Faith, Hope, Charity

Faith, Hope, Charity by Ödön von Horváth

Directed by Leonie Kubigsteltig
June-July 2011
Southwark Playhouse

Ödön von Horváth managed to write 18 plays and 3 novels in the mere 36 years of his itinerant life. These literary works were written in German, though he did not write his first German sentence until he was 14 years old. He wrote largely about the lower middle classes of Germany, yet he never gained German citizenship. When he won the prestigious Kleist Prize for his play Tales from the Vienna Woods in 1931, there was much gnashing of teeth among the Nazis over the triumph of the troublesome “young Hungarian”.

Horváth thus described his background: “If you ask me what is my native country, I answer: I was born in Fiume [in present-day Croatia], grew up in Belgrade, Budapest, Pressburg [Bratislava], Vienna and Munich, and I have a Hungarian passport, but I have no fatherland.” His father was a diplomat so well respected that he was ennobled with the preposition “von” in 1909. The privileged young son was not so diplomatic, however, disagreeing openly with a number of teachers during his school years. He dropped out of university to move in 1924 to that exciting world of artistic ferment, Berlin.

In those unsteady days of the Weimar Republic, he wrote for newspapers and his political leanings were decidedly leftwing. But as he observed the increasing agitation between the communists and the Nazis, he grew less political and more interested in the social and emotional lives of the German people, then undergoing the turmoil of an economy in crisis. He would often escape Berlin to stay in Murnau, a small town near Munich bordering on the Alps, where his parents owned a villa. The traditional folk play fascinated him, and he based his own work on its treatment of the simple problems of common people. He sought to appeal to their “instincts . . . and not to their intellect” with the disturbingly stylized mirror his work held up. In his plays, these members of the petite bourgeoisie speak a kind of “Educatese” of high German in a Bavarian dialect. It is an awkward, humorous fit, the language never quite sounding like it belongs to the socially aspiring yet mediocre folk.

In Munich Horváth drew the Nazis’ angry attention to himself, when, in 1931, after observing a great fight caused by their breaking up of a Socialist meeting, he boldly testified against them in two different courts. His play Italian Night (1931) depicted such a political meeting, and the unsettling nature of all of his work insured that his plays and books would be banned when the Nazis came to power and that he would eventually have to become a resident of Vienna. When the Germans invaded Austria, he went fled from one European city to another while continuing to write novels, two of his most popular works being completed in 1938, Youth without God and A Child of our Time. In Paris that year, after staying indoors on the 31st of May because of the dark prognostications of a clairvoyant, the superstitious Horváth ventured out to see the new film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and afterwards was killed when hit on the head by a falling rotten tree branch. No doubt he would have found some ironic humour in even this tragedy.