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Under the Austrofascist regime established by Austria’s ultra-right-wing Fatherland Front Party in 1934 and lasting until the German annexation in 1938, small unofficial theatres were one of the few public arenas in which criticism of the regime and the growing influence of Nazi Germany could be voiced from within Austria. Large theatres with auditoriums for more than 50 people were strictly regulated through a system of licensing, which compelled managers and artists to comply strictly with the regime’s cultural policy and present an uncritical view of social and political events.1
However, those theatre workers prepared to make do with simple, low-budget productions on makeshift stages with audiences of less than 50 could avoid the heaviest penalties imposed by the censor and perform plays by writers critical of events in Nazi Germany and Austria. Such theatres included the avant-garde ‘Theater für 49’, where Hannah Norbert-Miller performed in the expressionist play ‘Das Leben des Menschen’ in the spring of 1937, as well as the political cabaret theatre, ABC Regenbogen Café, where Jura Soyfer was the in-house author.2
Unfortunately many of the records from this fascinating aspect of Austrian theatre history have gone missing without a trace.3 This is particularly true for the political cabaret scripts, which, given the political circumstances of their creation and the fact that they were written for immediate performance, were rarely published or made more broadly available. In the case of the highly political scripts of Jura Soyfer, many were confiscated and lost for good when he was arrested in November 1937. Under National Socialism, moreover, the possession of his work was a great risk, and some of the records of his writing were burnt by his parents and friends out of fear.4 Consequently only fragments of some of his work from this time have survived. For example, much of Soyfer’s novel, So starb einer Partei, which was the work he most valued, was lost. The image below shows a leaf from one of the surviving bundles of typescripts which found their way into the Millers’ possessions.
So how did his writing survive and his theatre plays end up being performed in London less than a year after his death in Buchenwald? Above all, it was because some of his friends, family and colleagues bravely risked their lives to carry the manuscripts beyond Austria’s borders. Otto Tausig, the leader of the exile theatre company, the ‘Austrian Youth Players’, later wrote that in the suitcases of some of those who emigrated after 1938, handwritten poems, a newspaper article or an almost complete play could lie hidden between the shirts or books.5
One of those courageous people who transported them was Helli Ultmann, Soyfer’s girlfriend. Ultmann made her way to exile in the USA via Paris and London, where she was in touch with Martin Miller and met him to pass on copies of Soyfer’s work. The letter below in the Miller Archive written by her in October 1939 to Martin Miller captures the moment when she arranged to pass on the smuggled material to Martin for the Laterndl:
Roughly translated, the letter reads:
I can come to London, I would very much like to attend your performance. Also let me know by return of post what I should copy down for you, I will then bring it with me, as I’m expecting my luggage to arrive tomorrow at the latest. I can actually bring you the chansons a few hours before the performance, so you’ll still have enough time to prepare them.
In all, two of Soyfer’s theatre scripts and seven of his song lyrics (such as the one below) ended up in the Miller collection. We cannot be sure which of the lyrics are the chansons referred to Ultmann in her letter, but for me the letter wonderfully captures a moment of triumph against Nazi oppression: when the bravery of those determined keep alive the memory of Soyfer and his political message won a small victory with the knowledge that his work would again be performed and celebrated in public.
1 Barbara Nowotny, ‘Theater im Souterrain: Das politische Wiener Theater der 1. Republik’ (unpublished master’s thesis, University of Vienna, 2010), p28.
2 Viktoria Hertling, ‘Theater für 49: Ein vergessenes Avantgarde-Theater in Wien (1934-1938)’, in Jura Soyfer and his time, ed. by Donald G. Daviau (California: Ariadne Press, 1995), pp. 321-335.
3 Nowotny, p. 5. Hans Weigel also discusses this issue at multiple points in his book Gerichtstag vor 49 Leuten (Austria: Verlag Styria, 1981), for example, p. 33, p. 120 and p. 159.
4 Horst Jarka, Jura Soyfer: Leben, Werk, Zeit (Vienna: Löcker Verlag, 1987), p.498.
5 Jura Soyfer, Vom Paradies zum Weltuntergang, ed. by Otto Tausig (Vienna: Globus Verlag, 1947), p. 9.
Photographs, a compère script and a programme all bear witness to the Laterndl’s production of Jura Soyfer’s Lechner Edi schaut ins Paradies in February 1940, part of the cabaret show, Von Adam bis Adolf. This post will draw together this material to see what overall record they provide of the production. It also links to a recording of a song from the play set to music for the Laterndl performance by German exile composer E.H. Meyer. The recording was made at the event ‘Political Cabaret in Exile: Music from the Miller Archive’ at the Bloomsbury Festival in October 2013.
As the programme below shows, of the ten items composing the show, Lechner Edi was number six on the agenda, immediately following the interval and more or less at the central point of the programme. Lasting 30-40 minutes, the play is good example of the Mittelstück genre of Austrian Kleinkunst cabaret, with which Soyfer became closely associated. Such playlets were usually sandwiched into the centre of a cabaret programme of more traditional and shorter cabaret numbers, usually between two intervals. The longer length of the Mittelstück allowed Kleinkunst writers to explore their chosen themes more deeply, the term (literally ‘middle piece’) being a reference to the position of such pieces somewhere between theatre and cabaret.1
Although there is no script of the play itself in the collection, there is this English-language script (below) written for the compère, whose job it was (at least in the UK exile version of political cabaret) to give an overview of the plot for non-German audience members. In this case the compère script was probably written and presented by Hanne Norbert, whose English language skills in addition to her acting talents made her a great asset to the Laterndl.
As the script explains, the protagonist of the play is a young man named Edi Lechner (played by Peter Preses) who has been out of work for six years and is obsessed by the dream of finding employment. In the mid-1930s, when the play was written, unemployment in Austria was rife (around 25%), with youth unemployment a particular problem. For Edi’s girlfriend Fritzi, played by Marianne Walla, the idea of Edi ever having a job is so alien she laughs in disbelief when, in scene one (shown in the photographs below), he describes the work he used to do on machines before being made redundant.
Six years after he last worked, Edi is still bitter about losing his job, and blames the machinery he once used and controlled but which later replaced him. When one such machine, a robot called Pepi (played by Jaro Klüger), appears on stage and announces that now he too has been made redundant, Edi is angry and disbelieving, and accuses Pepi of stealing his job. Following Edi’s logic, Pepi concludes that the inventions and discoveries of technological and scientific progress are the root causes of Edi present unemployment. The solution he proposes, quickly taken up by Edi, is to undo those pivotal moments in history when such advances were made. Pepi offers to use his time-travelling capacity to transport Edi and Fritzi back in time and persuade the scientists, inventors, explorers and others responsible for progress to reverse their steps. This will, they naively conclude, rid the world of the curse of unemployment.
The photograph below captures a moment of the trio’s journey back through time. It is interesting to compare the Laterndl photograph with this photograph of the first production of the play at the Viennese cabaret theatre, Literatur am Naschmarkt, in October 1936.2 The Laterndl photo suggests that the Kleinkunst style of limited simple decor and costumes was in this play taken even further than it was in the genre’s original context.
Soyfer’s ‘Wanderlied der Zeit’ (‘Song of Time’) accompanies the travellers on their trip through time, as they pass first through the years of the First World War. The programme above indicates that E.H. Meyer composed the music for the production and that the words were ‘spoken’ by Leo Bieber. A recording of the song from the 2014 Bloomsbury Festival using Meyer’s setting can be heard here.
The song has been interpreted by Horst Jarka as reflecting on the transience of human existence and the passing of time over which humans have no control.3 The last verse, Jarka argues, urges the protagonists to revolt against the crippling nature of this transience, and to gain clarity of vision about the past. However, at this stage in the play, Edi’s understanding of his position is still clearly shaped by his sense of predestination about historical development. As they travel further and further back in time, from Luigi Galvani to Galileo and to Christopher Columbus, Edi’s frustration increases as his sense of impotency grows in the face of the apparent inevitability of historical development. The photograph below shows Edi talking to a sailor (Martin Miller) on board Columbus’s ship, where he tries to persuade the explorer not to discover America, but is ultimately forced to accept Columbus’s argument that if he, Columbus, does not do so, someone else will.
Eventually Edi finds himself back at the very beginning of time: at the gates of paradise, just as humankind is about to be created. The photograph below shows him pleading with the guard (also played by Martin Miller) either to give him a job or to let him petition ‘management’ to abandon the plans for the creation – Soyfer’s Marxist slant on a biblical tale.
The final song, the ‘Moritat im Paradies’ (‘Ballad at the gates of paradise’), sets out Edi’s vision of the inevitable misery that will arise if humankind is created. Each verse of the song evokes a different figure of human unhappiness, as shown in the photograph below: a profiteer, a laid-off, homeless worker, a poverty-stricken mother, a prostitute and finally a vengeful killer brutalised by his experiences in WW1. Only by halting the birth of humankind in the first place can the experiences of such tormented lives be avoided, Edi asserts.
Edi’s attempt to prevent the very birth of the human race is the pinnacle of his sense of impotency over historical development, but in ‘unmaking’ humankind he is of course negating his own existence. Only Fritzi’s last-minute intervention, her affirmation of life, prevents the pair from being ‘uncreated’ along with the rest of the human race. Following her wishes, ‘management’ decides to go ahead with human creation, but on the understanding that humans have free will and a choice over their development. Soyfer’s message of empowerment becomes clear as it finally dawns on Edi that rather than trying to prevent historical development, he himself must actively steer the direction of change. The play has been seen as a metaphor for Soyfer’s rejection of the sense of fatalistic determinism which had weakened opposition to fascism, a message underlined by the play’s last line: ‘it’s up to us!’
1 See Österreichisches Kabarettarchiv ‘Zur Geschichte des österreichischen Kabaretts: ein Abriss’ , accessed 21 March 2014.
2Salzburg University, ‘Österreichische Exil-Literatur seit 1933’, accessed 21 March 2014.
3 Horst Jarka, Jura Soyfer: Leben, Werk, Zeit (Vienna: Löcker Verlag, 1987), p. 299.
After leaving Reichenberg in 1931, Martin continued to tour theatres in Austria and beyond for a further three years. He was based at the Stadttheater in Aussig (by then, Ústí nad Labem in Czechoslovakia) from 1931 to 1933, at the Deutsches Theater in Mährisch-Ostrau (Ostrava, Czechoslovakia) from 1933 to 1935, and at the Theatre Municipale in Strasbourg from 1935 to 1936. The newspaper reviews in the collection of the productions in which he performed give some indication of the diverse linguistic communities to whom he was performing.
Shown above are: a Czech review of a production of Jakob Wassermann’s Lukardis in Mährisch-Ostrau in 1934, in which Martin played a Russian revolutionary; a French review of a production of Fritz Schweifert’s Marguerite durch drei in Strasbourg in 1935/36, in which he played one of the leading lady’s three deceived suitors; and a Yiddish review of a production of Die Grenze. Ein Schicksal unter 600.000 (The Border. One fate amongst 600,000), translated from Danish and adapted by Awrum Halbert (under the pseudonym Albert Ganzert), performed at the Jüdische Kulturtheater in Vienna in 1936. In this play, the Jüdische Kulturtheater’s most successful production, Martin played a respected businessman who provides a role model for his grandson when his Jewish background is exposed and he is hauled before the courts in Nazi Germany.1
Martin had maintained professional and family links with Vienna over the years that he worked away. From about 1935-1936 until his exile in 1938, he worked on a more steady basis in Vienna. By this time he was not just acting but also directing the plays he was in, for example at the Neues Theater in der Praterstrasse and the Theater der Schulen in der Volksoper. The image below shows some of the reviews he kept of the productions on which he worked at this time.
In 1936 Martin joined a small number of actors who performed regularly at the Jüdisches Kulturtheater in Vienna. The theatre had only just been established, and it employed mainly German Jewish actors in exile from Nazi Germany. It had one of the most politically active repetoires in Vienna at that time; its plays (like Die Grenze, mentioned above) often dealt with antisemitism and events in contemporary Germany.2 In 1937 Martin starred here again in another play focusing on anti-semitism: Ashley Dukes’ adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel, Jüd Süß. The image below shows Martin Miller as Herzog Karl Alexander and Lisl Einberger as Naemie, the daughter of Josef Süss Oppenheimer. The caption reads ‘Naomi evading the hands of the Duke’; the first line is written in Yiddish and the second in Hebrew.3 The newspaper source is not known.
As well as acting in regular plays, Martin also organised events at which he performed as a solo artist reciting from poems or acting out characters from plays. Perhaps this allowed him to focus on the character portrayals for which he had become known. The invitation below is for just such an evening at the Jüdisches Kulturtheater on 23 May 1936, at which Martin read and acted out characterisations of a range of Jewish figures in literary sources from Shakespeare to the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler. The handwritten message from him reads ‘it would be nice if you were there!’; unfortunately it is not known to whom this is addressed. A review in the collection praised this exploration of Jewish suffering over 400 years, and suggested that Martin was one of the best character actors of Jews in Vienna.
As well as his work at the Jüdisches Kulturtheater, Martin now also began to perform in Vienna’s cabaret scene, which was rapidly becoming one of the few public spaces where political dissent could be expressed.4 Below is a review of a 1936 cabaret show in which Martin worked alongside Jura Soyfer, Friedrich Torberg and Peter Hammerschlag at the cabaret theatre, Literatur am Naschmarkt. The reviewer’s comments on Martin’s individual contribution roughly translate as
Martin brings forth a storm of laughter with his stunningly successful dramatic parodies of actors from Ferdinand Onno to Hans Moser, Alexander Moissi and Werner Krauß and to Max Pallenberg and Albert Bassermann.
The objects of Martin’s impressionist skills were all successful German or Austrian theatre actors in the 1930s, well-known at that time. Of those who had been based in Germany, all except the antisemitic Krauß had already left the country and gone into exile in Austria. Krauß, by contrast, had by this time had been honoured by the Nazis with the status of Staatsschauspieler (actor of national importance); he was soon to lend his acting skills to the Nazis by starring in one of the most antisemitic propaganda films ever made, Jud Süß. It can perhaps be expected, then, that he of all them came off worst from Martin’s cutting satirical impressionist talents.
From September to November 1937, Martin performed at the ABC Theater in the cabaret show ‘Von Bagadad nach Vineta’. The central pieces of the show were Jura Soyfer’s sketches Vineta, die versunkene Stadt and Der treuste Bürger Bagdads. However, Martin’s individual contribution was also very well received by the liberal critics (possibly from the liberal Wiener Tag) who reviewed the show: ‘eine erlesene Delikatesse ist ein Vortrag Martin Millers, der vollendet kleine Wortkunstwerte Polgars bringt’ (Martin Miller’s presentation, which perfectly conveys the aphorisms of [Austrian journalist Alfred] Polgar, is a choice delicacy of the show).
Time was, of course, running out. Jura Soyfer, as mentioned in a previous post, had already been imprisoned in Dachau. Following the annexation of Austria in March 1938 Martin, as a Jew, was immediately forbidden to participate in the theatre. Cultural institutions in Vienna were were very quickly reorganised and ‘Aryanised’. On 11 March the Jüdisches Kulturtheater was looted and closed.5 According to Yates, ‘in the course of the summer of 1938 everyone working in the theatre had to provide documentary evidence of his or her ‘Aryan’ descent’.6 Eight months later, on 1 November 1938, Martin emigrated to Berlin.
1 Brigitte Dalinger, Verloschene Sterne: Geschichte des jüdischen Theaters in Wien (Vienna: Picus Verlag, 1998), p. 116.
2 Brigitte Dalinger, ‘Jiddisches Theater in Wien, Berlin und Prag’, in Berlin – Wien – Prag : Moderne, Minderheiten und Migration in der Zwischenkriegszeit. Modernity, minorities and migration in the inter-war period, ed. by Susanne Marten-Finnis and Matthias Uecker (Bern: Peter Lang, 2001), pp. 271-287 (p. 285).
3 Many thanks to Rachel Bracha, Archive Co-ordinator at Archive Coordinator, World ORT, for her translation of the caption for this photograph.
4 W.E. Yates, Theatre in Vienna: a Critical History 1776-1995 (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 222.
5 Salzburg University, ‘Österreichische Schriftstellerinnen und Schriftsteller des Exils seit 1933’, http://www.literaturepochen.at/exil/lecture_5003_18.html, accessed 3 April 2013.
6 Dalinger, ‘Jiddisches Theater’, p. 224.