Oct 2008 Journal

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Hannele with Schlagobers

The first-night audience greeted one another like the old friends they were and settled back in their chairs. I could hear the hum of anticipation from the other side of the curtain. There were only about 40 of them in the dining room of our house in Hietzing, but they were of the cream - the very Schlagobers - of Vienna. Taking a forbidden peek, I spotted old father Freud, his daughter Anna, Kokoschka, Alban Berg, the violinist Rostal, Adolf Loos, my mother’s aunt Yvette Guilbert, the chanteuse immortalised by Toulouse-Lautrec, Max Reinhardt with a cohort of disciples, and more. They had all been inveigled to watch an amateur performance of Gerhart Hauptmann’s Hanneles Himmelfahrt (Hannele Heavenbound).

Hauptmann, then Germany’s foremost living dramatist, considered himself the reincarnation of Goethe, cultivating the master’s very looks and locks, and going one better than the old man by being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1912. His social dramas, with their unsparing depiction of proletarian degradation, provided the kitchen sink plays of his day. Later, in his fairy tale plays, he added an element of fantasy to grim reality. Hanneles Himmelfahrt was his masterpiece in that genre.

I don’t know whether my father was attracted by magical naturalism or whether he thought that this strange mixture made it possible for a very adult play to be performed by children and adolescents. Maybe he was just dragooned by my mother into participating in a ‘project’ for the young people living as boarders in my parents’ house. Many of them attended an experimental school in our back garden, run under the aegis of Anna Freud on the project principle. Which meant that at any one time, the entire school worked on the same subject, each age group according to its capacity. During my brief time as a pupil there, I did Eskimos with a thoroughness that has left me an expert on blubber to this day; there was a rumour that a rich American parent had donated an Eskimo for the older students to dissect.

Casting began. I had my eye on the part of the tailor, small but important, with plenty of scope for hamming it up. Playing the part of a hump-back, my small stature would be no obstacle. The part of Hannele went to my cousin, who was 14, the exact age of the character she portrayed: she even had the long red tresses called for. My sister, much older than I, played the principal male part of teacher Gottwald; the equally important part of the deaconess went to a young patient of Anna Freud, Minna Mach, who was to enter psycho-analytic history for reasons other than her amazing performance. I learned my lines, rehearsed a grotesque walk in secret, and was duly auditioned by my parents. Nothing was said at the time, but later my mother took me to one side and explained that I was too young for the part and would be given the lesser role of an angel instead. It was the first of many auditions in which I failed to get the part.

Rehearsals started with my father sitting us down and explaining the play. He was in his element. Between delivering psycho-sociological interpretations, he rigged up the complicated lighting which was to mark the difference between raw reality and the dream scenes, wrote incidental music under the tutelage of Alban Berg, rushing back and forth between piano and harmonium to play it, and worked the vacuum cleaner to simulate the storm outside every time the door to the poorhouse was opened. All props were made in the school; I particularly remember the sword of the Angel of Death with flames spurting from it as demanded by Hauptmann, and my cardboard angel’s wings, the left irritatingly lower than the right. Only one professional was involved, a make-up artist to age our childish faces. The layout of the ground floor and stairs made the perfect stage. Loos had provided a silk curtain which conveniently divided dining room from hall and staircase, and thus stalls from stage. Only the telephone mounted on the wall struck a false note - indeed spectacularly so when one day during rehearsal it rang just as the deaconess had to speak the words ‘Be brief, thou black and awful ghost.’ Helpless laughter put an end to rehearsals for that afternoon.

As the first night approached, the tension became almost unbearable. Stage and home being the same - breakfast in the poorhouse, lunch with the Angel of Death, dinner by the pale light of Hannele’s death bed - we lived a theatrical dream. I slept with my wings beside me. We were children, but bewitched and transformed, transcending our limitations in a cloud of Hauptmann’s fairy dust. Drunk with elation, I expected the public to tear through the silk curtain and enfold us in its arms. Instead, on the first night, there was total silence as my father drew the final curtain - and then the relief of a detonation of applause.

We gave three performances and could have filled our dining room ten times over. Our Hannele was the talk of Vienna. Reinhardt asked whether we would do the show in his theatre school in nearby Schoenbrunn. But Anna Freud, notoriously publicity-averse, vetoed the idea. And Sigmund Freud confined himself to a cryptic compliment addressed to my father: ‘Anyone who can produce an anxiety attack with a vacuum cleaner is wasted as a lawyer!’ The boy who played the tailor was much better than I would have been in the part.
 

Victor Ross

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