A man seduces a married woman beside a tree, her husband hides behind it and eavesdrops. Three comrades are on a hunting trip, looking not for animals but women. A couple is hosting an old friend, visiting from Australia, but the husband does not know that the guest and his wife used to be more than just friends, or that the man from Australia is actually the father of the couples younger daughter.
All these characters appear in plays written by Theodor Herzl, who is known more for his Zionist vision and journalism than for his theater chops.
Yet Herzl was quite a successful and well-known dramatist, producing 16 plays staged all over the German-speaking world – from the prestigious Burgtheater in Vienna to Berlin, Breslau (today Wrocaw), Prague and Hamburg. His most successful play, Wilddiebe (Poachers), which he co-wrote with Hugo Wittmann, ran for over 15 years. The play was first staged in the Burgtheater on March 19, 1889, and ran 57 times until October 24, 1904, three months after Herzls death. The play was also staged in more than 50 other cities across the German-speaking world.
Herzls desire to become a successful playwright began in his youth. According to the playwright Arthur Schnitzler, as a law student at the University of Vienna, Herzl said he would yet conquer the Burgtheater. He persisted despite consistent rejection of his early plays. Herzls first breakthrough came in November 1885 with the debut of Tabarin, his adaptation of a play by Catulle Mendes. Friedrich Mitterwurzer, a leading Austrian actor of the day, performed the piece with his group in New York.
Herzl, encouraged by this development, went to Berlin to offer his plays to theaters, but to no avail. Meanwhile, his reputation as a journalist and feuilleton writer began to take off.
His luck changed in 1888, when he wrote a one-act farce about the corrupting power of money – called Der Fluechtling (The Fugitive) – which was staged in Berlin and Vienna, cementing his status as a playwright.
Almost all of the plays Herzl wrote were drawing-room comedies: light and very typical of the era. Herzls Poachers was no different. This play, however, was the one that made him famous. A young and ambitious Herzl asked Wittmann, an experienced journalist and playwright, to join in the project. Herzl provided the plot and the structure and Wittmann made it sharper, funnier and wittier.
The Burgtheater immediately accepted Poachers, but Wittmann who was known in his own right as a librettist for Johann Strauss insisted on concealing the playwrights names. Herzl was eager to be acknowledged and win fame, but agreed nonetheless.
Soon after the play became a hit, Wittmann agreed to publish their names as the authors. Stefan Zweig a famous Austrian Jewish playwright discovered by Herzl wrote years later that the play was just right, just what everyone wanted, a dainty morsel made of the finest ingredients and artistically served.
Poachers tells the story of three friends on a women-hunting journey. There runs a fox, and Im on horseback after it ... to whom the fields belong, that I have never asked, declares one of the protagonists.
The hunters soon realize, however, that this trip is going to be different: One encounters his ex-wife at the hotel with their daughter, whom he had never actually met. Another falls in love with the daughter this time it is real, romantic love , not just for the thrill of the chase.
But in the end all is well: The two hunters willingly abandon their womanizing ways. One returns to the wife he left, and his friend marries the daughter.
Following Poachers, Herzl had a string of his plays produced. First, he was asked to write a libretto for an operetta called Des Teufels Weib (The Devils Wife). Then, another two original plays plus a further collaboration with Wittmann were staged, yet none of these plays matched the success of Poachers.
Herzl became depressed over the plays moderate success, but then received an offer he could not refuse – being the Neue Freie Presses correspondent in Paris.
Herzl moved to France, entering a period that changed his life and possibly the course of history. While in Paris Herzl moved away from writing plays but did not lose touch with the Viennese theater. He used his time in France to reestablish his relationship with Schnitzler, the rising star of the theater world in Vienna and an old friend from the University of Vienna.
Schnitzler was the first to see and comment on the 1894 work Das neue Ghetto (The New Ghetto), the only play of Herzls dealing explicitly with the Jewish condition. In it, Herzl declared loudly that emancipation of the Jews had failed.
Even though he had did not yet found the alternative that Zionism offered, it was clear he was already searching.
Herzl himself was amazed by the potency of the topic, and he asked Schnitzler to submit the play on his behalf, using a pseudonym. The play was roundly rejected, sometimes from fear of how the Jewish leadership would react to it, sometimes out of anti-Semitism and sometimes simply because of its quality.
Herzl, disappointed with how the play was received, began a new journey, meeting with Baron Hirsch and soon after publishing his seminal work Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State).
The New Ghetto was eventually staged in 1898, after the First Zionist Congress and using Herzls name as the playwright. Today the play seems trivial and outdated, but at the time it was groundbreaking.
The work was staged in Vienna and then in over a dozen cities, including Altona, Baden-Baden, Berlin, Krakow and Prague. Though it was not successful, it did influence Sigmund Freud, who had a very peculiar dream after watching The New Ghetto concerning his status as a Jew. The father of psychoanalysis even mentions the dream and the play but not its author in his book The Interpretation of Dreams.
Meanwhile, Herzl was swamped by his roles as the driving force of the Zionist movement and editor of the literary section of the Neue Freie Presse. Still, he found the time to write plays. Herzls arguably most mature and interesting work, Unser Käthchen (Our Kathy), was another comedy on married life, written and staged in 1899. While he went on to pen another three plays, Herzl did not develop much further as a playwright before his premature death in 1904.
Today, only two of the 16 plays Herzl wrote are accessible to the wider public The New Ghetto and Solon in Lydien, a play about the value of labor. Both of these works have been translated into Hebrew and English, while the others are available only in a handful of archives and libraries. Only Solon in Lydien has been staged in Israel, its theme striking a chord with advocates of Labor Zionism.
In his diary, Herzl wrote this passage in 1902, showing his unique style and ironic touch, and emphasizing his wish to be regarded as a playwright, a dream that remains unfulfilled: Ive become a world famous agitator in a field that only complete morons couldnt clearly understand. The Jewish question is a field in which intellectually I have accomplished almost nothing, but rather acquired political skills every mediocre horse trader could acquire. As an author, particularly as a dramatist, I am considered nothing, less than nothing. People refer to me only as a good journalist. And yet, I feel I know that I am or was a writer of great ability, one who simply did not give his full measure because he was disgusted and discouraged.
Mashav Balsam is a Ph.D. candidate at Tel Aviv University who wrote his dissertation on Herzls dramatic works.
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