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Christopher Hampton On ... Judgment on Horvath

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Christopher Hampton’s new version of Austrian dramatist Odon von Horvath’s 1937 play Judgment Day receives its world premiere tonight (10 September 2009) at the Almeida Theatre. Judgment Day is the fourth Horvath play that Hampton has translated, following Tales from the Vienna Woods, Faith, Hope and Charity and Don Juan Comes Back from the War.

Hampton has also adapted for the stage Horvath’s 1937 novel Youth Without God, which premieres in Austria this autumn, and featured Horvath as the central character in his own 1983 play Tales from Hollywood.

As a translator, in addition to Horvath, Hampton has most frequently tackled the work of Ibsen (writing new versions of five of his plays) and contemporary French playwright Yasmina Reza (Art, Life x 3, Conversations After a Burial, The Unexpected Man, God of Carnage).

Hampton’s other original plays include The Philanthropist, The Talking Cure, Savages, Treats, Total Eclipse and White Chameleon, as well as the adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, for which he also wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay. He penned the books for the musical Sunset Boulevard and Dracula, and his films include Carrington, Mary Reilly, The Quiet American and Atonement.

I worked quite a bit in Germany in the late Sixties and early Seventies, usually to do with productions of my own plays, and I became aware that there was this figure called Odon von Horvath who was causing a great deal of excitement, he was having something of a renaissance. I didn’t know anything about him, but I read a play of his called Faith, Hope and Charity, which I thought was absolutely stunning. It was like an Edward Bond play except it had been written in 1933. I was very taken with it and I became interested in Horvath.

Then, when the National Theatre moved to the South Bank in the mid-Seventies, they suddenly had three theatres rather than one and needed a lot of product, so they asked me if I would translate a play by Marivaux, which I said I didn’t want to do. I counter-proposed doing an adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which they thought was a terrible idea. The next thing they said was, we do have this play by Horvath ... The play was Tales from the Vienna Woods. That was my first Horvath translation. He had never been performed on stage in England before that, and it was the first season at the Olivier and it was a huge success, fortunately. The next year I did a German screenplay of it with Maximilian Schell, who also directed the play, and he made the film in 1979 in Austria.

Horvath is very original. He has, like all great playwrights, a voice that could only be his. He wrote a number of different kinds of plays - his comedies and farces haven’t worn so well - but the central few plays that he wrote when he was at the height of his success were what he called folk plays, which dealt with the ordinary lower middle class citizen.

Later on, his plays became more, on the one hand, literary – Don Juan Comes Back from the War and Figaro Gets a Divorce both take as their central character well-known literary figures – and, on the other, strange and slightly mystical. Judgment Day is like a film noir which suddenly goes into a weird ghostly ending, like with late Shakespeare when ghosts start appearing on stage – it’s most unexpected.

The contrast usually made in Germany is between Horvath and almost his exact contemporary, Bertolt Brecht, who outlived him and outpointed him really, in the end. But the writers who were starting out when I was working first in Germany, like Peter Handke and Fassbinder, they responded very much to the non-judgmental qualities of Horvath’s plays.

Brecht made a great song and dance about how the audience must be left distanced to make up their own mind and not be emotionally involved, but then he presented them with a series of formulaic pieces in which the decisions had already been determined for them. Horvath is much more poetic than that and much more genuinely prepared to leave the decision up to the audience as to what’s going on.

Judgment Day is now the fourth Horvath play I’ve translated. He was also a major character in my own play, Tales from Hollywood. Through my translation work, I learned a lot more about Horvath and I liked him very much personally from what I’d found out. And I had this technical problem with Tales from Hollywood. I wanted to write a tale about all the famous German emigres who were washed up in Los Angeles during the Second World War as refugees from Hitler. The technical problem was that very few of them were on speaking terms with each other – there were lots of frictions, Brecht detested Thomas Mann and so on. I needed a central character who would have known them all naturally, would have been fairly relaxed in their company and not taken such a strenuously partisan view as most of them did.

I thought that the ideal person for this would be Horvath - the only inconvenience being that he had died in 1938 on his way to LA in a freak accident on the Champs Elysees when a tree branch fell on his head. So I just thought, I’ll keep him alive for another 13 years and imagine what might have happened to him in those years in Hollywood.

Certainly Thomas Mann was a great admirer of Horvath’s, particularly of a novel of his called Youth Without God, which, in fact, I’ve just adapted for the stage for the Theater in Der Josefstadt in Vienna, where rehearsals start next month.

It’s slightly coincidental but it’s been very interesting to have both of these projects come at once because Judgment Day and Youth Without God were written pretty much back to back and there are a lots of similarities between them. Both are about guilt really, and it’s led me to think about Horvath’s state of mind at the time. Both are about a man who wants to think he’s doing the right thing but knows deep down that he isn’t, who feels an overwhelming sense of guilt and finally has to resolve it one way or another. I think that was a metaphorical depiction of the way Horvath felt about himself because.

Unlike all the other writers of his stripe and persuasion of that time, Horvath chose to go back and work in Germany and he joined the Nazis’ writers’ union. We don’t know an enormous amount about him – he died when he was 36 – so he’s rather mysterious, but I think it’s fair to infer that he felt bad about flourishing, in a way, in those circumstances under that regime. He wasn’t collaborating with the Nazis in any other way except that he was earning his money from the film studios in Berlin and Vienna and to do that he had to join the union, but I think he felt pretty uncomfortable about the work - he used a pseudonym on those scripts - and that guilt clings very strongly to both Youth Without God and Judgment Day.

Neither work engages in politics particularly. They’re just descriptions of what it’s like to live in that kind of country, the general petty-mindedness and the suspicion and slanderous assumptions that people make about other people in this poisoned atmosphere that must have been the general currency of life in 1930s Germany.

I haven’t any specific plans for an English production of Youth Without God – the theatre in Vienna commissioned it so they have first dibs - but I hope someone will want to do it here. It’s a really fascinating little book. Horvath wrote two novels, in 1936 and 1937, this one and another called A Child of Our Time, and he did that really out of frustration because he wasn’t getting productions out of his plays. And then Youth Without God was published in Holland and become a world bestseller. It was really the biggest success of his life, and it was the cause of his death as well. It was because of Youth Without God that he went to Paris to have a meeting about doing a screenplay of it and that’s when he had his accident.

- Christopher Hampton was speaking to Terri Paddock

Judgment Day opens tonight (10 September 2009, previews from 3 September) at the Almeida Theatre, where it runs until 17 October. The production, directed by James Macdonald, features Joseph Millson, Laura Donnelly, Suzanne Burden, Tom Georgeson and Sarah Woodward.


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