Ödön von Horváth Analysis
Ödön von Horváth’s corrosive wit, his skeptical treatment of language, and his awareness (before the feminist revolution) of feminist issues make him a valuable resource for playwrights in the late twentieth century, many of whom see in his works a prescient expression of their own concerns.
Horváth’s most successful plays were his Volksstück written between 1930 and 1932. His first major work in this style, the satiric comedy Italian Night, received highly positive reviews from liberal theater critics and was roundly condemned in the Nazi press. The text consists of seven scenes without traditional act divisions. Set in a provincial small town in Southern Germany (Bavaria) around 1930, the play satirizes the political climate of the time. A group (which includes the town’s mayor) of democratic supporters of the Weimar Republic are planning a big party—a festive “Italian Night”—at their local pub. Much to their chagrin, they learn in the first scene that the enterprising owner of the restaurant has also rented the place for that afternoon to the town’s group of National Socialists, who are celebrating a solemn “German Day” with a nationalistic parade and nighttime military maneuvers. As the play opens, the mayor’s group is playing cards in the pub and discussing their evening’s events. One of their members, a politically intense young man named Martin, angrily reveals the plans of the Nazi group and suggests that they should take more aggressive action. The mayor responds with an impressive sounding but vague and pretentious answer about how the reactionary elements lack any real ideological basis. This is a good example of Bildungsjargon, a seemingly educated but actually meaningless use of language that masks the mayor’s basic lack of concern. The Weimar supporters do not seem to regard the National Socialists as a genuine threat. The mayor and the others have little interest in politics and are really concerned only with eating, drinking, and having a good time. Horváth comments satirically here not only on the political complacency of the German middle classes at the time—a fact that would lead a few years later to the collapse of the Weimar government and the takeover of the Hitler regime—but also on the extent to which politics (or all social behavior for that matter) is linked to basic and unconscious psychological drives and desires (eros/pleasure in its broadest Freudian sense). The theme of the political versus the erotic is prominent throughout the play. Karl, another militant younger member of the group, cannot, for example, separate his political commitment from his attraction to the opposite sex. Horváth thus also takes up the pervasive theme of male-female relationships. This theme is apparent in the first scene, in the mayor’s crass comments about his wife.
The second scene opens with two women watching members of the National Socialist group parade past in their military uniforms. The older of the two women is greatly impressed by the spectacle—with an erotic fascination—and she voices worn-out political clichés concerning Germany and World War I. The younger woman, Leni, then meets Karl, who asks her to accompany him to the party that night. Karl is later confronted by Martin, who considers Leni to be politically uncommitted. Karl tries to mask his erotic intentions by suggesting that she is sympathetic to their cause. He then attempts to excuse himself by claiming that Martin, as a laborer, cannot understand his individualistic and artistic nature, which compels him to seek erotic adventure as aesthetic stimulation. Karl’s words are a virtual listing of trite and sentimentalized bourgeois notions of the artistic personality. In this dialogue, Horváth ironically exposes the falsity of Karl’s reasoning. His idealized and romantic notions mask the more elemental erotic drives that motivate his actions. At the end of this scene, Horváth makes the...
(The entire section is 3,532 words.)