Early #1936Club, Late #PlaysinMarch Post

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.

Scene from Don Juan kommt aus dem Krieg at the Salsburger Festspiele 2014.

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.

Plays in March: Linda by Penelope Skinner

Roughly two years ago, I saw a play at RADA which made for unforgettable viewing. I was so impressed by the young actors, but also by the script itself, that I bought it in book format. For my Plays in March personal reading goal, I read it and was once more bowled over, even though it was still so fresh in my mind.

The play was Linda by Penelope Skinner, who has been described as one of the leading young feminist playwrights in the UK, and has also been reviewed as feisty, gutsy, rageful. Interestingly, Penelope has a sister, Ginny Skinner, who writes mainly graphic novels. Together, they have been commissioned to write a thriller series for the BBC ‘The Following Events Are Based On A Pack Of Lies’, which I for one can’t wait to see.

Linda of the title is the main protagonist of the play, of the generation of dual-shift women (career and home), the women who supposedly had it all. She is, as she never ceases to remind us, an award-winning professional, a middle-aged career woman, wife and mother who sees everything she fought for all her life slipping through her fingers. Yet the play is full of women and girls of different ages – late twenties, early twenties, teens… who are even more confused about their place in the world. They see the cracks in Linda’s life all too clearly and are sure they don’t want that – but they are not sure what they want instead, or indeed what is possible for them.

Linda is being sidelined by her boss for a project on marketing cosmetics to middle-aged women in favour of a younger work rival who has caught the eye of her boss, just like she did when she was a young single mother. She’s not going to go quietly, but life on the home front is not helping either: her husband is having a very predictable midlife crisis and affair, her older daughter has abandoned her studies and not come out of the house and her onesie in years, her younger daughter feels neglected and resentful. Yet everybody leans on her, the quintessential strong woman. She is not allowed to have a moment’s weakness or failure, to acknowledge any vulnerability. And Linda at the outset of the play has certainly bought into the myth of her own strength and infallibility and sounds a bit like the Lean In Sheryl Sandberg woman:

An award-winning businesswoman and I didn’t even go to university. Mother of two. Gorgeous husband. I can change a tyre, I own my own home, dinner-party guests marvel at my home-made croquembouche and I still fit into the same size-ten dress suit I did fifteen years ago. I’ve washed brushed groomed plucked shaved painted injected dyed dieted oh God I’ve dieted. My whole life I’ve been watching what I eat and watching what I say and watching how I walk how I talk what I wear. Because that’s what you have to do when you’re a woman, girls… I’ve made it to the top and believe me if I can do it you can do it. If you’re prepared to do the work? You really can have it all.

Her daughter Alice remonstrates that maybe systemic racism or sexism might get in your way, but Linda at first just says you have to think positive. What follows is of course the dismantling of Linda’s optimism, proving that Alice was right all along, although the daughter is a passive observer rather than a fighter. The characters seem far less annoying in reading than in watching them onstage, which just goes to show how much life a director and an actor can bring to words on a page.

More than two years have passed since I saw the play and this time I’ve come to it with a very different attitude and experience, and it resonated with me differently. When I saw it performed, I was still going through the never-ending divorce, so of course the exchanges with Linda’s husband resonated most:

Every year I send you an email reminder that my birthday’s coming up. And the reason I do that is because I know deep down if I don’t do it you won’t remember and your not remembering will be so painful that I won’t be able to bear it… I do everything in this house and the reason I do everything is because I thought at the very least you were loyal. And reliable. And as it turns out you’re not. So now I look at you and I see you for what you are: you’re an ornament.

Reading it this time, in the week between International Women’s Day and Mothering Sunday, when there was so much vitriol being flung about women’s safety and bodies, the whole lack of progress made me very, very angry. Particularly that moving epilogue, showing a younger Linda holding a hopeful speech about the wider culture moving on in ten years and becoming a better place for women of all ages. A hopeful speech that we know ends in tragedy. A soap bubble of a dream that we seem to chase every generation or so, which bursts just as we are about to tighten our grasp on it.