Case in point: a play written in Germany in 1937 by an Austro-Hungarian émigré who was already in some hot water with the emergent Nazis, but had decided to stick around as long as he could to examine the growing sociopolitical phenomenon at close range and comment on it in his art. Decades before Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe how ordinary folks unthinkingly became the enablers for Hitler’s rise to power, Ödön von Horváth set his drama Judgment Day (Der jüngste Tag) in a provincial town where knee-jerk conformity and petty mean-spiritedness on the part of the locals become metaphors for the willingness of everyday Germans to embrace the growth of fascism.
If von Horváth’s prescience is a bit unnerving, the plot of the drama also seems weirdly timely today: A railway stationmaster gets distracted when he’s kissed by a flirtatious young woman and forgets to throw the track switch for an approaching express train, causing it to plow into a slower freight train and kill 17 innocent people. Substitute texting for kissing and you’ve got a pretty contemporary news item (and just consider the popularity of the term “train wreck” in the media these days as a metaphor for extremely poor judgment, especially in terms of a celebrity’s public presentation). In the play, neither the stationmaster nor the woman is willing to take ownership of their guilt for the disaster; she perjures herself to protect him and the bourgeois townsfolk collude in trying to cover up the embarrassing incident.
Ödön von Horváth isn’t exactly a household name, although he is now finally beginning to achieve recognition as the second-greatest playwright of the Weimar Republic (after Bertolt Brecht, of course). Born in 1901, he had already won the prestigious Kleist Prize – the Republic’s most important literary award – for his 1931 play Tales from the Vienna Woods, which attempted to deflate the sentimentality implicit in Strauss’s musical work of the same name. But his satirical style and the sometimes overtly leftist political themes of his output did not sit well with the Nazis, and by the time Judgment Day came out, his dramas were being banned from German stages. It was his last play; forced to flee first to Vienna, then to Paris when Germany annexed Austria, he died within a year, at only 37 years of age – ironically killed by a falling tree limb during a thunderstorm.
After World War II ended, defeated Germany was still not keen on artistic reminders of where things went so badly wrong. It took the passing of a generation before von Horváth’s works started getting revived in the 1960s. More recently, they have found a champion in the English playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, best-known in these parts for his Oscar-winning movie adaptation of his play Dangerous Liaisons and his Oscar-nominated screenplay version of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement. Hampton seems fascinated by von Horváth; he has translated and adapted a number of his plays, including the version of Judgment Day currently being presented as part of Bard SummerScape, and even made a fictionalized surviving version of von Horváth the main character in his 1984 play and 1989 BBC movie Tales from Hollywood.
Judgment Day was a big hit in London last year, and it is to be hoped that American audiences will begin to develop an appreciation for von Horváth’s oeuvre with the coming of this new production to the Bard campus in Annandale. Acclaimed young Irish director Caitriona McLaughlin, associate director and general manager of London’s Playground Studio, is at the helm.
Judgment Day opened on July 14 in Theater Two of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts and continues its run through July 25, with performances on Wednesday and Sunday at 3 p.m. and Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $45 general admission, $36 for seniors, students and children. To order, or to obtain further information on this production and all other SummerScape events, call the Fisher Center box office at (845) 758-7900 or visit www.fishercenter.bard.edu.