A prolific playwright, Ödön von Horváth wrote his first novel Youth Without God in 1938, a year before his death. He remained in Germany for a few years after the Nazis gained power, but was a fierce anti-Nazi. Von Horváth had been involved in street fights with the fascists and at various times was in critical dialogue with the German Communist Party (KPD).
His left wing commitment saw him write a series of plays that he called Volksstück, which can be translated as People’s Plays. These plays, such as Die Bergbahn (The Cable Car), about an argument between the workers who have to build a railway up a mountain and its engineer, and Sladek der schwarze Reichswehrmann (Sladek The Black Reichswehr Man) about a demobilised veteran drawn into the proto-fascist militias after the First World War, have clear anti-capitalist themes. He later moved away from the politics of the KPD, mainly because of its failure to distinguish between Nazis and Social Democrats, but he retained his sense of who the ultimate enemy was.
Von Horváth based his characters among the lower middle classes, teachers, lawyers, small tradesmen, exactly the constituency that was the social basis for the Nazi party.
His experience of staying in Germany under the Nazis gave him valuable insight into the process of adaptation to the regime that this class underwent. Long before Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” von Horváth was writing about the small, everyday lies and evasions that oiled the cogs of the Nazi machine.
This concern with the process of how the Nazi regime maintained a mass base meant that after 1968 when the new left began to face up to Germany’s past, von Horváth’s work was valuable.
Christopher Hampton has adapted Youth Without God for the stage. It is centrally concerned with how a person survives morally and physically in an authoritarian state. The threat here is not of arrest but of moral corruption. The main protagonist is a teacher reported to the authorities for criticising a racist remark in one of his student’s essays. When racism is the state policy can the teacher get away with calling it out? The middle class youth of the title are caught up in the propaganda of the regime. Can they distinguish truth from lies? Is there any hope for them and consequently for anyone else in society?
In the end von Horváth does find reason for hope but not without a biting criticism of liberal values and the accommodation to fascism of bourgeois society.
I was interested by this show but never excited by it. Unfortunately I don’t think that Hampton’s play does full justice to von Horváth’s work. He has softened the character of the teacher and the play’s language in a way that lessens its dramatic impact. This is compounded by the play’s staging which fails to use the space well.
The fine performances of all the cast, especially Alex Waldmann as the teacher and David Beames as Julius Caesar, elevate the evening, as do the performances of all the young actors playing the schoolboys.
A special mention should go to the Coronet Theatre itself; it is a marvellous old music hall stage and it’s worth the ticket price just to be in there!
I hope that this show can be reworked by Hampton and given a bigger and better staging. Von Horváth deserves it.