Music and Reconciliation

‘Old Wicked Songs’ Joins The Longing, Heartache and Denial of Post-War Austria in Schuman’s Dichterlieder

Denis Butkis, Kenneth Tigar | Photo: English Theatre

There are authors whose work is as much a portrait of a place as much as of its characters: one thinks of Dickens’ London, Ibsen’s Norway, Tolstoy’s Russia, the Rome of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. In this way, the insightful and moving two-character play Old Wicked Songs by Jon Maran is a portrait of Vienna.

Its name taken from Marans’ chosen translation of the last stanza of a Schumann song cycle, the play joins the longing, heartache and denial of post-war Austria, with musical performance, artistic crisis, anti-Semitism, young America versus venerable Vienna — to mold a well-crafted drama splendidly acted under the guiding hand of veteran director Jonathan Fox that ended all too short a run at the Vienna’s English Theater in early May.

Overriding all of these dramatic devices is the juxtaposition of joy and sorrow as metaphorically portrayed in Robert Schumann’s legendary 16-song cycle Dichterliebe (“A Poet’s Love”). Professor Mashkan, the aging voice coach who has been charged with rescuing a young American piano prodigy from a creative crisis, asks provocatively, rhetorically: “Why has England produced good composers like Benjamin Britten but no musical geniuses such as Brahms, Schubert and Schumann?” The answer: “Having never lived through great sadness, they have little comprehension of great joy.” As the stubborn and skeptical young American, Stephen (who haughtily rejects the German pronunciation of his name) haltingly attempts to absorb the grand insights imparted to him by the omnipotent — and shamelessly bullying — professor, Stephen learns that even the first optimistic lines of Dichterliebe are accompanied by sad harmonies: “…ending with an unresolved dominant seventh, reminding us of the sadness throughout.”

There is sadness and joy, too, in the tumultuous relationship that develops between the young man and his elderly mentor. The success of the play comes from the strident and vacillating tension constructed with the excellent rhetorical skills of Marans, who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for the work. Suicide attempts, drug addiction, mind-boggling hypocrisy, clashes on how to perform Schumann and how to translate Heine’s poetry — followed ultimately by a transfiguring and joyful denouement define another successful production at Vienna’s English Theatre. The tone is maintained flawlessly to the end: Even as the disturbed young student and his tormented teacher rejoice, they revel in the gloom of the ending to Dichterliebe: “…the dreams, wicked and grim, let us bury them, …fetch me twelve giants. They are to bear the coffin away, and sink it into the deep sea!”

Old Wicked Songs is a Viennese story through and through; though it is set in Vienna, with perennial local characters taking on enduring Viennese themes, this production was its debut here, fully 12 years after its New York and London premieres, and following scores of successful international stagings in English and in translation.

To the Viennese and cognizant foreigners, the play’s rather unflattering portrait of Vienna is spot-on. What may seem incredible to the international viewer — how many times to say no before you get seconds as a guest, the petty stinginess of the professor, latent anti-Semitism — are known to the conversant alien and to the native Austrians probably not all that amusing. Their accurateness are however testimony to the author’s powers of perception, and one must add that the wit and trueness of the lines combined with the appealing performances makes the portrait not only bearable but loveable. Marans has drawn on his own experience as a young student in Vienna studying Schumann’s Dichterliebe. (I am reminded of an Austrian lady with impeccable English skills who learned that if she wanted seconds in the U.S. she had to say “yes” the first time she was asked.)

Highest marks must go to Kenneth Tigar, whose rendition of the aging and deeply traumatized Viennese voice coach Mashkan is an astonishing model of character acting. He speaks English with a perfect Viennese accent that matches the authentic and refined Viennese German he declaims when introducing his young American charge to the marvels of Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe. His bearing, his inflections, his delivery are as if he were a professor from the University of Vienna School of Music who had become a consummate actor. One has the impression Tigar spent a lifetime perfecting the role.

It was also clear that Denis Butkis at 25 is already an experienced actor. Never a misplaced gesture, every word and motion fitting the mold created for him by playwright Marans. Students of piano performance must be particularly delighted as Butkis dons hats of Horowitz, Alfred Brendl, and Glenn Gould and sits at the “grand Grand” — or stands, to avoid using the pedal when imitating Gould. He also left me wondering if he really played the piano (he doesn’t) gracing professor Mashkan’s studio or whether he had a entered into a secret pact with Yamaha and its Disklavier. Remarkable, too, how his singing made Schumann sound like Tony from West Side Story.

But there is more to Maran’s portrait of Vienna, an allegory he may never have encountered although would surely instantly identify with. Erwin Ringel, one of Austria’s best-known students of the Austrian mind since Freud, liked to quote a Dutch painter reflecting on the Austrian soul: “The Austrian lives in a two-room flat: one room is bright and friendly, the well appointed ‘charming parlor’ where he receives his guests. The other room has drawn shades and is sinister. The room is inaccessible and locked — utterly inscrutable.”

Professor Mashkan is a Holocaust survivor who denies his past and alludes to making love with a wife who has been dead for 10 years. The charming parlor, in this case, is the professor’s studio where he lives the life of the inspired, sophisticated and erudite mentor of a score of talented students. The young Stephen Hoffmann, however, turns out to be his only student. In the other “room,” professor Mashkan is addicted to whisky and pills, leading to more than the one suicide attempt we see on stage.

As performed by these two highly experienced dramatic artists Old Wicked Songs makes excellent theater. Walk in, take your seat, and let the drama grip you. The conclusion of the first act is perfect: Stephen announces that he is traveling to Dachau, provoking an anti-Semitic slur from an assumed bigot. The slur prompts Stephen to reveal that he is, in fact, Jewish — after initially denying it (another clever dramatic instrument) — and that his father has admonished him to visit Dachau while in Europe. Since this is not a new production of a famous masterpiece, but rather a higher order of soap opera most of the audience begins the intermission in great expectation and marveling at the excellent acting.

It should be noted that the using the exercise of translating and interpreting German romantic poetry as context is an aspect of the play that raises it well above the level of The Young and the Restless. The song cycle is one of the greatest ever composed and using it both musically and linguistically to unify the construction of the drama and symbolically convey the conflict of sadness and joy deepens and broadens the impact of the drama.

Marans has constructed a play that progresses along a skillfully designed path to maintain anticipation right through the final scene. However, it does not provoke much deliberation on the powerful subjects it raises, such as the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and Austria’s participation in it, Waldheim’s election to the presidency of Austria, or even the Dutch composer’s metaphor. These are, in the end, merely tools to keep the audience involved in the drama unfolding within and between these two troubled men.

The second act does not let the audience down. We hear Stephen’s wrenching account of his visit to Dachau. We find out that the assumed bigot is a Holocaust survivor himself and we keep hoping that he will finally tell his story (he doesn’t). He nearly succumbs to still another suicide attempt from which Stephen miraculously rescues him.

Otherwise, there are a few caveats: It is hardly likely that the professor would be notorious among Viennese rescue services because of his repeated suicide attempts or that he would recover from them so quickly. Nor are the Viennese nearly as stingy as portrayed (still stingy, though).

And perhaps least convincing, is Stephen’s romantic encounter after visiting Dachau, leading to a night of sex with another Jewish pilgrim, a chance encounter that was described as “hot. Really hot. For hours and hours into the night. And then again the next morning.” Which leaves the critic wondering whether we were supposed to understand that learning to sing, having great sex and giving in to shouting matches with a disturbed music professor can make a difference in a concert pianist’s career.

But one final word: Entering the stalls of the Vienna’s English Theatre, I picked up a brochure titled The Plays, 1963 – 2004. The roster would be the envy of any theater in the West End or on Broadway. This splendidly acted and directed performance of Old Wicked Songs, the last of the run, will help to enhance the legacy of this theater that has endured for over 40 years.

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