneously, and not that attracted to him physically. I cannot help thinking she might have been the model for the self-absorbed Ann from the Sebastian novel The Accident – and that the author finally realised just how wrong she was for him. However, in this play Corina very much represents the ideal woman – with just the right winning combination of playfulness, high energy, earnest childish candour and wistful maturity. I suppose nowadays you might call her the manic pixie dream girl, although she is clearly the equal or superior of any of the male characters, and has a life and purpose of her own rather than being a mere plot device to draw out our brooding, solitary hero.
As one of the classics of Romanian theatre, the play is usually performed almost like a farce. I’ve included here a short clip (in Romanian) that veers in that direction, but is nevertheless fun, a production made for Romanian TV.
Sadly, this play is not available in English just yet [although, publishers or theatre groups, if you’re listening, I’ve translated the first act already, so…]. However, a later (and arguably far more polished) play by Sebastian has recently been translated by Gabi Reigh: The Star with No Name is available from Aurora Metro Books.
As is usual in my case, I fell into a bit of a Sebastian rabbit-hole, and read the very long novel Sebastian by Gelu Diaconu, which talks about Sebastian’s love for Leny and the writing of this play in particular. (It also talks about his life during the war and the day of his death – as he walks through the streets of post-war Bucharest, sees all the bombsites and meets friends.) I quite liked that aspect of it, although most of the descriptions and events would be familiar to anyone who has read Sebastian’s Journal. It did provide me with some new insights, such as that my old friend Margareta Sterian was friends with Sebastian.
However, there are two additional time-frames to this story: we also see the growing interest in the fate of Romanian Jews during the Second World War by Paul, a journalist starting to make his mark just after the 1989 revolution. His marriage is rapidly disintegrating, but he becomes obsessed with getting hold of Sebastian’s missing letters to Leny, which were allegedly destroyed when Leny’s house was bombed. The story is further complicated by the fact that in the present-day Paul might also be the father of a young photographer who works with him, Robert, or else simply his mother’s first husband. When Paul dies, Robert inherits his papers and starts exploring Sebastian’s life and loves, making comparisons with his own relationship with the flighty actress Maria.
The two more modern time-frames were far less interesting, particularly the contemporary, not sure they added much value. I was above all annoyed by the detailed descriptions of Maria’s naked body, especially the repetitive use of the word ‘imberb’ (beardless) to describe her sex (it must have been used at least fifteen times during the novel). It felt like a misguided attempt to make the book seem relevant to a younger generation. So a bit of a waste of time to plough through 627 pages just for a few fresh glimpses of Mihail Sebastian. Would not recommend.