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.

Plays in March: Arthur Schnitzler vs. Noel Coward

I was going to call this attempt to read mainly theatrical works in March ‘Drama in March’, but in fact both Coward’s and Schnitzler’s plays reviewed in this post are considered comedies, although one might argue that they veer between farce and satire, with a good dose of sadness or anger as well. You’re not going to find out much about the plot of any of these, because… well, there is either too much of a plot, (too many characters and intrigues), or else nothing at all.

Arthur Schnitzler: Comedy of Seduction – Komödie der Verführung 1924

As if to really drive home the point, one of the plays even has the word ‘comedy’ in its title, just in case we might take it too seriously. Of course, given the Viennese propensity for finding darkness in even the cheeriest of subjects, it is obviously a tragicomedy, featuring betrayal, a couple of suicides and the outbreak of the First World War. Hilarious!

The action takes place between 1st of May and 1st of August 1914, and the rather large cast of characters are mostly aristocrats and wealthy bankers (or living off their family inheritance), or else artists – writers and musicians – who are moving in these circles but without having the same kind of wealth to splurge, therefore doomed to be hangers-on. As always with Schnitzler, the two main topics here are love and death, and the imminence of war turns this comedy of errors into something more profound. It starts off with a masked ball, so we instantly are transported to a Venice carnival atmosphere, or a Mozart opera of confused identities and easily switched love affairs and allegiances. There are seducers of either gender: philandering young Max, who cannot resist any woman he meets, and Aurelie, the duchess courted and coveted by most of the men in the play, but reluctant to get married to anyone.

Musil and Kafka both derided Schnitzler’s plays as being too superficial. It is true that this has all the charm and cheekiness of Watteau or Fragonard paintings, but beneath the frivolity, none of the characters are truly happy. They are all searching for something – for a connection to others, for true love, for their own identity, for something that they can’t quite articulate or find. Aurelie says at some point: ‘I fear it and yet I love it, to be alone again, between one joy and another, between one desire and another, between one death and another.’ Each of the characters ends up being terribly alone, often very sad. As for the suicidal gestures, it could be argued that it’s a metaphor for a society plunging into a large-scale form of suicide.

Not frequently performed, Im Spiel der Sommerlufte is here played by Junge Schauspiel Ensemble München, 2009.

Schnitzler: Light Summer Air – Im Spiel der Sommerlüfte – 1929

This play is much slighter and frothier, although it was written just after his daughter’s suicide and was Schnitzler’s last finished play. The action is set a little further back in time, at the end of the 19th century, a more innocent time. It takes place over the course of two days in a holiday village in Lower Austria, a short train hop away from Vienna. A famous sculptor is holidaying here with his rather discontented wife, teenage son and his wife’s niece, an aspiring actress. The sculptor is a bit of a domestic tyrant and a serious philanderer – Schnitzler is perhaps making fun of himself here, for he certainly was not immune to the charm of actresses throughout his lifetime. There are ominous rumbles of thunder for most of the play, predicting a storm. When the storm comes, both literally and metaphorically, it gives people a momentary respite from politeness. Yet in the world depicted here, being honest and stating your true feelings are almost considered crimes. Wanting more in life and giving in to your desires in the mad heat of summer cannot lead to any lasting change. After the storm things seem to be somewhat resolved. however, any solution is only temporary or perhaps illusory. Things go back to their not entirely satisfactory everyday, and readers cannot help thinking that the naive schoolboy, the dashing young soldier, the dull but worthy young doctor will soon all end up as cannon fodder.

Noel Coward’s youthful plays Hay Fever (1925) and Easy Virtue (1926) are far less earnest. In fact, it is hard to believe they were written around the same time as Schnitzler’s plays, because they are all about escapism, with no hint at all of the war. Yet here too we have a good dose of satire. Under the veneer of charm and wealth, these are self-absorbed, privileged families who are careless about other people (even when those people are their guests). They are perfectly willing to trample on others to get their own way – or even for their own amusement. These are the utterly ruthless people that F. Scott Fitzgerald talked about in The Great Gatsby – all the more dangerous because they don’t even recognise that they are doing anything wrong. The matriarch Judith in Hay Fever, a retired actress, is so busy putting on a show for herself and others, that no one can figure out what is real anymore.

Picture from a Hay Fever revival at Stratford Festival, Ontario, 2014.

Coward was attracted by English high society, yet aware that he was never going to be fully accepted there: he was the wrong class and the wrong sexual orientation, no matter how talented and charming a social butterfly he was striving to become. In Easy Virtue in particular, he exposes the hypocrisy of a very stuffy upper middle-class family, when they find out that their beloved only son has married a glamorous American divorcée with a past (foreshadowing the affair that led to the abdication of Edward VIII, but also reminiscent of the whole current Meghan and Harry shenanigans). The fittingly-named Larita is initially bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but gradually loses her illusions and understands she will never be accepted by her husband’s family and that he isn’t strong enough to stand up for her. Larita is punished for being too open and honest, for responding to accusations and indignations in a cool, ironical way and refusing to be browbeaten.

These plays are nearly a hundred years old, but they don’t feel too dated, despite the lavish display of wealth and the servants putting up with the bad behaviour of their masters. Clearly, snobbishness, greediness, selfishness never go out of fashion!

Reading Plans for First Third of 2021

While it is true that I didn’t get to read as much as I planned in the September-December time-frame, I found that having a bit of a plan for the final quarter of the year (or third, to be precise) did give me additional motivation. 2021 doesn’t look like it will be any less busy, but I will repeat this reading planning model for January-April. Of course, I keep it fairly flexible, allowing myself to add random books that capture my fancy, or offer me the thrill of transgression without being too constrained by the rules. Most of these books are on my shelves already, so that gets rid of my ‘far too many unread books’ concerns.

January = January in Japan

I have already read Tokyo Ueno Station but intend to reread parts of it for reviewing. I also plan two further rereads: two of my favourite Japanese books of all time – Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku in a new translation and Mishima Yukio’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (it was the first novel that I read in the original Japanese all the way through back in my student days). I also intend to read some more by Tshushima Yuko (Dazai’s daughter). The Shooting Gallery is a collection of her short stories. I’ll also read short stories by Higuchi Ichiyo, one of the first professional women writers of Japan, who described the plight of the working classes.

February = Canada

In Canada it will still be lovely and wintry weather in February – real winter, with pure white snow and skiing. Perhaps nicer to read about than to live through it. So I have a nice selection of Canadian authors to hand. Dorian Stuber has been trying to get all his bookish Twitter friends to read Marian Engel’s Bear, so I’ll finally do him the favour! Carol Shields’ Mary Swann is about a latter-day Emily Dickinson who is killed soon after handing her manuscripts over to an editor – and becomes a bit of a posthumous sensation. I love Anne Carson as a poet and look forward to reading some of her essays as well in Plainwater. Inger Ash Wolfe is the crime writing pseudonym of author Michael Redhill, in case I feel the need for a bit of lighter reading. Last but not least, the only French language writer I seem to have from Canada on my shelves is Mathieu Boutin L’Oreille absolue, about two violonists, one young and ambitious, the other midlle-aged and depressed.

March = Drama All the Way

Scene from a production of The Holiday Game at the Maria Filotti Theatre in Braila, Sebastian’s home town.

This month will pave the ground for the next month, so I will be reading plays. Something I very rarely do nowadays, although I was very keen on reading (and performing) plays back in my late teens. I will reread The Holiday Game by Mihail Sebastian (which I am hoping to translate at some point if a friendly publisher decides it’s worth pursuing), as well as two Austrian favourites Arthur Schnitzler and Ödön von Horvath. Last but not least, something by Noel Coward, who also falls roughly into that time period. Which time period, you ask? Why, the one that I will be immersed in for April… If there is time, I might revisit Oscar Wilde’s plays, all of which I adored as a teenager, even Salome, which is less well-known.

April = #1936Club

The reading club dedicated to one specific year of publishing only lasts a week, but I intend to extend my reading to the whole month. The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that Mihail Sebastian’s play was written that year (although not performed until 1938 – very briefly), and that Horvath also had two plays that appeared that year. Additionally, I also intend to read Max Blecher’s Occurence in the Immediate Unreality, Karel Capek’s War with the Newts and Mircea Eliade’s Miss Cristina, all published in 1936 and all East European. If I have time, I’d also like to read a book about Mihail Sebastian (a novel rather than a biography) by Gelu Diaconu, entitled simply Sebastian.

Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – the Classics

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I inherited some of these classics in cheap editions from my parents, who felt they had to provide me with a good selection of English-language classics, but couldn’t afford to spend too much money on them. They hadn’t necessarily read them themselves (hence the faux pas in allowing me to read Tom Jones and Moll Flanders at the tender age of 11 or so). I steadily added to them, and not just because I studied English literature. They are still books where I can find solace and fun again and again. Most of them are very well known, no obscurities here, so I shall instead highlight three of my favourites, and it was hard to keep it to just three. I also wanted to include Daphne du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford, Oscar Wilde…

Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays

Marlowe is a fascinating and mysterious character in his own right, and this has led to a renewed interest in his plays. But he was also a very talented writer, a real poet, and who knows how he might have developed if he had not been killed at such an early age. Tamburlaine should be performed nowadays, because it offers an alternative discourse to the Christian tradition. For all of Tamburlaine’s failings as a human, for all of his tyrannical tendencies, he is also presented as a figure to inspire admiration. He becomes wiser and more inspirational in death than he ever was in life. Meanwhile, Doctor Faustus is full of compassion for a man’s self-delusion and flaws: in his pursuit of absolute beauty and knowledge, Faustus hurts himself above all. Talk about unlikeable characters, and yet making the audience empathise with them!

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy

The most eccentric, wildly experimental, iconoclastic novel of all times, it just breaks all the rules and gets away with it with humour and brilliant characterisation. Who can resist the bumbling good-hearted charm of Uncle Toby? Or the pedantic and stubborn Mr Shandy who picks up an opinion as a man might pick up an apple, it becomes his own, and he would rather lose his life than give it up? Who can forget the scene when Tristram’s mother reminds her husband to wind up the clock at a crucial moment? It is not a book for everyone. Parts of it are frustrating, repetitive and dull. Some are an absolute riot. It’s not a book to read all in one sitting. It’s made for dipping in and out, for going off on a tangent, for experiencing the sheer joy and exuberance of language and storytelling. Let me try and reproduce one of my favourite parts, the beginning of Chapter XL, in which the narrator describes his storytelling style.

The Portable Dorothy Parker

Although she is much quoted for her mordant wit (and this Viking Portable edition of her works has never been out of print), I can’t help feeling that Dorothy Parker is underestimated. She is not just facile poetry and satire, just like Jane Austen is not proto-chick lit. Her life and her circle of rather second-rate but very sociable writers have overshadowed her literary accomplishments. Her poetry is minx-like and acerbic, and can feel a little dated nowadays, although it’s what she is best remembered for (and her dismissive, corrosive reviews of plays and books). But in her short stories she can take off her plastic mask and display real emotions, all the fragility of life and love. Her frantic soliloquies like The Telephone Call  or The Little Hours will be instantly recognisable to those who have waited for a lover to call or struggled with insomnia. They sound wholly natural, like the unfiltered blog posts of today, but are in fact much harder to do than it looks. Not a word is out of place. And then there is the heartbreaking, unsentimental drama of The Lovely Leave or Big Blonde. She takes the smallest of canvases, and paints all our fears of mortality and of being alone and unloved.