Ödön von Horváth: Don Juan Comes Back from the War (transl. Christopher Hampton) and Figaro Gets Divorced (transl. Ian Huish), Oberon Books.
Who better to provide the bridge between my Plays in March reading project and my dedication to the year 1936 in April than one of my old loves, a true representative of the diversity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Ödön von Horváth? Born in Croatia, descended from a Hungarian family, educated in Slovakia and Vienna, adopting German as his preferred language for writing, Horváth was also one of the first writers to warn about the rising tide of Fascism. Needless to say, by 1936 he was banned in Germany and was pretty much a refugee himself, so both of these plays (Don Juan Come Back from the War was written in 1936, Figaro Gets Divorced in the following year) depict realities well-known to him, as well as notorious fictional heroes.
What I didn’t know was that the playwright was himself a bit of a ladies’ man and that he was in equal parts fascinated and repelled by the figure of Don Juan, and thought of writing something about him for more than a decade. Given the unforgiving way in which he portrays men who trample on women’s feelings generally (I’m thinking also of Tales of the Vienna Woods), he was not proud of his conquests.
In this play, Don Juan the inveterate womaniser and anti-hero returns from something very much resembling the First World War in a gloomy, despairing frame of mind. He has realised the banality and futility of his existence and is hell-bent on finding the one he believes to be the only true love of his life (even though he cannot remember what she looks like). However, she died during the war, and he is not as much of a changed man as he would like to think he is. He becomes once more embroiled in all sorts of intrigues with women, he is practically the victim of female intrigue and of his own desire to find perfection. There is just one man – Don Juan himself – and 35 women in the play (although the 35 are played by a much smaller number of actresses, because they all represent variations on the same type), of all ages and backgrounds. Set against a background of German and Austrian defeat in the First World War, this is very much a play about loss of innocence and hope, of a man (and a country) hurtling towards the inevitable.
I thought this play was slight, too superficial, compared to some of his other ones, and this may be because Don Juan just never comes across as a truly thoughtful or reformed character. By contrast, Figaro Gets Divorced was far more interesting. The Count and Countess Almaviva are on the run from a revolution with their servants Figaro and Susanna (Horváth is clear that this is not specifically the 1789 French Revolution, but any revolution); they have crossed the border, they are now exiles fighting bureaucracy, struggling to survive financially. Suddenly, none of the old rules apply anymore. The Count has to sell his jewellery for far less than its value (the market is flooded with ‘refugee diamonds’). He can no longer stomach Figaro’s forthright advice:
A person who wants to be considered part of my retinue should not always be telling me his opinion, even if it is the right one, he should rather lie to me, unconditionally agreeing with everything I say…
So Figaro and Susanne leave their masters and open up a hairdressing salon in the small village of Grosshadersdorf. However, they are still viewed with suspicion as ‘refugees’ and soon become the victims of vicious gossip: ‘I’ve been saying for ages that these foreigners should never have been allowed in, they’re corrupting our whole moral climate!’
The couple splits up and Figaro heads back to his homeland, where he joins the revolutionaries, who display all the extreme behaviour, brainwashing and rewriting of the past that we might expect after seeing the Soviets and so many other revolutionaries bring in new social rules. Figaro is at first viewed with suspicion for following his master into exile, but he soon wins the crowd over with his customary quick-wittedness and persuasive skills, as we are used in seeing from Beaumarchais, Rossini and Mozart. Yet beneath the black humour, there is a profound disillusionment with the world, a mere survival instinct coming to the fore.
No man is more hated nor more despised in this world than an honest man with a brain. There’s only one way out. You have to make a decision: honesty or intelligence. If you choose honesty, you have to make sacrifices. If you choose intelligence then others make the sacrifices.
Who was our good Count anyway? A man of substance who imagined he had a brain of substance!… Birth, wealth, class and rank made him proud. And what had he done, our good Count, to earn so many advantages? He took the bother to be born and that was the only work he ever did in his life, the rest of it he frittered, fopped and fiddled away.
And yet, when the Count too returns to his former domain and is promptly arrested and sentenced to death, Figaro is the one who stops the over-zealous young boys from attacking him. When they cry out that he is a criminal and should be shot at once, Figaro reminds them:
…if you should meet Count Almaviva then you greet him respectfully… because he is an old man and you are snotty little kids, and if he has committed any crime then he certainly won’t be waiting for you to pass sentence… Be careful, perhaps when you get old, they’ll be saying every orphan’s a criminal and there will only be counts left and the counts’ll lock up all orphans and shoot them…
What could account for the change of heart? Figaro, very much like Horváth himself, comes to distrust all revolutions, or any ideology that sets itself up above common decency and humanity. In the brief preface to the play, he says the following:
Humanity is not accompanied by any storms, it is only a weak light in the darkness. Let us hope all the same that no storm, however great, is able to extinguish it.
If I ever get asked about ideal dinner party guests, I would certainly include Ödön von Horváth and Mihail Sebastian. As far as I am aware, they did not know each other, although they lived at roughly the same time and were both playwrights (and both died in freak accidents) – but I like to imagine they’d have got on splendidly.