Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller

I can’t see that we are ever so good that this play can be missed. At its most obvious it’s about what the Germans and their collaborators did to Jews and other inferior types. But even to extrapolate to present day is an inadequate representation of what it’s about.

It is a discussion of the human condition, its wretchedness, and the capacity of a few to rise above it. The amazing Hora, who did much to see to the shaping of the philosopher Raimond Gaita in Gaita’s younger years, believed that always

…even in the most appalling circumstances, there has been a handful of men and women who redeemed humanity by the nobility of their vision and their courage to be true to it. He told me this often. Each time he paused, visibly moved….

Hora and his migrant friends had lived through WWII in Europe. This play, Incident at Vichy, captures one of these moments. An Austrian aristocrat, caught in a roundup meant for not the likes of him, is sitting with Jews and a Gypsy waiting to be interrogated. We know that most, if not all of them, will never be let out. Whilst waiting, they share their various views on the nature of the Germans and whether it is really possible that the things they don’t want to mention are really happening. One says it’s a ridiculous idea, that the Germans would want to kill them. The Germans are rational. Of course they simply want them for labour. No biggie.

The Austrian prince passionately explains what is really happening. How could you be so stupid as to think it is about being rational. These people are nothing and they make themselves something by what they do, by what they believe in. What they are doing, the mass murdering of Jews is a moral principle.

At some point he gives a great speech where he too says the same as Hora. It is a tiny number of people who redeem the rest of us. Unfortunately I don’t have the play, or I’d share it. And then, at the end, and I didn’t see this coming though I should have, he turns out to be that man. He goes in second to last, reappears with a get out of gaol free card and gives it to the waiting French Jew so that he can escape. We assume that the prince will be killed in his place.

And all this made me remember a book I have, a book of little consequence I expect.

Gutmann, Moritz Ritter v.
Konradin der letzte Hohenstaufe: Tragodie in 5 Acten
(Mahr.-Ostrau: Druck und Verlag von Julius Kittl: 1891) Decorated cloth lettered in gilt pp. 87. A play about the short-lived but famous Konradin, this is the Author’s inscribed copy to his cousin Flora.

Gutmann was an extremely wealthy Austrian, Jewish, related to the Rothchilds. He bought and lived in Vöslau castle from 1901. He died in 1934.

To my mind I would have expected this to be a big story in the newspapers and it could be that I have been bad at finding it (thanks to Matt for helping me look for info!) But in Austria things had already been really bad for the Jews for years at the point of his death. Maybe this was why. I assume Vöslau stayed in the family until: ‘In the course of the Aryanization, the castle was acquired in 1940.’ I don’t know if that’s just bad google translate, it doesn’t seem like the most politically correct way of describing that process. In Austrian (German?): ‘Im Zug der Arisierung wurde das Schloss 1940 von der Gemeinde Vöslau erworben.’

At any rate, presumably due to the extreme difficulties already presented by being Jewish in Austria, by the time Gutmann had died, The NY Jewish Daily Bulletin reported, the rest of the family had all become ‘non-Jews’ by marrying non-Jewish people. As we know, they may have thought that was the effect of their marriages, but it certainly wasn’t what the Nazis thought.

I have not yet found out what happened to his relatives past his death.

Going back to Miller, his Austrian prince, a cultured man who abhorred what was happening, in giving his life, seemed to me to be giving it for this other cultured family of whom I can find no lasting trace.

We saw the play at King’s Head Theatre Islington, a rerun after a season at The Finborough. Both fantastic upstairs from pubs theatres, stunning stuff, tickets cheap as chips. I think that this one could easily go wrong. It needs a stellar cast to pull it off, a group of men sitting on a bench waiting for a buzzer to sound. NEXT. The buzzer really should have had a place in the credits, it was horrifying.

I wish this play was seen as eternal rather than issues-driven and therefore relevant today. If it was, it is one of those things, like the books of Raimond Gaita about Romulus, that could influence us in major ways for the better.

If you are reading this and in London it’s on for another couple of days. I was disappointed that the small theatre was only about half full when we went (admittedly a matinee and a ‘nice day for London’) It got a standing ovation from me and that rarely happens.

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