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 psychological implications of the play explicit by having Betz, one of Martin’s group, discuss Sigmund Freud and the relationship of desire, aggression, and social behavior.
The themes of the interaction of men and women and the interrelationship of politics and the erotic are continued in the third scene. Martin meets his girlfriend Anna in the park. Concerned solely with his duty as a political leader, he treats her brusquely, rejecting her attempts at affection. After Martin leaves, Karl learns from Anna that Martin intends for her to have a sexual encounter with one of the Nazis so that he can gather information about the type of weapons they carry, making her, as Karl aptly expresses it, into a kind of political prostitute. Horváth points in satiric fashion to what he sees as the fundamental exploitation that often underlies the relationship of the middle-class couple. Conditioned to feel inferior and worthless, the woman accepts such treatment and continues to idolize the man. This type of relationship is a frequent theme in Horváth’s plays. Anna sees nothing wrong in Martin’s request and feels gratitude that he has “elevated” her. Karl then meets Leni, and they have a discussion about politics. Leni is not at all interested in political issues and is concerned only with marriage. Karl voices a number of trite (but unfortunately, in view of German history, somewhat accurate) notions concerning the traditional German apathy toward politics, seeking to give the impression that he is interested in more than the merely sexual. In the end, however, his desire for Leni wins over his political scruples.
The fourth scene opens with several of Martin’s group painting the statue of the state leader red in an attempt to infuriate the National Socialists. Meanwhile, Anna has met one of the Nazi group, and they stroll through the park. The man voices the conservative ideology of the Fascists. In one of the most comic passages of the play, he decries Jewish socialism and its “materialist” philosophy while simultaneously attempting to molest Anna. With such a humorous juxtaposition, Horváth reveals the discrepancy between language and action that is characteristic of so-called civilized behavior. When the Nazi suddenly sees the defiled statue, he is so incensed that he finally stops molesting Anna.
In the fifth scene, the National Socialists celebrate their “German Day,” and Horváth satirically rehearses the standard Nazi rhetoric about Germany’s enemies (the French, the English, and the Bolsheviks). After the National Socialists leave, the Weimar supporters enter with their “Italian Night.” As a protest gesture, Martin and his group refuse to dance. Karl, however, is finally “persuaded” by Leni. Again there is an instance of the discrepancy between words and behavior that is so characteristic of Horváth’s ironic “unmasking” of the false consciousness in his characters: Karl speaks to Leni of having given his word to Martin and the others that he would not dance—and a man’s “word of honor” is a sacred thing—but at the same time, he is fondling her with his hand, and soon he unconsciously begins to dance with her. The dialogue between the mayor and his wife, Adele, reveals the often cruel suppression of women within the middle-class family structure as well as the hypocrisy of its social behavior. The mayor tries to present the image to others that he is a loving and concerned husband while he viciously seeks to silence his protesting wife. He attempts to mask the violence of his behavior by citing a famous quote about women from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. (This is another good example of Horváth’s use of the Bildungsjargon of the middle classes.) The evening ends in a hostile debate between Martin and the mayor over the Weimar group’s lack of response to the threat of the National Socialists. The issues involved, although treated in a humorous manner, are serious indeed. In a prophetic fashion, Horváth focuses precisely on the apathy and blithe lack of concern that characterized the Weimar democratic parties’ response to the rise of Fascism in Germany during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.
In the sixth scene, Martin learns from Anna, who has been intimate with one of the Nazis, that they are planning to disrupt the “Italian Night” party and beat up the Weimar group because of the defiled statue in the park. Although he tries to mask his emotions with socialist rhetoric, Martin is somewhat jealous that Anna has had an affair with another man. Karl is asked to leave the group of younger radicals because of his lack of political commitment....
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