The Best of 2010 / Theater

Ödön von Horváth’s Judgment Day, at Bard College’s Summerscape

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Hayley Treider as Anna and Kevin O'Dennell as Herr Hudetz in Judgment Day at Bard Summerscape. Photo Cory Weaver.
Hayley Treider as Anna and Kevin O'Dennell as Herr Hudetz in Judgment Day at Bard Summerscape. Photo Cory Weaver.

Ödön von Horváth, Judgment Day
Directed by Caitriona McLaughlin


Herr Hudetz – Kevin O’Donnell
Frau Hudetz, Stephanie Roth Haberle
Alfons – Dashiell Eaves
Anna – Hayley Treider
Ferdinand – Shawtane Bowen
Landlord – Craig Bockhorn
Leni – Beth Cole
Frau Leimgruber – Kelly McAndrew
Pokorny/Prosecutor – Rod Brogan
Kohut/Costumer – Sidney Williams
Woodsman/Deputy – Joseph Adams
Traveling Salesman/Detective/Kreitmeyer – Brandon Dirden
Policeman – Eric Miller
Child – Isabel LaBarbera / Cassandra LaBarbera

In the opening scene of Ödön von Horváth’s Judgment Day, Frau Leimgruber, bitingly played by Kelly McAndrew, gives us (and the travelling salesman who walks in) an earful about the nice, hard-working stationmaster, Herr Hudetz. In this remote small town, Herr Hudetz has to do everything that needs to be done at the station. He sells tickets, collects packages, changes the signals, etc., etc. — all for low pay. However, he does get a house by the station, which affords his jealous wife a view of everything that goes on there. Frau Hudetz, fourteen years older than her husband, managed to entrap him into marriage. Now, as her age catches up with her, she is embittered and makes his life miserable any way she can — above all through her jealous rages and her unwillingness to allow him any independence at all. She has stopped even his innocent hours in the local tavern, “The Wild Man.” She and her brother Alfons, the local apothecary, are without a doubt the most unpopular people in town.

The inn-keeper’s daughter, Anna, enters. She is seeing off her fiancé, a coarse butcher from a neighboring town, but it is obvious that she finds Herr Hudetz of considerable interest. We have learnt that she was the only buyer in town for the travelling salesman’s beauty products, and we can see that she is vain and “adventurous.” In her provocative behavior she taunts the stationmaster for allowing himself to be dominated by his bitch of a wife, telling him that he doesn’t seem “to be a full man.” She dares him to kiss her in the station, in plain view of Frau Hudetz, throwing herself on him. He accepts the challenge. The salesman and others have left on the local train, and now the express is approaching the station at high speed, and Herr Hudetz should be changing the signal to warn the express of the local ahead on the track. Entwined in Anna’s arms, he fails to change the signal in time. Seconds later there is a huge crash — spectacularly rendered by the theatre’s excellent sound system — and eighteen people are dead.

In Scene 2, the authorities investigate the case. Pokorny, the Prosecutor, convinced of Hudetz’s guilt, interrogates him aggressively. The people of the town feel sorry for him and refuse to believe that he is responsible for the terrible accident. Meanwhile, Anna wants to get something off her chest. We see her talking to her father, as things look worse and worse for the stationmaster. In the first of the unexpected twists of the plot, the Innkeeper urgently brings his daughter before the prosecutor, and she testifies, not the truth, but that she saw Hudetz switch the signal on time. Hudetz, amazed but not losing his composure, gains confidence. He asserts that he is innocent, because he has “always done his duty.” In this way, Hudetz and Anna embroil themselves in a lie, which will determine all the coming events of the story, as well as their moral and psychological deterioration.

When Frau Hudetz, who, as we suspect, saw the whole thing, comes in, telling the story as it happened, with a total lack of concern for her husband’s well-being, she only succeeds in ruining whatever reputation she has left. Four months later, after his trial, Hudetz is exonerated, and he and Anna become local celebrities.

We have seen an awful lot of “he said/she said” shifting of responsibility over the past few months, but, rest assured, Bard scheduled “Judgment Day” long before the recent industrial disasters and the heightened prevarications of Prevarications of President Karzai of Afghanistan. In fact Christopher Hampton’s translation of Horváth’s play comes straight from the Almeida Theatre in Islington, where it enjoyed a highly successful six weeks last fall. Horváth’s portrayal of petty bourgeois life in a small town takes up its ethical issue with an iron grip, that makes it universal. This powerful play wants to be understood not only as a parable, but as a representation of the world at large.

Bard’s publications invite us to consider Judgment Day in the context of National Socialism. Indeed, although Horváth was not a German, it was the dominant force in the Austro-Hungarian world he inhabited. HE regarded himself as virtually a man without a country, saying “If you ask me what is my native country, I answer: I was born in Fiume, grew up in Belgrade, Budapest, Pressburg [Bratislava], Vienna and Munich, and I have a Hungarian passport, but I have no fatherland. I am a very typical mix of old Austria–Hungary: at once Magyar, Croatian, German and Czech; my country is Hungary; my mother tongue is German.”

In 1934, he travelled to Berlin to study National Socialism for a play he planned to write. The results of his research appear in the play, Spring is Here! and in the novel Youth without God. In Berlin he also became involved in the film industry. He wrote several screenplays under a pseudonym. He became the subject of investigation by the Nazis, and he left Berlin for Zürich, where his play, Here and There was opening. He finished Judgment Day in 1936, when he was primarily resident in Vienna. The play was first produced at the German Theatre in Mährisch/Ostrau, now Ostrava in the Czech Republic, in December 1937. At the time Ostrau was still safely within an not-yet-invaded Czechoslovakia.

The play is set “in our time” in a “small station on a major line,” No express trains stop here, not even fast trains, because the locality is no more than “a rather large village.” The names of the characters and absence of Nazi bureaucrats and military suggest some part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, perhaps between Pressburg and Prague. While there is no direct reference to National Socialism, and the petty cliquishness of the townspeople could be true of any small community in any country, the vicious “each man for himself” attitude of the characters reflects the toxic environment in which fascism flourished.

Horváth is pretty much a cipher to American audiences. The play would not have come to our attention, if Christopher Hampton, the most popular adaptor of foreign-language plays of the present day, hadn’t taken an interest in him in 1984, when he made him the narrator of Tales from Hollywood, a play (later adapted as a film) about German exiles in Los Angeles. Although Horváth might well have ended up in Hollywood, he never got that far, killed by a falling branch in Paris in 1938. Horváth’s disillusionment and irony are clearly qualities Hampton finds appealing. Now, over twenty-five years later, Hampton brings us this dark masterpiece by a playwright little known outside the German-speaking world.

The play needs no freshening-up or refurbishing. It is as vital today as when it was written. Neither Hampton nor the director, Caitriona McLaughlin, succumb to this temptation. Judgment Day is given a straight, honest production at Bard, with a first-rate American cast under the crack direction of Ms. McLaughlin, a London-based Irishwoman. The physical production itself, however, and the set design were highly original. Following up on the double-ended set used for the Oresteia last summer, the play unfolds in a long, open space between the two bleachers occupied by the audience. In the opening scene we see the benches where Frau Leimgruber, her daughter, the Farm Worker, and the Travelling Salesman congregate with the station beyond. The fateful signal and other railway apparatus stand at one end. Later this becomes the scene of the investigation, the “Wild Man” Tavern, Alfons’s shop, the living quarters behind it, and the space under the viaduct. The latter scenes are actually mounted on platforms which move back and forth on rails, while the scenes are acted out, an evocative suggestion of the instability of affairs in this nameless town. Rich lighting and sound effects and an ample amount of stage mist give these somber sets the appropriate atmosphere of foreboding and the supernatural. Most details are quite close to Horváth’s stage directions, but their unusual disposition enhances their presence most effectively. As Ms. McLaughlin said in a interview, the audience is intended to be looking down on the action, as if they were sitting on a judge’s bench. The height also gave an amazing quasi-cinematic effect, as, in the later scenes of the play, assembled characters living and dead wandered about looking for one another in the railway yard.

Pace and interaction were razor-sharp, as were speech dynamics, giving the play all the bite of a Schoenberg quartet. The entire cast played magnificently: there is no point in singling out any individual — unless it’s Stephanie Roth Haberle’s spine-chilling performance as Frau Hudetz — although I will say something about Kevin O’Donnell’s interpretation of her husband in a moment.

What makes Judgment Day so extraordinary is the way in which Horváth’s technique of unexpected plot twists reenforces the social and psychological instability of a community that depends on business as usual for its cohesion, as well as the chaos set off by Hudetz’s and Anna’s lie. As the play develops the audience becomes increasingly conscious of what remains unsaid, what lies behind the words and deeds of the characters, as in the celebration at the Wild Man for Hudetz’s acquittal, when Alfons, Frau Hudetz’ brother, who has so far been slavishly loyal to her, turns on her and repudiates their relationship before the sneering revellers. Curiously this sheepish fellow becomes Herr Hudetz’s most loyal supporter after public sentiment has turned against him. It remains a bit of a mystery why, but it appears that by behaving the way he does towards Hudetz and his sister, he becomes the only character to maintain any sort of independent moral judgment. Alfons’ role in the action is fraught with paradox and truth. Similarly the private meeting between Hudetz and Anna by the railway viaduct is surprising, even shocking, in its beginning and its end, and later, even more shocking, as we gradually realize its true result.

Madness, and the vengeful intervention of the dead, as well as a higher power — a vague product of the characters’ received moral and religious notions together with workings of some force above and beyond human understanding — all the more fearsome in its inexorable starkness.

Now Kevin O’Donnell’s Hudetz is handsome, appealing, and capable. He suffers patiently under the torture imposed by his wife, and he does his duty, until that strange, quite unromantic kiss from Anna. We want him to succeed in his lie, even though we know the truth, which has been co-opted by the hateful Frau Hudetz: the audience sympathizes with the townspeople. However, as he and Anna become entwined in their deception, he becomes a hollow shell of a man. He loses his mind and soul. Again, I at least pitied him in this. Even his strange, destructive action under the viaduct is removed from his responsibility, and we pity him even more, as he is drawn away from humanity — such as it is in this corrupt, vicious little town. It is interesting to contrast this sense of the emptying out of Hudetz’s humanity with the views of one of critics who reviewed its first production in Ostrava.

You might interpret the tragedy of the simple stationmaster Thomas Hudetz from the sad family circumstances of this primitive person and his limited environment; it is, what’s more, a result of his unhappy marriage, which contains within itself the signs of of a large difference in age, the signs of indifference, and mounting coldness, and had to at one point explode. Sociologically considered, Hudetz is the sacrificial victim of a system of rationalization, which wears the human being utterly out, gives him no relief or free time, and in this case leads to the neglect of duty and summons up a dreadful railway catastrophe. The extent to which the innkeeper’s daughter Anna, who feels a certain inclination for the lonely Hudetz and through her impulsive testimony of love brings the tension that hangs in the air to release, shares his guilt in the catastrophe, is a fearsome parallelism of subjective and objective tragedy…

The atmosphere in which the tragedy of the stationmaster Hudetz now presents itself and fulfils itself blow by blow is the same that drove a Woyzeck to his death…

Sigurd Lohde could have played Hudetz, this person who is persecuted from all sides, without scenery, and the dreadful effect would have remained the same. That terrible isolation in the midst of a petty, loveless, and disillusioned world, in which then the love of little Anna falls like a miracle sent from God, was played by Lohde with an exceptional obsessiveness. (ing. f. o. in Ostrauer Zeitung, 13 December 1937, reprinted in Traugott Krischke, Horváth auf der Bühne, 1926-1938, Vienna, 1991, pp. 345 ff. Translation by the reviewer.)

In Caitriona McLaughlin’s production the tragic nature of Hudetz’s fate is by no means unambiguous. O’Donnell’s Hudetz doesn’t appear to be quite so simple, and he embraces the success of his lie as a friendly survival tactic. At the inquest, he almost appears as a modern-day opportunist. Nor is Hayley Treider’s Anna as innocently in love as she seems to have been in the first production. By rooting her attraction for Hudetz in late-adolescent rebelliousness and a predilection to experiment with the power of her sexuality, McLaughlin and Treider have eliminated the strains of sentimentality detectable in the reviewer’s comments — in a most welcome way, I think. Only later, in the meeting under the viaduct, does her feeling reveal itself as love and a passion clouded by guilt and torment, just as Hudetz has experienced, we then learn. In interpreting the principle characters in this way McLaughlin has made them more ambiguous and less tragic, but she has made available to herself a panoply of suspense techniques, which effectively open up the play and reveal its inner complexities to contemporary audiences — a truly admirable achievement.

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