The Hound of the Baskervilles (Der Hund von Baskerville)

Egon Friedell

As Herr Fischer, the director of the Vienna Intimate Theatre, suggested to me, for a modest, but uncertain, remuneration, to assist in the direction of his repertoire, he said roughly the following, »You would be just the right person to fill a big gap. We have really good actors and actresses, a mighty director, and an exceedingly forbearing scenery designer. We are only missing one ingredient: a man of letters. Every modern theatre has at least one of them. It is no longer possible to present a programme of acting alone. The actors only master their own roles, they don’t have an overview of the entire work. They don’t know when it was written, what influenced the playwright, or the aesthetic principles which he followed. And anyway, they are so superficial, so gimmicky. And now, dear Doctor, please devise your programme.«

»My programme is very simple«, I replied. »It is that only the best is good enough for the Intimate Theatre, and we musn’t be too timid about it. We will not only reach back into the mists of time and unearth buried treasures of world literature, we will also give a platform to unappreciated contemporary talents, the Cinderellas of modern drama. That is our literarary duty. I have already drawn up a list of such pearls of the older and more recent literature, and we will publish it in the newspapers. The public will be delighted when they see it. They will say, ›At least one theatre in Vienna is making a contribution to art‹. Of course, they will not come and see these performances. But that’s not a problem, because we won’t perform them either. We’ll perform whodunnits.«

» Whodunnits?« asked the director. »But surely Strindberg as well?«

»Strindberg is one of the greatest psychologists of our time. He has no place on the stage.«

»But Maeterlinck?«

»Maeterlinck is one of the most subtle modern impressionists, with a very innovative and original style. We musn’t produce him.«

»But at least Ibsen?«

“Ibsen is second only to Shakespeare, but with a terrible weakness: he is a profound philosopher. His dramas are full of deep insights. We can’t stage him. But I have brought you a book. It is called The Hound of the Baskervilles. Have a look at it. You will notice various things about it. Firstly, it is full of the most unlikely events, or to put it more plainly, it is a pack of lies from start to finish. That is important because the audience has reality, normal life, that which is psychologically possible, at home. They don’t need to spend good money, and spend several hours on an uncomfortable chair, to get it. They are prepared to make this sacrifice only for what they have never yet seen, perhaps what doesn’t even exist. Secondly: almost only extremely elegantly dressed people appear in this play, one of them is even a millionaire. That is also important. The audience also has worn out boots and an empty purse at home, and when they go to the theatre, they want money to be no object on the stage. And something else: everybody is in permanent danger, and they really like to be able to say to themselves, ›I am sitting here safely, and there’s a left-over roast waiting for me when I get home.‹”

The director, a man of great intelligence, shook his head and said, “Do you really mean what you’re saying?”

“Certainly. And I think I’m right. Every institution, like every person and every people, has its own path of development, and a finite life-span. In classical times, theatre was a place of artistic and religious reflection. In the Middle Ages, religion dominated art, but mystery plays were still a place of reflection. In modern times, this has changed fundamentally. Theatre is no longer holy to us, not even in a profane, artistic sense. We have created the type of theatre which is appropriate for our times. We have created our own theatrical psychology, which is actually more a collection of the superficial and inaccurate observations that normal people make about other people and events, and not psychology at all. We have created our own theatrical ethics, which are actually more an extract from the catechism and bourgeois morality, not scientific or philosophical ethics at all. We have created a concept of theatre, which is just enough of a concept to still be considered to be a concept, while remaining harmless and conventional enough that the entire audience could proudly profess it. We have even created a theatrical logic, which is certainly one of our most astonishing achievements.

The strangest thing, though, is that the whole audience reacts in the same way in the theatre. I don’t believe in an elite theatre. In the theatre, everyone is audience, even the deepest and finest. As soon as he folds down his seat in the stalls, he is someone else. So if you offer subtle moods, meaningful thoughts and deep psychology, in other words, art, instead of theatre, that is plain fraud. It is a dishonest way of doing business, which the audience would pay back by staying away. The playwright differs from other writers in that he is a productive member of society. He creates something practical, whereas the others produce luxurious playthings at best. A proper play is a useful  everyday object, a thing which people use to re-gather their strength in a particular way for three hours. Poetry or philosophy are unavoidable necessities of life for only a small minority of people, but theatre is a necessity for the modern city-dweller, just as much as black coffee and cigars. Art is a luxury item. Theatre is a utility. A theatre is a machine into which you insert money to get inauthentic (theatrical) emotions, inauthentic (theatrical) humour, and inauthentic (theatrical) excitement. So an honest theatre director does not offer his audience art.

Artists must also want to keep art away from the theatre, because if you force a comtemporary artist to write in theatrical form, you force him to leave his own level, to flatten his thoughts, to suppress his psychological observations, and force his original ideas into an old-fashioned conventional form. He has set himself the task of tracing the most subtle, almost invisible, manifestations of life, and now we expect him to produce a hasty, vulgar to and fro, and an account of passionate, exciting, violent events which no longer occur in the life of modern people. The more artisticly he thinks, the more important the future of art and culture are to him, the more he must desire the strict separation of art and theatre.

So present The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

„But what if the play bombs?“

„Yes, I have already thought about that, because it is perhaps still too artistic and modern. The author unfortunately had extraordinary attacks of shame here and there, so I have made a few changes, but even they may not help, so I have ordered Schinderhannes[P1] , telegraphically, just in case.“


 [P1]An undemanding, conventional adventure story, by Carl Zuckmayer

Published in:

FriedellEssays  Friedell Essays, Satire, Humour

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