Embers: Torment of Desire

With a bravura performance by Helmut Lohner, the adaptation by Christopher Hampton sold out at Theater in der Josefstadt

TVR Books | Mary Albon | May 2010

Which endures longest: love, friendship or the desire for revenge?

In Embers (Die Glut), by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Hungarian Sándor Márai, two old friends, Henrik and Konrad, meet again after a separation of 41 years, since the day Konrad left Vienna for the tropics without warning or farewell. Though of different social class and temperaments—Henrik an aristocrat and the consummate military man, while Konrad, son of a tradesman with the soul of an artist—the two men were boyhood friends, closer than brothers. Time stopped for Henrik when Konrad disappeared—when everything he thought was true and good in life was cast into doubt: love, loyalty, honor, friendship. All that has sustained him across the years is the desire to know the truth about Konrad’s disappearance, and with it, a craving for revenge.

In the opening scene of the Theater in der Josefstadt’s excellent production of Embers directed by Ingo Berk, Henrik (Helmuth Lohner) paces fitfully under the watchful eyes of Nini (Gerti Pall), the elderly nurse who has been with him since the day he was born. A retired general in the Austro-Hungarian army, Henrik issues instructions for dinner preparations, demanding that every detail perfectly recreates the final meal that Henrik and his wife Kristine shared with Konrad that fateful day in 1899.

"What a memory you have," Nini remarks. "You have forgotten nothing." In her small but crucial role, Pall embodies unconditional love. She only wants to see Henrik at peace after so many decades of anguish.

When Konrad (Gerhard Balluch) arrives, Henrik welcomes him with strained heartiness. Now living in London, Konrad says he wanted to see Vienna again, and also Henrik’s estate, where he spent so many happy years as a boy and a young man. Henrik says he’s been waiting for his return, insisting that Konrad had no choice but to come back.

Damian Hitz’s austere set, with its backdrop of black shutters and just three chairs, conveys the oppressive loneliness of the forested estate where Henrik lives in self-imposed exile. Konrad asks after Kristine, and learns now for the first time that she is long dead. It was she who once occupied the now empty third chair, and as the play progresses, her absence grows increasingly palpable. Gradually we come to understand that Konrad and Kristine were lovers. Henrik knows the facts of their betrayal, but he wants to understand the reasons, and he wants Konrad to answer for himself. This is Henrik’s long-awaited moment of revenge; memories, he insists, are sharper than any dueling sabre.

Novelist Sándor Márai (1900-1989) is one of the leading lights of 20th-century Hungarian literature, whose reputation in the German- and English-speaking worlds continues to grow as more of his works are translated.  Although Marai considered Embers (1942) one of his lesser works, the novel is well respected and has a hypnotic power.  In adapting the novel for the stage, Christopher Hampton’s greatest challenge was to present what is essentially one man’s recounting of events that took place years earlier without losing the audience’s interest. This is a tricky task and he largely succeeds, in great part thanks to the mastery of Helmuth Lohner, the eminent 77-year-old Austrian actor and former director of the Theater in der Josefstadt, in a bravura performance as Henrik. Lohner’s every glance and gesture, the pacing of his delivery—all reveal the depth of Henrik’s torment.

In the second act, Lohner unleashes his full powers, dominating the stage in an extended monologue that flares like glowing embers prodded back into flame. Balluch’s Konrad, by contrast, seems to shrink and almost disappear. Henrik has been rehearsing his speech for over 40 years, yet when at last he allows his friend to respond, Konrad thwarts him, refusing to provide the answers Henrik seeks.

But perhaps Henrik is beyond the point where answers matter. After so many years, is revenge even possible?  And is it really the truth that he is after, since all along he has had in his possession Kristine’s sealed diary, which would have given him the answers he wants. He offers the diary to Konrad to read, but Konrad refuses it.  Henrik tosses the notebook onto the embers, unread.

Three lives were destroyed by an act of betrayal, and life itself extracted revenge on them all. Yet in the end, somehow, Henrik and Konrad still share an unbreakable bond. Henrik resumes his monkish life, now perhaps at peace.


Theater in der Josefstadt

Henrik: Helmuth Lohner

Konrad: Gerhard Balluch

Nini: Gerti Pall

Director: Ingo Berk

Set: Damian Hitz

Music: Patrik Zeller

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