The eighth annual Bard SummerScape presents Judgment Day (“Der jüngste Tag”), a gripping 1937 drama by Austro-Hungarian Ödön von Horváth, one of the most talented playwrights of his generation. A runaway hit of last fall’s theater season in London, Judgment Day implicitly investigates the roots of Nazism among Austria-Hungary’s ordinary working people. The new production from acclaimed young Irish director Caitriona McLaughlin, in translation from the German by Academy Award-winner Christopher Hampton, will be presented in ten performances between July 14 and 25. Performances will take place in Theater Two of the Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on Bard College’s stunning Hudson River campus.
After Brecht, Ödön von Horváth (1901-38) was probably the greatest playwright of the Weimar Republic, and one of the few who recognized the approach of fascism or grasped the underlying social trends that produced it. An Austro-Hungarian who identified as German, he won the prestigious Kleist Prize – the Republic’s most important literary award – for his 1931 play, Tales from the Vienna Woods (“Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald”). Its title an allusion to Johann Strauss II’s waltz, the play was a reaction to the sentimentalized depictions of Vienna that prevailed. This year’s Bard Music Festival – from which its umbrella festival, SummerScape, takes its creative inspiration – presents “Berg and His World,” and von Horváth shared many of the great Austrian composer’s concerns. Indeed, like Berg’s Wozzeck (1924), for example, Tales from the Vienna Woods addresses women’s social predicament and satirizes bourgeois values and kitsch.
However, it was the premiere of von Horváth’s preceding play, Italian Night (“Italienische Nacht”, 1930), that won the playwright sudden notoriety, for here his critique was not only social but overtly political, and his portrayal of a confrontation between Bavarian leftists and Nazis led to attacks in the Nazi press. Nonetheless, instead of emigrating in the early 1930s like so many of his colleagues, von Horváth initially remained in Berlin to study National Socialism at first hand. The result is a body of work bearing invaluable witness to the callous and petty nature of everyday life under fascism, which would culminate in his final play, Judgment Day (1937). By this time, however, Hitler’s rise to power had forced the dramatist to flee Berlin for Vienna, his works banned from the stage. When the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, von Horváth left for Paris, only to be killed in a tragic accident that same year, when, while walking in the Champs-Elysées during a thunderstorm, he was struck by a falling tree branch.
Even after the Nazi ban on his works was lifted, many years passed before von Horváth’s works received the exposure and recognition that were their due. This neglect owed in part to their creator’s untimely death, but primarily to the fact that postwar Germany was not yet ready to confront its Nazi past. However, for a younger generation keen to arm itself against future fascist outbreaks, a deeper understanding was key, and the restoration of von Horváth’s works to the repertory played a vital part in achieving it. In 1961, a selection of his plays was published, and two years later the Ödön von Horváth Archive opened in West Berlin. Each year saw more of his works produced, and many of these stagings received intelligent reviews from leading drama critics in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.
In the English-speaking world, von Horváth productions have proved as well-received as they are rare. A runaway hit of the fall 2009 season in London, von Horváth’s Judgment Day is, according to the city’s Independent newspaper, “a fascinating drama about guilt and the compulsion towards conformism in small communities.” The Guardian likewise pronounced the play a “gripping moral fable,” and praised von Horváth’s ability “to find historical resonance in a local tragedy,” while the Daily Telegraph confessed, “One leaves the theater impatient to see more of Horváth’s morally complex and highly atmospheric work.”
Endowed with topical themes and a compelling plot and characters, Judgment Day is the story of an unhappily married stationmaster in a small town who causes a fatal train crash when he allows a flirtatious young woman to distract him from his duties. The girl perjures herself to defend him, and support for her lie poisons the town, drawing everyone deeper into a moral abyss. Written in 1937, only two years after Berg’s death, the play’s marriage of expressionist and realist elements evokes the composer’s work, while chillingly capturing the story of what translator Christopher Hampton called the “petty prejudices and rancorous suspicions of an era of epic mean-mindedness.” As the Daily Variety concludes, in its review of the London production, “von Horváth was asking dangerous questions about his own time – [the stationmaster] clearly represents those who were standing by ‘doing their duty’ as Fascism descended on his native Austria-Hungary – that still resonate.”
Besides Judgment Day, Christopher Hampton has translated Tales from the Vienna Woods, Figaro Gets Divorced, Faith, Hope and Charity, and two novels – The Age of Fish and Don Juan Returns from the War – by von Horváth, “whose reputation Hampton has done much to revive” (Guardian, UK). The British translator, screenwriter, and playwright won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1988 for the screen adaptation of his play Dangerous Liaisons, and was nominated again in 2007 for adapting Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement.
Bard SummerScape’s new production of Judgment Day is directed by acclaimed young Irish director Caitriona McLaughlin, Associate Director and General Manager of London’s Playground Studio, whose work was recently described as “atmospheric and seductively intimate” (Time Out). With sets designed by Mimi Lien, winner of the 2005 Barrymore Award for Outstanding Set Design, and costumes by Kaye Voyce, whose extensive credits range from Broadway to the Royal Shakespeare Company, the new production opens on July 14 and runs for ten performances (July 14—25).