Hofreiter at Josefstadt

A new production of Arthur Schnitzler’s Das weite Land celebrated premiere at Theater in der Josefstadt on May 13

On The Town | Alec Kinnear | June 2010

The premiere came on the day of the great downpour. Limousines full of finely-dressed dignitaries stopped traffic for blocks. Under wide umbrellas, jeweled ladies and tailored gentlemen were escorted into Theater in der Josefstadt while uncouth taxi drivers screamed and honked until menaced into silence by mustachioed bodyguards. With the Theater an der Wien, the Josefstadt is one of the great private theaters of Vienna and has the public to match. The seating is limited and tickets are expensive. The good part is, you’re never far from the stage.

Theater in der Josefstadt opened in 1788. Here the great Fanny Elssler danced, Ludwig van Beethoven conducted and Johann Nestroy performed. Since 1945, the Josefstadt has turned solely to dramatic theater and has become home to a special Viennese public. While the Burg is Vienna’s theatrical face to the world, the Josefstadt is their mirror.

And nothing could be more Viennese than the trysts and assignations of Arthur Schnitzler. The debut of their new production of Das weite Land was sold out for weeks. So despite the tempests outside, the Josefstadt was packed to the rafters. Curiously, while the theater has become the unofficial custodian of Schnitzler’s work in Vienna during the last thirty years, many of the original premieres took place in the Burgtheater. Schnitzler concerns mirror are those of clotured fin de siècle Vienna.

Das weite Land (Undiscovered Country) is one of the Viennese playwright’s masterworks, and one of the most performed of his plays after the infamous La Ronde (Reigen: banned after the first performances for explicit sexual content). In Austrian culture, the character of Hofreiter is known just by his surname, like Hamlet or Macbeth in English theatre. Every leading Austrian actor must take on the role at least once and more often four or five times in his career.

The character of Hofreiter is forty years old. In the latest product at Theater in der Josefstadt, artistic director Herbert Föttinger plays Hofreiter for the third time. At age 49, Föttinger is a very handsome man, with a winning smile, reminiscent of Kenneth Branagh in his energetic Henry V years. But although Branagh and Föttinger are almost the same age, Föttinger carries his more lightly. Still, fifty is not forty, and when Föttinger runs off with the 20 year old Erna, her enthusiasm is not completely credible.

The first time Föttinger took on the role, he was not yet forty. And today?

"With every season, I understand the role better," he told The Vienna Review. Now when at the end of the play he shouts out "Enough" and leaves in disgust, he no longer has to imagine it.

"Schnitzler was about my age, 46, when he wrote Das weite Land. And he wrote it from his own life. You can feel his own anguish in Hofreiter’s words," Föttinger said. "What people sometimes forget is that in 1900, 40 was the equivalent of 50 these days. At forty now we are in the middle. The retrospection has moved to fifty. So an actor in his later forties or fifty is a closer cultural equivalent."

True or not, the reluctantly aging audience at Josefstadt was perhaps well placed to appreciate such a mortality-distancing view.

Hofreiter was an industrialist in the time when industrialism was as sexy as software is for us, an exciting and not fully explored field. In 1911, when Schnitzler wrote Das weite Land, Henry Ford had just introduced the Model T in 1908. Hofreiter’s factories are conveniently off in America, which was a distant land, as mysterious as is China today. Somehow Hofreiter manages these distant factories by telegram and is never short of means.

In his free time between meetings with bankers, Hofreiter has a lot of time to kill – time usually spent with one woman or another, despite his long standing marriage to a very emotional, high-maintenance wife. The opening scene shows Hofreiter struggling out of an entanglement with Adele, the wife of his banker Natter. Normally one might be careful about cuckolding one’s banker, but like Bill Gates, Hofreiter’s bankers usually want to borrow from him.

Hofreiter’s wife Genia has her share of admirers as well. But Hofreiter is a man of his time, happy to forgive his own dalliances but not hers, and the latest, a pianist by the name of Korsakow, has committed suicide in romantic despair.

Endless quarrels ensue; secret letters are opened. While not establishing Genia’s guilt in the flesh, they indict her sentimentally. The capricious Hofreiter dares call his wife a murderer. Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t, as subsequent events reveal. By the time, they’ve sorted out her non-affair, Hofreiter and Genia are hardly on speaking terms. But they have guests to entertain, as all seems to revolve around the power couple.

Ironically enough, Föttinger’s opposite in the role of Genia is his own wife Sandra Cervik, a sultry brunette. As Genia, Cervik is brooding and unhappy, without the effervescent charm that would have initially attracted Hofreiter. Cervik seem unable to share her emotions easily. At one point in the play Hofreiter drives Genia to despair. Cervik handles the moment by throwing herself against all the walls of the stage and sprawls onto the floor. Too much sound and fury. The moment felt false. And while a kind of operatic melodrama seeped at times, like Hofreiter the man has so much charm you forgive him almost anything.

The most controlled acting of the day came from Helmuth Lohner (Föttinger’s predecessor as artistic director until 2996 and a frequent Hofreiter in his day) as Doctor von Aigner and Gertraud Jesserer as his ex-wife Anna Meinhold-Aigner. Both held the auditorium rapt. Jesserer succeeded in drawing genuine emotion out of Cervik in a dialogue about love and family.

Some of the strangest acting came from the older gentlemen at the Semmering resort, who around on stage to the point you could believe that they really were in their eighties or nineties. At the curtain call, this set actually had trouble doddering to their bows on time. They really are that old. In a lifetime ensemble troupe like Theater in der Josfstadt, you die with your boots on.

Among the younger generation, Südtirolerin Gerti Drassl charms and convinces as an ingenue despite her thirty-two years. You want to reach out and protect her. Frankly Drassl is a bit underemployed in this breathless role, but to the audience’s benefit.

Martin Hemmer as Genia’s lover Otto is less convincing. He doesn’t seem very passionate or very wrought up about either his love affair or his life. Viennese philosophical indifference plays him a very bad hand here. Young marines are full of vim and vigor, or at least the ones married women have affairs with. And Otto is a Pole, so he’d be forgiven any emotional excess.

Hofreiter’s closest friend is Dr. Franz Mauer, also played very coolly here by Peter Scholz, whose proposal Erna turns down (she is in the middle of launching her fling with Hofreiter). Scholz is so cautious and flat one wonders what Hofreiter sees in him.

Heribert Sasse as the banker Natter plays to the opposite. He licks his lips every time he speaks, you can see energetic wheels turning in his mind, hedonistic fantasies playing out in his imagination.

A spoiled boy will break all his toys. At the end of the day, Hofreiter is that furious child. Beware the sad day when a dominant man realizes that all the money and all the power in the world will not bend the world entirely to his ends. Hofreiter’s last furious gesture is to destroy the world of all who surround him. His decision to flee to another continent seems almost cowardly.

In the end, Föttinger is dangerously charming – not as monstrous as the "real" Hofreiter, and next to the cold Cervik and flat Hemmer, left the audience wondering.

The stage design from Rolf Langenfass was built around a single tree, lit differently for the Hofreiter villa or the mountains. The tree’s shadows were far more convincing than the tree itself but it provided a curious contrast between nature’s slow permanence and human impetuousness. Theater in der Josefstadt has a turning stage, which while effective, occasionally left us watching the backs of the actresses and unable to hear. Guest director Josef Köpplinger (Artistic Director, Stadttheater Klagenfurt) should be careful about long speeches where faces and voices get hidden. He almost lost the evening during an extended episode between Cervik and Drassl.

Marie Luise Walek’s costumes were more roaring twenties rather than exact turn of the century Vienna. No matter, Hofreiter’s suits were consistently dashing and frankly I’d happily wear them if I could find them. That Köpplinger, Langenfass and Walek did not insist on historic specificity was a wise decision. The theme of jealousy is timeless and the less removed in time and space the audience feels, the stronger the impact of the play. Schnitzler should be played as contemporary and not as a museum piece.

Still in Theater in der Josfstadt’s production of Das weite Land there is too great an acceptance of the underlying murderous premise combined with an inclination to play for the cheap laugh. This is particularly visible in the dialogue scenes with the local guides and porters. While Shakespeare does have his own short porter scenes in the tragedies, Köpplinger seems intent on emphasizing Schnitzler’s genre blurring throughout the play. Tragedy and murder can strike in the middle of afternoon tea and comedy.

However, Das weite Land would be that much funnier and more pointed without pandering so blatantly to the audience. Playing the characters in earnest and not as caricature and the situation would no longer be vaudeville but truly absurd. But the Viennese seem to insist on the Gemütlichkeit: an agreeable evening. And insistent broad comic strokes tone the tragedy down to far too gentle tones.

Do not go to Josefstadt in less than a suit jacket for the gentlemen or a new dress for the ladies. Most of the ladies appeared to have visited the coiffeuse that day, most unusual for Vienna where one observes ratty hair at even the Kafeesiederball. While there is no official dress code, those who do not comply with the unwritten one must prepare for waves of stiff disapproval.

One final note: Despite the glamour and the fine clothes of the well-heeled Josefstadt public - or perhaps because of their rapacious appetite for pleasure - they descend like ill mannered locusts on the buffet, pushing and pinching and shouting to make sure they get their spritzers and wine first. In the buffet, the pause felt like one had been caught in an Italian train station during wartime. If the Vienna elite would at least snack before the theater, they could be more civil at intermission. You have been warned.

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