There’s a well-known waltz-tune by Johann Strauss Jr called Tales from the Vienna Woods.
It begins with an air of mystery, suggestions of the country, woods, birds, and also the use of unsophisticated instruments such as the zither.
It’s an evocative title I’ve never fully decoded, except via the suggestion of a tension between city and country, and successive layers of ethnicity in a civilization. I think i want to ponder that further. Our tensions in Canada are likely different than in Austria, as we have appropriated a continent from aboriginals who are like exiles in their own land. The tales of our woods? they would be fraught and messed up. Whose woods are they after all? Whereas I suspect the idea in Europe was that the forest was a place of authenticity. I recall tales involving foresters and hunters in central European opera (Der Freischutz and Der Fliegende Hollander for instance). The forest was the site of a pre-Christian link to the land through the old gods. For a country that was undergoing massive transformation, especially through immigration and urbanization, the forest would be a special place. You wouldn’t find any immigrants in the woods.
The fascist fascination with ethnicity and history –thinking of the Aryan myth– would naturally mean that folk tales would be revered. It gives me chills to think of the way they might read that waltz title. It scares me to think of how the title was understood by the composer, a fantasy underlying the beautiful music. Will I ever be able to forget what just became clear to me? i think not.
Are the woods the mysterious place of the original people, the folk that are alluded to in Hitler’s car for the people, the volks-wagen? Volk is the same word used when they speak of the master race. It’s the root (ha I almost said “rot”) of many Nazi slogans.
Ödön von Horváth wrote a play with that same magic title: Tales from the Vienna Woods, and premiered in 1931 not so long before the moment when Austria was swallowed up by the Third Reich, in the Anschluss of 1938. At this point it was still possible to write something bravely defiant of the impending annexation. Nazis are mocked in the play even as it seems to show the inevitability of what was to come, a tragic-comedy with amazing resonance even now. And where the title had an innocence to it for Johann Strauss II, whose life fits entirely into the 19th century, perhaps it had a whole other kind of depth for the playwright in one of the most troubled decades of the 20th century. Looking back, listening to the music, one can apprehend both the innocence and sophistication at one time.
Ryerson Theatre School are presenting Tales from the Vienna Woods February 5, 6,7, 9, 10 & 11 at Ryerson Theatre. I’m immersed in this world as the music director. Several of Strauss’s waltzes figure prominently in the play, as you might expect. But while I may once have understood them as happy waltzes, i see them now in a new light. They’re a kind of snapshot of a zeitgeist, a distillation of the impossible aspirations of a people unable to live up to their own dreams. The nostalgia in the music for the imperial moment that is irretrievably lost hangs like a fog over the play.
There’s a great deal of joy & fun in this play, also frustration, pain, suffering. I will never look at Cabaret the same way again. I find the relationships portrayed in von Horváth’s play are among the truest I’ve ever encountered in a play, truer than anything I see coming out of Hollywood even now. It’s also embarrassing to see so many moments that echo conversations I’ve heard in my family. This is a manners comedy holding up a mirror, but in many places nobody is laughing.
…except perhaps the playwright?