The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

An illuminating horror

In Christopher Hampton’s play he imagines what Horváth’s life would have been like if he had not died in this bizarre way but had gone on, like other émigrés, to Hollywood.

Christopher Hampton had his first play produced while he was still an undergraduate studying languages at Oxford. It was partly a fluke in that he entered his play for a competition and came second. However, the organisers realized the winning play would be too expensive to put on so When Did You Last See Your Mother? was staged instead, was well received and within a few months was produced at The Royal Court. It was the start of a productive career as a writer who usually works on a translation at the same time as writing his own plays and filmscripts.

Most of my plays develop over a number of years. I keep notebooks – some of them for ten or fifteen years – and the ideas marinate in some way. Then when things coalesce, the writing can be very quick. I can write a play in a few weeks if it’s all in place in my mind. I have made more than a dozen translations of plays over the years. It’s a discipline like doing crosswords. It focuses the mind in a very minute way on theatrical language. I find translation work therapeutic and can turn to it when I am experiencing difficulty with my own work.

After ten years of successful writing Christopher Hampton felt the need for the therapy of working on Horváth.

For the first time I’d hit a brick wall. I was out of sympathy with what was going on around me and then I rediscovered Horváth. I first read Faith, Hope And Charity when it was published in a German anthology with one of my plays and it was so pertinent I couldn’t believe it was written in 1933. This difficult patch with my own work persisted and I was able to deal with it by translating two of his plays. Tales From The Vienna Woods was one of the first productions in the Olivier Theatre in 1976 followed by Don Juan Comes Back From The War for the Cottesloe in 1979.

During this time I was finding it difficult to address, in an appropriate way, the issues that were becoming apparent in our society but Horvath was helping. I finally got round to translating Faith, Hope And Charity in 1989.

In Faith, Hope And Charity the difficulty for Christopher Hampton was to find an equivalent of Horváth’s style which is very particular, elliptical, precise and rather mock-pompous. Horváth himself wrote: ‘In my plays the characters are always trying to speak a little better than they know how to.’ And his advice to directors was that the characters should never speak dialect but should speak like people who are trying to speak correct German.

For a time Horváth became a central figure in Christopher Hampton’s life and he used the Hungarian dramatist as a character in his play Tales From Hollywood. H had been killed in his mid-thirties when he was hit by a tree that had been struck by lightning on the Champs Elyseés after he had been to see the film Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. In Christopher Hampton’s play he imagines what Horváth’s life would have been like if he had not died in this bizarre way but had gone on, like other émigrés, to Hollywood.

As I read Horváth’s work it became clear to me that he was the principal influence on all young German writers for the theatre and the cinema in the sixties and seventies. He wrote seventeen plays and two novels and it is said that there are no other works that give as accurate and telling an account of pre-war life in Nazi Germany. Faith, Hope And Charity was in rehearsal during the 1933 elections that brought the Nazis to power and they simply closed the play down. It was never performed in Horváth’s lifetime. In the play there is a real feeling of impending doom and of the political horrors that could easily grow out of the terribly ungenerous milieu in which the characters are living. It is very illuminating when you think it was written at that precise historical moment. He was attacked by his critics for what they called his facile pessimism but it turned out he was bang on the nail.

The play was written in response to a challenge to Horváth from a journalist friend who complained that writers were not interested in the small dramas that dominate the lives of ordinary people. He bet Horváth that he could not write a play about the real case of a young woman who drowned herself because she could not find work. The result was Faith, Hope And Charity, a generous acknowledgement of Lukas Kristl as co-author and the payment of 40% royalties to Kristl.

When he translated the play, Christopher Hampton thought it spoke of the way things were going in this country. He did not see our society on a slide to Fascism but there were parallels such as the inability of decent people to get work, the exploitation of women, the abuse of power, the contempt by those in authority for anyone below them and the powerlessness of ordinary people. In the play the characters such as the policeman and the woman in the corset shop are all people who have constructed their own universes and define themselves by the language they use. They rely on certain phrases and ways of thinking that they are reluctant to see disturbed and, within this context, Horváth is able to probe beneath the surface.

Horváth was the only writer of that period who could create a character like the policeman. This man is terribly sympathetic and at the same time absolutely awful. He is so ungenerous and narrow-minded that he has no hesitation in betraying Elizabeth. He is basically a decent yet limited man but he is not patronised by the writer. He is just presented in a very truthful way. He would almost certainly become a Nazi because he is ultimately weak and because of his instinct to kowtow to authority. Although it must be said there are people in the play who are more obviously Nazi material. It is a despairing play. It is very bleak. It is a hard play for people to accept today. They don’t want to confront what they see all around. It is a strange paradox that, when things are really grim, we don’t want to fade up to them.

Odon von Horváth was born in Austria in 1901 and killed in a freak accident in 1938. His other plays include Italian Knight, Kasimir and Karoline, The Divorce of Figaro and Day of Judgement.