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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.
The letter below from the renowned British theatre producer, Peter Hall, indicates that several decades after his death, Hannah Norbert-Miller was still doing her best to promote Soyfer’s work, always hopeful that his theatre plays would become known to wider audiences in the UK. In this final blog on Soyfer’s work I want to show how, thanks to the archive project funded by the Miller Trust last year, records of Soyfer’s work in the Miller Archive inspired performances at the University of London of a number of Soyfer’s songs, thereby raising his profile in a way of which Hannah would hopefully have approved.
Whilst cataloguing Soyfer’s work I found that, although there were numerous records of the texts of his lyrics, there was only one sheet of music in the collection. This was the first page of a setting of Soyfer’s ‘Mein Bruder Vagabund’ from his play Astoria, a satire on the authoritarian state of 1930s Austria. The sheet gives no indication of the date or composer, but with the help of the Jura Soyfer Gesellschaft in Vienna I was able to establish that the music was based on a melody by Soyfer’s collaborator, Jimmy Berg, for a production at the ABC cabaret theatre in Vienna in 1937. Martin Miller was one of the cast – unfortunately I have not been able find out which character he played.
But although it was now known that the music and lyrics were written in Vienna in 1937, the printmark of this document indicated clearly that it had been written in the UK. The record was not, then, one of the cabaret texts smuggled out by Soyfer’s friends, as described in a previous post.
With the assistance of archivists at the Literaturhaus Wien, I was able to obtain copies of Berg’s own manuscript score from his archive in Vienna. A comparison of the two manuscripts shows some differences: unlike Berg’s version, the London manuscript has a few short introductory bars, and after closer examination it became clear that that the score in the Miller Archive was actually a mixture of two different songs from Astoria: not just ‘Mein Bruder Vagabund’ but also ‘Willst du, zerlumpter Geselle’. These differences, and the differences between the handwriting, suggest that it is unlikely to have been Berg himself who scored it in the brief stop in the UK before going to the USA in about 1939. It is perhaps more likely to have been someone else who could remember the Soyfer/Berg composition from Austria and simply wrote it down from memory once they had arrived in the UK? Any comments about this theory would be very much welcomed!
With the permission of Berg’s widow in the US, the Institute decided to engage two musicians to perform these pieces publicly. The first occasion was the launch of an exhibition on the Miller Archive, ‘Theatrical Lives from Vienna to London’ at the University of London’s Senate House, when baritone Ken Eames and pianist Malcolm Miller performed the songs for 40 attendees. The response was so positive that we repeated the event at the Bloomsbury Festival 2013. This time West End actor/singer Julian Forsyth and pianist Malcolm Miller entertained 140 visitors with Soyfer songs under the heading ‘Political Cabaret in Exile: Music from the Miller Archive’. Recordings of the songs have been performed at Bloomsbury can be heard here.
In fact one both occasions our musicians also performed Soyfer’s songs set to music by Marcel Rubin, whose music is not in the Miller Archive but whose archive is at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna. Rubin was also an Austrian exile, and he composed the music whilst in France in an internment camp in 1940, probably without knowing who the author of the lyrics was.1 When he was released he went to Mexico, where he worked in the exile community choir, which would almost certainly have performed his version of the song. So it seemed to me to be a nice illustration of the way that the ideas and writing of Soyfer were kept alive by the refugees after being taken out of Austria, by being dispersed to different countries across the world, where they were adapted and performed in different ways in different places.
1 Hartmut Krones, ‘Immer noch “auf der Flucht” (aus Wien): zu Liedern von Hanns Eisler und Marcel Rubin’, in Musik im sozialen Raum: Festschrift für Peter Schleuning zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. by Freia Hoffmann, Markus Gärtner and Axel Weidenfeld (Munich: Allitera Verlag, 2011), pp. 161-187 (p. 178).
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.
Last month marked the 75th anniversary of the death of the young Austrian cabaret writer, Jura Soyfer, in Buchenwald in February 1939. This is the first of a short series of blog posts aiming to show how actors at the Austrian exile theatre in London, the Laterndl, devastated by the news of Soyfer’s death, commemorated Soyfer with performances of his songs and plays. The posts will also highlight the importance of the collection for holding early records of Soyfer’s work.
A number of the leading actors in the exile theatres, including Martin Miller, Rudolf Spitz, Jaro Klüger and Peter Preses, had worked with Soyfer in Vienna in the 1930s during the period of Austrofascist rule before the German annexation of March 1938. Soyfer had been the main writer behind the cabaret production at Vienna’s ABC Regenbogen Café, Von Bagdad nach Vineta (From Baghdad to Vineta) (reviewed in the above newspaper article), in which Martin Miller had performed (for more information see a previous post). The names ‘Fritz Feder’ and ‘Norbert Noll’ used in the article were in fact Soyfer’s pseudonyms.
The Laterndl’s dedication to performing Soyfer’s work began with their first cabaret production, a programme for which is shown above. Unterwegs played from June until August 1939 under Martin Miller’s direction at the Austrian Centre near Paddington. Alongside the items by exile writers like Hugo F. Königsgarten and Rudolf Spitz, the programme lists Soyfer’s ‘Lied des einfachen Menschen’ (literally, ‘Song of the simple people’), sung by Martin Miller with Kurt Manschinger on the piano.
With his ‘Lied des einfachen Menschen’ Soyfer lamented the degrading and dehumanising effects of unemployment, which was rife in 1930s Austria. It is the only text to have survived from his play Pinguine. Ein Polarnachsttraum (Penguins. A polar night’s dream), first staged in Vienna in 1936, again with Martin Miller in the cast.1 The following recollection by Franz Bönsch, one of the Laterndl’s founding members, describes the effect of the performance on of the song on the exile audience:
In the Laterndl people cried together and laughed together. Unforgettable were the sobs which emanated from the audience […] when Jura Soyfer’s song was heard. ‘We are the name on the passport, we are the echo of what once was finely said, the rumour of a rumour that’s long dead’ – and there was something like a deep exhalation of breath as the song continued: ‘A poor, half-finished sketch is all we are, a glimpse of humans in their final state. A tune suggested by the opening bar. Your call us wretches human beings? Wait!’ 2
‘Ein einfacher Mann spricht’ (‘A simple man speaks’) was published by the Austrian exile group, Young Austria, in Zwischen Gestern und Morgen in 1942. It was just one of five poems by Sofyer published by the group, an indication of Soyfer’s significance for the exiled Austrian youth groups in London. It was also translated into English by John Lehmann, who had spent time with Soyfer in Vienna in the 1930s, and who later published the translation with the title ‘Song of the Twentieth-Century Man’ in his Collected Poems 1930-1963 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1963).
The Laterndl opened in its new home at 153 Finchley Road at the beginning of January 1940. The company then dedicated four full evenings (15, 22, 29 January and 5 February) to staging Soyfer’s work, marking the passing of nearly a year since Soyfer’s death on 16 February 1939. Again production and direction was led by Martin Miller. Two of the plays performed on these evenings were the two central pieces staged in Vienna in autumn 1937 mentioned in the review above: Vineta, die versunkene Stadt (Vineta, the sunken city) and Der treueste Bürger Bagdads: Ein orientalisches Märchen (The most faithful citizen of Baghdad: an oriental fable). The script of the latter (below), a short, one-act play which was bitingly satirical about the antisemitism of the Austrian authorities, a point which the Viennese newspaper reviews had all ignored.3 A third play staged as part of this tribute to Soyfer, Der Lechner Edi schaut ins Paradies, will be the focus of my next post.
The reaction of the exile audience members to the production is illustrated by the letter below written to Martin Miller from another exile writer one day after the first performance. Fritz Gross wrote that ‘the Jura celebration was a great experience. May I present to you and the friends who contributed to the success of this unforgettable evening the enclosed poem as an expression of my deepest thanks’. Enclosed with the letter was a poem of nine stanzas, inscribed ‘Für Martin Miller. 16.1.40. Fritz Gross’.
Finally, I showed an extract from the speech below, ‘Jura Soyfer: eine Würdigung’ (‘Jura Soyfer: an appreciation’) in a previous post. I did not know at the time who wrote it or when it was given, but I have since discovered that it was written and presented by another Laterndl writer, Albert Fuchs, on the first anniversary of Jura Soyfer’s death.4 The speech has been described as the first attempt to set out Soyfer’s wider significance as a political writer rather than solely as a writer of cabaret sketches.5 As the most gifted Austrian writer of his generation and a great literary hope for the future, Soyfer would, according to Fuchs, have become the Austrian socialist poet.
1 This is not to say that this is the only copy of the song. For information about further copies please contact the Jura Soyfer Archive.
2 Franz Bönsch, ‘Das österreichische Exiltheater ‘Laterndl’ in London’, in Österreicher im Exil 1934 bis 1945: Protokoll des Internationalen Symposiums zur Erforschung des österreichischen Exils von 1934 bis 1945, ed. by Helene Maimann and Heinz Linzer (Vienna: Österreichischer Bundesverlag, 1977), pp. 440-450 (p. 447.
3 Horst Jarka, Jura Soyfer: Leben, Werk, Zeit (Vienna: Löcker Verlag, 1987), p. 343. The quotation from Soyfer’s song is the translation by John Lehmann mentioned later in the post.
4 Another typescript of the speech is in the Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes in Vienna.
5 Jarka, p. 502.
The Millers were most closely associated with the Austrian exile theatre company, the Laterndl, but their papers also contain documents relating to a number of other political and cultural organisations established by members of the 30,000-strong Austrian refugee community.1 The organisations shown here had various aims, including helping other potential refugees still in Nazi-occupied territory to escape, improving the daily life of the refugees in the UK, and focusing attention on how to build a better Austria after the war. Such organisations would also have fulfilled a much-needed social function for the members themselves, as they created a sense of community and helped refugees overcome feelings of loss, hardship and alienation.2
Probably the earliest document in the Miller collection relating to the refugee organisations is the above letter, which documents some of the desperate attempts by refugees already in the UK to help more victims of Nazi persecution to emigrate, as the wave of Nazi terror in Vienna increased in 1938. It was written by the founders of ‘Austrian Self-Aid’, a ‘charitable, non-political organisation with the aim of providing assistance and information for other Austrian refugees in Britain’.2 Although the exiles who established it were mainly Communist Party members, they gave their political views a low profile in order not to alienate members of the general refugee community and to avoid difficulties with the British authorities. Unfortunately the second page of the letter is missing so the reason for writing is not certain, but since it was written in English and describes the difficulties of dealing with the immense demand for help given the group’s limited resources, it seems likely that it was intended for British supporters of the Austrian cause to request financial support.
Another document in the collection, which illustrates one way in which the British authorities interacted positively with the refugee groups, is the above programme for a carol concert held at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on Christmas Eve 1939. The concert was organised by the Resident Foreigners’ Committee of the British Council, which had recently been established to provide educational and cultural support to refugees and allied service personnel.3 As the programme shows, the concert included performances by Czech and Polish choirs, an ad hoc group of German-speaking actors (most of whom were members of one or other of the established German-language exile theatre companies in London) led by Martin Miller, as well as the well-travelled British singing group, Fleet Street Choir 4 Below is a letter from the British Council to Martin sent after the event, congratulating him on the success of the production and thanking him for the Austrians’ hard work.
For many Austrian refugees, the heart of the exile community was the Austrian Centre (AC). Located in Westbourne Terrace in Paddington, London, it was set up by Communist refugees as a self-help organisation to provide support for the community. The above flyer for the AC, dated 30 July 1942, gives information on the Centre’s events, facilities and publications. It shows, for example, the range of Austrian specialities on the menu of the Centre’s restaurant, such as ‘Fridattensuppe’ (broth with sliced pancake), ‘Polsterzipf’ (sweet pastries) and ‘Faschiertes mit Spinat’ (minced meat with spinach). It lists entertainment events organised by refugees at the AC, such as the Laterndl’s production Spiel im Schloss and the première of a farce by Franz und Paul von Schönthan: Raub der Sabinerinnen. It also notifies readers of forthcoming information events concerning the British internment of refugees as enemy aliens, and of a new translation service provided by the AC for members needing to have their documents translated into English.
Also advertised on the AC flyer is the Centre’s own German-language newspaper, the Zeitspiegel, which was claimed to be ‘unentbehrlich für jeden Emigranten’ (‘indispensible for every emigrant’). This was a weekly paper focusing on topics of most relevance to the refugees, such as antisemitism, the internment situation, and events in Austria and Germany. For example, this edition from the collection (below) reports on developments in Vienna, where hunger, exhaustion and sabotage were apparently dramatically reducing war production.
Finally, this flyer from 1941 highlights some of the key political issues that were considered of particular importance by at least some of the Austrian refugee community at the time. It advertised a series of public debates organised by the association, ‘Das kommende Österreich’ (‘The coming Austria’), at the Mary Ward Settlement in Tavistock Place, London. The discussion topics included the position of the Austrian Communists with regard to unity in the fight against Hitler; the prerequisites for a Central European federation; and the legal position of Austrian refugees and their incorporation into war production and civil defence.
1 This figure is from Anthony Grenville, ‘The Emigration of Austrians to Britain after 1938 and the Early Years of Settlement: a Survey’, in Immortal Austria: Austrians in Exile in Britain, ed. by Charmian Brinson, Richard Dover and Jennifer Taylor, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 8 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), pp. 3-17 (p. 3).
2 Andrea Reiter, ‘Introduction’ in ‘I didn’t want to float; I wanted to belong to something.’ Refugee Organisations in Britain 1933-1945′, ed. by Anthony Grenville and Andrea Reiter, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 10 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), pp. ix-xvi (pp. x-xi).
3 Charmian Brinson, ‘Eva Kolmer and the Austrian Emigration in Britain, 1938-1946’, in German-speaking Exiles in Great Britain, ed. by Anthony Grenville, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 2 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), pp. 143-169 (p. 145).