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November 14, 2006

Austrian anti-Nazism and other fairy-stories: The Sound of Music - Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein

Posted by David Womersley

Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music
directed by Jeremy Sams
produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Ian
The London Palladium, London
Opening on 15th November 2006

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - is entertained and provoked by the stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music.

How many fairy-stories are contained in The Sound of Music? There's the obvious one, of course. The basic plot is a version of Cinderella, with overtones of Beauty and the Beast and a light dusting of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. In the current production at the Palladium, that on-stage fairy-story has its off-stage counterpart.

The part of Maria is taken (with great energy and accomplishment) by Connie Fisher, who landed the role as the result of a television talent quest. Some of the press coverage has heightened the romance of this - I had read that she had been plucked from the drabness of life in a call-centre to star in this lavish production. In fact, as I discovered from the programme notes, she has had a thorough theatrical and musical training. That training certainly showed on the Gala opening night, when she acquitted herself very well.

So much for the obvious fairy-story. The more subtle fantasy element in The Sound of Music concerns twentieth-century Austrian history. There was a time when my daughters seemed to spend every Sunday morning watching the film version of The Sound of Music, and so simply by osmosis I came to know the plot of at least that version of the work very well. Several details always struck me as problematic.

I had always been faintly ashamed of the fact that my interest in the film quickened when the Nazis arrived - before the entrance of the gauleiter, Herr Zeller, it seemed to me that there was little to separate it from a dull episode of Supernanny.

I was also puzzled by the behaviour of the audience at the Salzburg festival, who boo and mutter when Max Dettweiler announces that Captain von Trapp was due to take up his commission in the navy of the Third Reich. Who were these anti-Nazi Austrians, I wondered? It wasn't just that the war record of Kurt Waldheim had recently become public knowledge. Even the cursory account of the Second World War I had imbibed from school and desultory reading had informed me that the anschluss by which Austria had been absorbed into Nazi Germany had been welcomed by the overwhelming mass of the Austrian people. The annexation of Austria and its digestion into Greater Germany as the province of Ostmark in 1938 had been greeted with popular acclamation, and the coup d'état by which Chancellor Schuschnigg had been replaced by the Austrian Nazi Seyss-Inquart had been taken calmly. But where were these pro-Nazi Austrians in the film version?

Aside from Herr Zeller, there seemed to be only the feeble and confused postboy, Rolf, who (notwithstanding what he sang to the contrary) always seemed to me to be seventeen going on twelve. In the film of The Sound of Music even the nuns were against the Nazis. But until 1936, according to Franz von Papen, the Catholic Church had hoped for some kind of alignment with National Socialism - it was only in 1937 that Pius XI had categorically denounced Hitler's régime.

Still, why should I have found it difficult to accept these absolutely up-to-the-minute nuns, so apparently well-informed about the latest diplomatic manoeuvrings of the Vatican, when the film also asked me to believe that they knew how to sabotage the ignition on a pre-war Mercedes? I felt that I was being asked to suspend my disbelief pretty hard, and in several directions at once.

So the film version of The Sound of Music offers an air-brushed image of Austria in the 1930s: the pro-Nazi elements in Austrian society are marginalised or receive only passing emphasis, and the resistant stance of Captain von Trapp - to judge from the response of the audience at Salzburg - commands popular support. But the stage version (which is substantially what you will see at the Palladium) is, historically, much more subtle and interesting. The relation between Austrian society and National Socialism is not, as it is in the film, a mere expedient of plot which pushes us towards the finale. On stage, it is more intricately woven into the fabric of the action.

In the first place, it is clear on stage that Baroness Schraeder is a Nazi sympathiser, whereas in the film she is an a-political man-eater. In the film, it is she who tells Maria that the Captain is in love with her (another twist of the plot I always found it hard to accept, but let that pass). On stage, the role of truth-teller is taken by one of the children. So, whereas in the film the Baroness steps aside, nobly recognising where Captain von Trapp's emotions truly lie, on stage she breaks off their engagement only once she has understood the depth of the Captain's detestation of the Nazis.

Why is the Baroness a Nazi sympathiser, rather than just an unprincipled collaborator, like Max Dettweiler? In the film, the source of her wealth is unexplained: she is simply a well-heeled member of Austrian society. On stage, however, we are given much more information about the Baroness's background. She is a widow, who has taken the landed estate of her late husband and converted it into an industrial concern of which she is the President. The implication is that she has committed her resources to the industrial mobilisation of Greater Germany - an implication which, startlingly, introduces an element of The Damned, Visconti's great film about the moral corruptions which eased Germany's path down the road to war, into the sunny meadows of the lonely goatherd.

The party at the von Trapp mansion, which again in the film is emptied of any political content, on stage is a microcosm of the dividedness of Austrian society. "Half my guests won't talk to the other half", complains the Captain, commenting on an argument we have just seen explode between an elderly Austrian nobleman and a younger guest. That there was a generational aspect to the distribution of Austrian sympathies towards National Socialism is an insight the stage version of The Sound of Music handles with some subtlety. It is also corroborated by a telling fact. Apparently, in real life, Liesl did not escape with the rest of the von Trapps, but stayed behind with Rolf. So much for Maria's advice to "wait a year or two".

This is a superb production of a work which, in its stage version, is much more thought-provoking, and much less saccharine, than the castrated film version which is all that most of us have had the chance to see. The sets are magnificent (although the large tilting disc in the centre of the stage which at the beginning and end of the performance is used to evoke Alpine gradients is, as my daughter observed, disconcertingly reminiscent of the alien mother-ship in Independence Day); Connie Fisher is a fine Maria; Lesley Garrett a definitive Reverend Mother. Go and see it, and be both entertained and provoked.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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I'm glad the stage version gives a more realistic picture of the Austrian mood in 1938. The film version, enjoyable in many other ways, was deficient in this respect, leaving the viewer puzzled about the motivattion of many of the characters.

The essential point is that the idea of a separate Austrian nation only formed after defeat in 1945. Until then, virtually all Austrians saw themselves as "Germans" but in a separate state. The dispute in 1938 was between those who wanted a reunited Reich under Nazi rule and those like Chancellor Schussnig who argued for Austria to remain Independent, Christian and German, in a sense to remain an island of decency in the German world.

As the professor says there was a definite difference between the generations. The pro-Anschluss people were predominant amongst the young generation while the oldest people were much more wary. There is no doubt that the Anschluss was popular at the time. The plebiscite was obviously fixed by Hitler, but most historians would say that a free election would have given 65% to 75% approval.

It's also a mistake to use hindsight to attribute motives. People like young Rolf were most likely motivated by misguided idealism and patriotism, not hate. He probably ended up as cannon fodder for Hitler. Does any one know his fate?

Having got that off my chest (people in Britain are usually very ignorant of central European history), I'm really looking forward to seeing the show!

Posted by: Martin at November 17, 2006 10:02 PM
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Martin says:

people in Britain are usually very ignorant of central European history

That is the case, and I’m only slightly better. I guess all those Hapsburgs are to blame – maybe they could be entered into a competition to find the world’s most boring dynasty. But I do remember hearing many years ago a BBC radio dramatization of the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss by Nazi agents. According to that, they didn’t kill him straight off but did it in a manner so he would die slowly, all the while denying him access to a priest unless he would sign document(s) acceding to their demands.

But as background to “The Sound of Music”, one might do well to read the Wikipedia article about Dollfuss.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 20, 2006 08:09 PM
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David Womersley needs to do some more research on what he writes about. First in the movie it does state where the Baroness got her wealth. Max Detweiler says and your husband did and left you all that money. Although he is right they did not escape over the Alps in 1939, they did escape. They had refused to sing at Hitler's birthday, the Captain refused a commission in the Nazi Navy and the oldest son refused a position as a medical doctor for the Reich. They fled to Italy under the guise of going to a singing engagement in the United States. Which they did in Philadlphia. And I guess the biggest falsehood is that Liesl, (real life name Agathe) didn't leave Austria. They all left. Johanna after WWII married and returned to Austria. However none of what was said by David Womersley suprises me after all he is a professor, the truth be damned and listen to what I say. Also Mr. Womersley forgot 2 things one it is a movie a therefore couldn't cover the entire real life 1926 to 1939 Von Trapp family and Maria escapades. And it also a MOVIE MEANT TO ENTERTAIN. Again he is an elite professor and oviously has no life and therefore must critize what he is clearly unable to understand. Try talking to a 10 year old boy or girl. They can tell you what it is all about. As for facts try reading.

Posted by: James at March 30, 2008 02:12 AM
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