You're in for a Big Surprise

Issue section: 

Review of 'Tales from the Vienna Woods' by Odön von Horváth, National Theatre, London

Odön von Horváth (1901-1938), the son of a Hungarian diplomat, wrote plays depicting a society haunted by crisis and the shadow of fascism. He spent some of his most creative years in pre-Nazi Berlin, the Berlin of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, where he wrote Tales from the Vienna Woods in 193l. The play is a poignant evocation of pre-Nazi Vienna, the city that had once been the hub of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. But its dissolution at the end of the First World War resulted in its being shorn of much of its former territory: the great corn plains were lost to Hungary, the main industrial belt to Czechoslovakia. Austria, reduced to a rump, was subsequently hit hard by the Great Depression that followed the crash of 1929. As the economic storms raged, the petty bourgeoisie in Austria, as in Germany, were out in the cold, enjoying neither the wealth of the possessing classes nor the protection and solidarity of the trade unions.

Horváth portrays with sympathy and understanding a range of petty bourgeois characters: Alfred, the gambling ne'er-do-well, Oskar the butcher, Valerie the tobacconist, Herr Spellbinder, owner of a magic toy shop, Marianne, his daughter and shop assistant, and a retired army officer addressed as captain. They struggle to cling on to some semblance of normality, grasping at whatever short-term pleasures remain open to them as the winds of depression sweep away all certainty and the dark clouds of fascism gather on the horizon. So we see them picnicking in the Vienna woods, bathing, cycling and taking group photos. The lilting waltzes of Johann Strauss, including the play's title, are its musical backdrop, an ironic nostalgia that emphasises the characters' doomed attempts to hang on to the past, highlighting the contrast between the growing insecurity of the present and Vienna's former imperial glory.

The drama at the heart of the play sees Marianne breaking off her engagement to the dull-witted Oskar to go off with the dashing Alfred. Her courage in going against the prevailing petty bourgeois moral code is rewarded with tragedy. There is a powerful scene in which the Catholic church is revealed as unbending and cold hearted. But the play's darkest moment is during the picnic when Erich, a young Nazi, gives a Nazi salute and marches off, inducing the picnickers to follow his goosesteps. As he passes Marianne, Erich wishes her 'many upright German childen'. Horváth reveals his compassion in the way he depicts the interaction between the individual characters and the crisis of society: even in the case of the most blatant acts of selfishness, he invites us to view them in the light of a ruthless, decaying society rather than simply condemn them out of hand. The play's most dramatic and affecting moment is towards the end between the loving and honourable Marianne and her selfish, hypocritical father who takes her to task for her 'loose morality'.

This highly imaginative production is directed by Richard Jones and rounds off the National Theatre's Travelex £10 season. There are fine, strong performances from Nicola Walker as Marianne, Joe Duttine as Alfred, Frances Barber as Valerie, Karl Johnson as Herr Spellbinder and Darrell D'Silva as Oskar.