Aug 2009 Journal
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Duet for One
The spirit of Central European Jewry pervades the highly successful revival of Tom Kempinski’s play Duet for One, which was originally staged in 1980 and is, at the time of writing, running at London’s Vaudeville Theatre. The play has a cast of two: a psychologist, Dr Feldmann, and his patient, the world-famous violinist Stephanie Abrahams, who has been stricken by multiple sclerosis and is unable to play any more. The production has two outstanding performances, by Henry Goodman as the German-accented Feldmann and Juliet Stevenson as the wheelchair-bound Abrahams. The play was inspired by the case of the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, though only in its outward details.
The drama consists of six sessions between doctor and patient, displaying many of the classic ingredients of the process of therapy. We witness open conflict, expressed as aggression and resistance on the part of the patient, but also the gradual building of a relationship with the psychologist. We experience Abrahams’s moments of involuntary self-revelation and of genuine insight, as well as a crisis of despair that, by the end of the play, opens up the possibility that she may yet overcome the devastating loss of the music that has given meaning to her life. Kempinski’s basic conception is pared down and highly dramatic: the play is restricted in place to the psychologist’s consulting room, in time to six weekly one-hour sessions (three in each of the two acts), and in action to the encounter between doctor and patient.
Commentators on the play like Lisa Appignanesi have related Duet for One to the long tradition of plays and films centring on Freudian analysis, going back to Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) or even to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). But one aspect of the play that has not been investigated is its Jewish dimension. Dr Feldmann – we discover that his first name is Alfred – is characterised as ‘German’. In one of her fits of rage, Abrahams even accuses him of putting on his accent to increase his credibility as a psychologist. Any German-accented psychologist or psychoanalyst practising in the leafier parts of north-west London in the 1970s would almost certainly have been a Jewish refugee; the number of such refugee practitioners who settled in London was considerable, while non-Jewish German practitioners operating in London would have been few indeed.
Stephanie Abrahams is, to judge by her name and her marriage to another musical prodigy, David Liebermann, almost certainly also Jewish. (The marriage is modelled on the union of musical geniuses between Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré.) Significantly, the film version of Duet for One (1986) was at pains to remove the Jewish dimension: Abrahams became Anderson and her husband became David Cornwallis, possibly because she was played by Julie Andrews, who is even less likely to appear Jewish than she is to convey musical genius or deep psychic distress. But the clearest evidence of Abrahams’s Jewishness is that she lapses into Yiddish when she loses her temper with Feldmann, calling him ‘a “pain in the tuches”, which means the arse, for your information’.
From this one can deduce that she assumes Feldmann, though Jewish, to be unfamiliar with the Yiddish term. This is a significant pointer to a clash of cultures that feeds into the central confrontation between the two characters, in that Feldmann is the product of his native German-Jewish culture, whereas Abrahams is the daughter of British Jews. The entire set of the play exudes evidence of the high culture that Feldmann, the refugee, has brought with him from Germany; his consulting room is full of books, works of art and, above all, recordings of classical music. Even the tastefully expensive carpets on the floor will be familiar to anyone who has frequented the living rooms of Jewish refugees from Central Europe, with their imposing ranks of bound volumes of German classics, from Goethe and Schiller to Lion Feuchtwanger and Stefan Zweig, their pianos, their fine walnut or mahogany furniture, and their programmes from the Wigmore Hall.
The Jews from the German-speaking lands were famous for their devotion to high culture. In the relatively brief period between the Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century, which marked the dawning emancipation of Germany’s Jews and heralded their entry into mainstream society, and the advent of the Nazis in 1933, that Jewish community was responsible for a cultural efflorescence that ranks among the most impressive in modern European history, as well as contributing notably to the key intellectual advances of the period. (‘Fin-de-siècle Vienna’, that hothouse of pioneering intellectual trends, would have been unthinkable without Vienna’s Jews.) One needs only to list such names as Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and Albert Einstein, among many others, to make the point.
The assimilated German-speaking Jews, it has often been remarked, abandoned much of their traditional Judaism as they became secularised, adopting an almost religious veneration for German high culture and education - for Bildung, to use the German term, as a substitute for the Jewish faith. According to Amos Elon’s study of the Jews in Germany, The Pity of It All, the writer Emil Ludwig (né Cohn) recalled that his parents practised neither Judaism nor Christianity, but the cult of Bildung. For the Cohns, the ‘practical’ substitute for religion was moral education, while the ‘mystical’ substitute was the worship of music. Similarly, George Clare, author of the celebrated family memoir Last Waltz in Vienna, declared in Berlin Days that his father had ‘worshipped, never at a synagogue, but almost daily at the altar of German literature’.
But this love of German-language culture came at a cost: it helped to create a gulf between the assimilated, middle-class Westernised Jews of the German-speaking cities and the Jews of Eastern Europe, who still spoke Yiddish and stuck more closely to the traditional beliefs, practices and lifestyle of Eastern Jewry. The choice between German and Yiddish became a key indicator of communal identity and cultural allegiance: Lucie Kaye, who often wrote for AJR Information in bygone decades as Lucie Schachne, stated in an interview that her father had strictly forbidden her to speak Yiddish in their assimilated Berlin home. And when the boy Georg Klaar (George Clare) called his father ‘Tate’, the Yiddish word for ‘Vater’, his father hit him.
In Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna, the philosopher Peter Singer highlights the rift that developed between his grandfather, the scholar and humanist David Oppenheim, an exemplar of the Westernised Jew who loved German culture, and those who admired the Jews of the East for having maintained their distinctive Jewish culture, through the medium of Yiddish, and for having refused to acculturate to German society and its values. By contrast, Oppenheim, according to his grandson, ‘was proud to speak the language of Goethe, and not the Yiddish of the shtetl’. He was one of the educated, Western Jews whose natural habitat was the coffee house or the opera house rather than the synagogue. Feldmann, in his book-lined Hampstead consulting room, is plainly one of those Jews from Central Europe who were at pains to preserve their inherited cultural values in Britain.
Stephanie Abrahams’s family background, on the other hand, seems to have had little of this veneration for culture. Her father, we learn, was a small businessman who earned a modest living from selling chocolates that were hand-made at the back of his shop. As a young girl, Abrahams had had to fight long and hard against her father’s determined refusal to allow her to take up music seriously. Horrified at the prospect of his daughter ‘scraping cat-gut for a living’, he was utterly blind to the cultural advantages of a musical career, seeing a ‘scraper’ as no better than a small shopkeeper.
As Abrahams’s family are not refugees from Central Europe, one can assume that they were Jews who had arrived around the turn of the previous century from Tsarist Russia, and from a social culture very different to that of the Westernised Jews of Germany and Austria. Many of this wave of Jewish immigrants settled in areas like the East End, where the culture was again far removed from German high culture. One can readily imagine that Abrahams’s father was a product of this environment. While it is possible that a child prodigy possessed of extraordinary musical genius might have faced a similar struggle in a family of refugees from Central Europe, it is, to judge by what is known of the high culture that flourished there, not so likely.
Of course, musical geniuses of Polish- and Russian-Jewish descent are very numerous indeed: from Rubinstein and Menuhin to Barenboim, Perlman and Ashkenazy, their names stand out among the best-known virtuosi of the modern era. And when it comes to manufacturers of fine chocolates in Britain, one of the most notable was a Jewish refugee from Germany, Werner Ackermann, founder of Ackerman’s in Goldhurst Terrace, South Hampstead, a retail outlet that flourished for some 50 years, surviving proudly into the twenty-first century.
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