My play Youth Without God, adapted from Ödön von Horváth’s 1937 novel, which opens shortly in London, was commissioned by the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna.
It turns out – though initially I’d planned no such thing – to be the first of a trilogy: to be followed by the monologue A German Life, performed by Maggie Smith earlier this year at the Bridge Theatre, London, and a new piece called Visit from an Unknown Woman, inspired by a short story by Stefan Zweig.
The Zweig story was written in the early 1920s, but I have set it in the mid-1930s; A German Life was taken from the memories of a 102-year-old woman called Brunhilde Pomsel and centred on her time as one of Goebbels’ secretaries. The Horváth novel deals with a teacher who reprimands a pupil for a racist remark in an essay and finds himself in trouble when the boy’s Nazi father complains.
The fact that started me on this line of thinking was that Horváth, virtually alone among the major German-speaking writers of his time, had chosen to stay after the Nazis came to power in 1933 (even though they had immediately banned his play Faith, Hope and Charity, which was then in rehearsal).
The ambivalence and guilt he felt as a result is clearly a component of Youth Without God and some of the plays he wrote in those years; but the experiences he had as someone who chose to bear witness, rather than to go into exile, resulted in a far more authentic account of the moods and irrationalities of the times than the pictures conjured up in the fevered imaginations of the émigrés (Brecht’s Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, for example).
In other words, what emerges is a more textured image of everyday life – in a society that has given itself over to a brutal regime – than the usual panoply of jackboots, Brownshirts, torchlight rallies and concentration camps. These generalisations are of course the most strident, but perhaps also the least interesting, features of the political landscape of 1930s Germany.
Horváth’s discovery was that, except for the system’s immediate victims, living under fascism was, for the majority, not so very different; and it was precisely this that generated in the thinking person, vague feelings of guilt and shame.
Eventually, it dawns on the teacher in Youth Without God that the disappearance of God – formally abolished by the state in his case, dead by neglect in ours – requires the citizen to invent his own morality: a morality that can only be based on truth (a quality that had never especially restrained the church).
Faced by the shamelessly truculent mendacity of governments and politicians – and here I need hardly underline the contemporary parallels – there are two choices: Brunhilde Pomsel’s way of ignoring what was happening under her nose; or the teacher’s reluctant but inexorable realisation that, however drastic the consequences, telling the truth is the only tolerable option.
Christopher Hampton is a playwright and screenwriter. Youth Without God runs at the Coronet Theatre until October 19. For more click here.