review by Jane Montgomery Griffiths
‘I would like to make life endurable for people – therefore I am a poet’
Seven decades on, the sheer enormity of the Second World War’s toll is still too immense to comprehend. The volume of lost lives, wasted potential and human suffering remains unfathomable. Sometimes, however, works re-emerge that give a face, a name and a voice to the millions dead. Agnes Walder’s translations of her father’s plays do just that. These works are more than labours of love from a dedicated daughter for the father she never knew. They are testaments to destroyed talent but also to the power of art and language to transcend and survive even the most brutal of times. Lajos Walder was a young, yet already esteemed poet, in 1930s Hungary. Writing under the pseudonym ‘Vandor’ (wanderer), his poetry, published in English translation by Agnes Walder in 2015, spoke with an urgent, unique voice crying out against the rise of totalitarianism. Born in 1913, he battled against the entrenched anti-Semitism of Hungarian society in the pre-war years: although graduating as a lawyer, he had been forbidden to practise his profession by the Hungarian Jewish laws, and was instead forced to work as a factory labourer. Conscripted into a forced labour battalion during the war, he was ultimately sent to Gunskirchen concentration camp, where he died on May 7th 1945, the day of the camp’s liberation.
This collection of new translations of the plays of Walder gives us an insight into the potential of a tragically lost talent. Although much of his poetry had been extant, Walder’s theatrical work had remained within the family and did not receive publication in their original Hungarian until 1990. They have also yet to receive professional production. Now translated into English for the first time, these three plays demonstrate Walder’s philosophical and political beliefs, his curiosity about the human condition, and his eye for theatricality that was both challenging and innovative. Walder’s dramaturgy is more interested in how the theatrical form can be used to highlight moral and ethical imperatives than theatrical showmanship. To a contemporary reader or audience, used to the condensed ellipses of post-dramatic playwriting, the plays can seem dense and occasionally prolix: rich in language and occasionally didactic with political debate. Yet, there is much to recommend in these scripts. Each play, very different from its fellows, shows poetic sensibility, characterisational complexity and dramaturgical innovation. He uses theatre less as entertainment, more as a provocation for questioning complacent assumptions. The translations are highly welcome, and Walder’s voice is one that should be heard.
The most challenging in this collection is Walder’s fascinating, although I’d hazard almost unstageable, play Tyrtaeus. Based on the apocryphal life of the eponymous archaic poet and his rise to power in Sparta, this is a rich, dense, and politically fascinating work. As Agnes Walder, quoting Geza Hegedus, points out in her ‘Afterword’, the Greek lyric poets, including Tyrtaeus, ‘were approached with the closeness of friends’ (107). Walder himself demonstrates his classical knowledge throughout, cherry picking the disputed ancient sources for his hero and creating a figure who is simultaneously admirable and conflicted. The colourful excess of Pausanias and The Suda is gone: instead in the protagonist we have a philosopher, a teacher, an orator, and a born leader. We also have a man who has battled physical disability – a reason for infanticide in Sparta and something which will become a pivotal plot point in the play.
For all Walder’s classical knowledge, Tyrtaeus is much more than a mere historical fantasy. His Sparta is a chilling metaphor for the rise of Nazism. Sparta’s adoration of physical perfection finds its parallels in the Nazi’s fetishisation of racial purity and eugenics. The city state’s people follow the party line with blind fanaticism in the face of truth and humanity. This is exemplified in the play’s opening, a brutal depiction of the Spartan training regime for young men. Physical prowess, unwavering obedience, and unquestioning patriotism are drilled into the teenage boys. These boys could as well be in a Hitler youth training camp as an ancient gymnasium. Individuality is met with brutality: mob mentality rules. It is an arresting opening: Walder peppers his dialogue with sadomasochism, homoeroticism, entrenched misogyny and dangerous monomania, yet underlying it all is a deep melancholy at the innocence lost.
The entry of battle-weary soldiers escorting prisoners of war back to Sparta changes the tenor of the play. Illusion and reality – the illusion of glorious victory, and the reality of the bloody futility of war – clash: fanatical self-delusion supersedes acceptance of the truth that Sparta is losing the war. Among these prisoners is Tyrtaeus. He is a strong character from the outset: lame yet unbowed, quietly defiant, disconcertingly proud. As the play progresses, this quiet resolve of the protagonist starts to undermine the certainty of his Spartan captors. Tyrtaeus, the lame Athenian tutor, becomes leader and saviour of these captors.
One of the things that makes this a difficult play in theatrical terms is what, to a modern reader, is its didactisim and philosophising. Tyrtaeus and ephor Eupator philosophise in a manner that could come straight from Plato or Aristotle. Yet it is this very use of the theatrical form to debate and analyse concepts of justice, the limits of state control and the individual’s responsibility that makes the play so fascinating. Tyrtaeus’s rhetoric to his captors is compelling and has the urgency of Walder’s own voice:
In its contemporary context, the work stands as a cry for freedom against the repression that was to take Walder’s life. Walder is, however, no reductionist: he sees the conflicts in democracy, and as Tyrtaeus becomes the effective ruler of the Spartans, sees also the corrupting influence of power. Tyrtaeus’s motives are far from innocent; he becomes seduced by his own oratory; and in the denouement of the play, he finds that compassion is powerless in the face of populist rhetoric. The plays screams at the injustice of his times, but its message is horribly pertinent today and there are telling resonances to contemporary politics and the rise of the populist right.
Earlier, I suggested that the play was unstageable. This is less to do with Walder’s skills as a dramatist than to do with the sheer resources required to stage it. It is a huge and epic beast, requiring, in its current form, a cast size well beyond the finances of any professional company. Yet the play deserves to be heard. With judicious adaptation and dramaturgical editing, it would be a powerful and profoundly relevant script for today. It is urgent, impassioned, complex and intellectually satisfying, and if the right adaptation could be made, deserves to be staged.
The Vase of Pompeii is an altogether different theatrical beast. A symbolist chamber drama, its scale could not be further from the expansive and epic sweep of Tyrtaeus. Walder’s fascination with individual responsibility is, however, just as evident. This taut and subtle examination into memory and fate weaves together dream-like sequences, flashback and seemingly real-time dialogue to interrogate how the decisions one man makes can shape lives and destinies. Monsieur Lebordin, the protagonist, is a sixty-year-old art historian. He lives a solitary life; alienated from his family, incapable of relationships, he finds love not in human interaction, but in the materiality of the past in the shape of his prized possession, the vase of Pompeii. The arrival of the mysterious young woman Angela rocks the foundations of his misanthropic world. Although seemingly an ambitious young would-be academic wanting a reference from the older scholar, Angela is protean. She comes to embody each of Lebordin’s loves – or fixations – through his life. In a series of flashbacks we see Lebordin at fifteen, twenty, thirty, and forty, each time falling in love with a different incarnation of Angela, and each time losing her through his own folly, fear or stubbornness. Lebordin, for all his success as a classical art scholar, is a failure at life, existing in the half-life of ‘the grey ones’ who have run from possibilities. As Lebordin reminisces and assesses his life, we realise that Angela is now the Angel of Death. Lebordin has finally accepted his love, and allows the embrace of Death as an acquittal of life.
As with Tyrtaeus, Walder’s language in the play is dense, occasionally gnomic, and rendered with deep poetic sensibility:
His characterisation of the different Lebordin’s is fascinating: subtle shifts in language and desires compellingly differentiate the different ages of man. It is, however, very much a man’s play. To a contemporary reader, the one-dimensionality and purely functional characterisation of the Angelas can seem reductive. These women exist not in their own right, but only as objectified ciphers for Lebordin’s memories and desires. In that, however, we can see the cleverness of Walder’s conceit. The women of Lebordin’s life are as objectified as his Pompeiian vase and as devoid of internal life as the materiality of the clay that created his most precious belonging. These are not real women, nor can they be. They are fantasies contextualised by history, hence fitting objects of desire for a man who can only love the imagined past.
This is a skilful and structurally fascinating play. We could find strong parallels with J B Priestley’s plays in terms of the fascination with the past and alternating temporal planes. Some judicious dramaturgical cuts would probably improve it for stage performance, but it has a strong theatrical dynamic and warrants production.
While Tyrtaeus is one of a kind, and The Vase of Pompeii finds parallels in Priestley’s work, Below Zero resonates, in its subject and tenor, with Sartre’s Huis Clos and Pinter’s middle period. Set in an isolated Canadian weather station, the play is an examination of suppressed passion, thwarted desire and the banality of inaction. The tediously officious Dupois has been stationed for some years at a remote radio shack. His wry, clever and passionate wife Patricia accompanied Dupois, and while initially her love for him ameliorated the boredom, she can now no longer endure her frustration. For the past year, the ambitious young Lemoine has shared the posting, prior to his relocation to the city. As the play begins, Lemoine is preparing for his departure, and plans, we learn, to leave with Patricia, with whom he has been having an affair. Dupois responds to the news with threats of violence, infantile petulance, and pathetic desperation. Into this menage a trois, the charismatic and mysterious Pepaine enters. This is a man who, in his own world vision, had the courage to act on his passion, to commit murder in revenge for his partner’s infidelity. He is everything Dupois is not, and the challenging clarity of Pepaine’s moral relativism stands in sharp contrast to the saggy posturing of Dupois’s rhetorical manipulations. In an extraordinary scene, Patricia and Pepaine discuss the ethics of his homicidal revenge, and draw close to each other with an attraction that is equally matched with revulsion. This is without doubt the stand-out scene in the play, and demonstrates the sheer characterisational skill of which Walder was capable. Finally news come that Dupois and Patricia have been relocated by head office to the city and Lemoine is to stay. Husband and wife leave in a reconciliation of convenience, and Lemoine is left to contemplate his next affair with the wife of the new station assistant.
This synopsis suggests that the play is merely a conventional situational drama involving itself in scratching the scabs of festering relationships. The play is much more than that, however. It is not the situational plot constructions that stay in the mind, but the strange, disconcertingly peculiar characterisations that hold sway in the script. Each of the characters is fully formed through dialogue. Dupois’s bourgeois pomposity is peppered with lines that ring out in their oddness and truth: ‘Let us be sterile, Lemoine. Let’s rinse our emotions in the disinfectant of reality’ (14).
Pepaine’s ethical existentialism is both abhorrent and appealing:
Most interesting of all, Patricia’s dialogue creates a character that is extraordinarily complex: passionate, yearning, sexual and fascinating. In her banal and quotidian environment, she manages to rival Phedra and Hedda for female longing, frustration and sensuality:
Below Zero is a truly provocative yet entertaining work, one which is a pleasure to read, and would be even more pleasurable to see staged. It equals in its relational scope some of the great family dramas of mid-20th century theatre; yet it is its oddness that is so compelling, innovative and theatrically fascinating. Walder’s originality and uniquely creative take on human foibles shines through in this play.
Agnes Walder’s achievement in bringing these plays to an English-speaking audience cannot be overstated. Not knowing Hungarian, I can make no comments on translational fidelity or effectiveness. But as a theatre practitioner and scholar, I can say that the language is rich, poetic, theatrically dynamic, and often provocatively compelling. These three plays are a major achievement, and Agnes Walder is not only to be congratulated, but also thanked for bringing her father’s stage work out into the light.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Theatre and Performance at Monash University. She has published widely on Greek tragedy and adaptation and is an award-winning actor and playwright. Her plays include Sappho…in 9 fragments and adaptations of Antigone and Dorothy Porter’s Wild Surmise (all for Malthouse Theatre).
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Vol 21 No 2 October 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews editor: Linda Weste