Christopher Hampton on Odon von Horvath:
The critic Jean-Claude François memorably described Ödön von Horváth as “the black book of the Third Reich”: by which he meant that no other writer documented more circumstantially than Horváth the day-to-day experience of life in Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War. Bertolt Brecht, for example, sitting in exile in Scandinavia, wrote of Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, a title which could have covered any amount of émigré writing; for those in self-imposed exile, what seemed salient were the crimes and atrocities of the Nazi régime. But for those, like Horváth, who remained, what seemed striking was how little the texture of everyday life had changed, despite the manifest insanity of the truculently self-righteous posse of morons so wilfully handed power by the German electorate in 1933.
At the time of the election, Horváth, then 31, was at the peak of his career and had a powerful new play Glaube Liebe Hoffnung (Faith, Hope and Charity), in rehearsal. The play was not allowed to open, Horváth’s parents’ house in Bavaria was turned over by the SA [Nazi stormtroopers] and, like so many other artists, Horváth skipped the country. He was away for a year: in Budapest, he renewed his Hungarian passport and in Vienna he married a Jewish opera-singer, Maria Elsner, to provide her with a passport, he later explained. Meanwhile, he was routinely attacked in the Nazi press: when, in 1931, he had won the prestigious Kleist prize, the Völkischer Beobachter described him as a “Salonkulturbolschewist” (a high-society Bolshevist) and accused him of staining the flag of the Reich; and in the same year he was in court after becoming involved in a brawl with Nazis in a bar. And yet, in 1934, he headed back to Berlin. Why?
He wanted to be able to study National Socialism at close quarters, he said: and so he did. The seven plays and two novels that poured out in the short time remaining to him are a compendium of the petty prejudices and rancorous suspicions of an era of epic mean-mindedness. “It may seem grotesque,” he wrote, “at a time like this, unstable as it is, and when no one knows what tomorrow may bring, to set oneself a programme of writing plays. All the same, I make so bold as to do so, even though I have no idea what I’m going to eat tomorrow.”
Judgment Day was the last of Horváth’s plays to be performed during his lifetime. He missed the premiere, in the unenticing Czechoslovakian town of Mährisch-Ostrau, where the play ran for only four performances, because he was hard at work on his novel, Ein Kind Unserer Zeit (A Child of our Time). Horváth had turned (or returned) to the novel the previous year, no doubt demoralised by the near-impossibility of getting his plays performed in Germany, and had scored perhaps the greatest success of his career with the novel Jugend Ohne Gott (Youth Without God). This novel is in many ways a companion-piece to Judgment Day; both are built around a protagonist (in one case a station-master; in the other a teacher of history and geography) who lies under oath and then is tormented by his conscience until such time as he confesses; and both have religious and supernatural elements. Both, in other words, deal with guilt: and it may well be that Horváth’s project – to describe Nazi Germany from the inside – brought with it a heavy burden of guilt. He had been obliged, for example, in order to be able to take the screenwriting jobs which sustained him in Berlin, to become a member of the Nazi Writers’ Union, the ‘Reichsverband Deutscher Schriftsteller’, as it called itself with characteristic self-importance.
Guilty or not, Horváth was punished for his success in spectacular fashion. In 1938, when, after the Anschluss, he had finally decided to abandon ship and emigrate to America, he was invited to Paris to discuss, with the director Robert Siodmak, writing a screenplay based on Youth Without God. After their lunch, encouraged by Siodmak, Horváth took himself off to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a cinema on the Champs Élysées. Afterwards, as he strolled back to his hotel, a sudden storm blew up. Horváth joined a group of people sheltering under a giant chestnut tree outside the Théâtre Marigny; a few moments later he was killed instantly by a falling branch; no one else was injured.
For me, Judgment Day is the renewal of an old friendship. The first Horváth play I translated, the monumental Tales From the Vienna Woods, appeared in the first Olivier Theatre season, 1976-7. I worked on a screenplay of this with Maximilian Schell, who directed the film; and then tackled (for the Cottesloe) another of his strange and haunting late plays, never performed in his lifetime, Don Juan Comes Back From the War. Then, in the eighties, I made Horváth the central character in my play Tales from Hollywood, in which I imagined he had escaped the falling branch on the Champs Élysées and set him down among a group of famous German émigré writers in Los Angeles. Finally, I translated, in 1989, Faith, Hope and Charity, which Heribert Sasse directed at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Judgment Day was the first of Horváth’s plays to be mounted after the war – in the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna. As it happens, that same theatre has revived the play this season and will shortly be premiering my adaptation of Youth Without God. In the German-speaking theatre (and in France, where a controversial production of his Kasimir und Karoline is playing at the Avignon Festival) Horváth has been a constant presence in the repertoire, and his influence on a younger generation of writers – Franz-Xaver Kroetz, Peter Handke, above all Rainer Werner Fassbinder, many of whose films are steeped in Horváth – is incalculable. By contrast, I feel that we in Britain have a long way to go, before we could be said to be doing him justice. The old boy is out of copyright now: all the more reason to pay him a little more concentrated attention.