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March 04, 2010

Bruckner's bleak work shows not so much the futility of bourgeois life, as the futility of trying to escape it, argues Brendan Simms: Pains of Youth - Ferdinand Bruckner in a new version by Martin Crimp

Posted by Brendan Simms

Ferdinand Bruckner's Pains of Youth
translated/version by Martin Crimp, directed by Thea Sharrock
National Theatre, London
Cottesloe Theatre
in repertory 21 October 2009 - 21 January 2010

Karl Kraus once famously said that pre-First World War Vienna was a "laboratory for world destruction". He meant the crackpot racial and political theories that had been circulating in Vienna since the 1890s: the social utopias and dystopias, the nihilism.

The characters in Ferdinand Bruckner's Pains of Youth, mostly Viennese medical undergraduates thrown together in lodgings - are engaged on a more modest project of self-destruction. "Hell", as the title of Sartre's shattering play tells us, "is the others". As the obiter dicta fly across the room, and the mind-games multiply, the atmosphere of futility becomes oppressive. "Everyone should shoot themselves at seventeen", remarks the aristocratic Desiree (Lydia Wilson) a particularly jaded twenty-something. The villainous Freder (Geoffrey Steitfeild), whose "studies" consist of experimenting with human nature, opines that while "some people use their helplessness to protect them...basically we're all the same: pitiful bastards".

Alt (Jonah Russell), a disgraced doctor who has served time for putting a terminally ill child out of its misery, believes not only that "clinging to others is weak", but that "Everyone needs an opportunity to visit the emotional toilet". And there is more: sex, drugs, prostitution (which the innocent maid Lucy enters into at Freder's suggestion), woman on woman violence (Marie ties her love-rival Irene to the sofa by her hair), lesbianism (between Marie and Desiree), and masochism (Marie's demand to be beaten). I am sure this list is not exhaustive. By the time the curtain has fallen, the actual death count of one - Desiree commits suicide - seems miraculously low.

At the time of writing in 1923, all this was quite shocking. Nowadays, of course, rather like Brecht and Pirandello – whose mould-breaking Six characters in search of an author toured recently – the material seems much more routine. All the same, Bruckner's work is little known in Anglophone circles, and this recent revival by Katie Mitchell at the National Theatre using the translation by Martin Crimp is thus welcome in itself.(Faber and Faber should correct the text of the play on sale, however: Passau is no German "village" but one of the larger towns in Bavaria) The staging is superb, with an antiseptic set which accentuates the pervading sense of alienation. All the props, for example, are wrapped in a transparent disinfecting foil, which robotic stagehands whip off just before the start of each scene. The performances are generally very good - some of them such as Laura Elphinstone's Marie are electric.

Most analyses of the play see it as part of a broader expressionist wrestling with the devastating legacy of World War One, in which German and Austrian youth had been decimated and emasculated. The Guardian's Michael Billington picked up this theme when he wrote of "a forensic analysis of a doomed, death-haunted generation". There is something in this: the play emerged out of the immediate aftermath of the war, and Freder's amoral, parasitic and dominatory streak may have been an allusion to the growth of fascism. It would be surprising after all, if a play set in the crumbling former Habsburg capital were completely uninterested in its political, historical and cultural issues.

The problem is that the play makes no overt reference to war, politics or even the ethnic diversity which so characterised contemporary Vienna. If the war, in which the older protagonists would have served, had mattered so much to Bruckner, he would surely have alluded to it in some way; one cannot explain everything through silence. The play could quite easily be transferred to another country and even era. The plot and the characters are really rather timeless.

On the other hand, to read Pains of Youth, as this performance seems to, as a critique of bourgeois society is not wrong. "Bourgeois existence or suicide. There are no other choices. It's not remotely a joke," Desiree laments and her subsequent decision to take her own life shows that she is deadly earnest.

But the politics of Pains of Youth are a great deal more complex than that. At the start of the play, the aspirant Marie - a hard-working lower middle class student from Passau who is about to graduate as a qualified medic– is the central character, but by the end it is unmistakably Freder. "When the right moment comes", he announces, "one should consciously embrace bourgeois existence". This, Freder later elaborates, is the only way to "avoid catastrophe". The message may be unpalatable, almost unbearable, but it is none the less true for that. "None of you can live without me. If no one takes control you're all of you lost", Freder says in the variant ending, and we know he is right.

Here one is reminded of Richard Yates's April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road. In the recent screen version, Kate Winslet's April commits suicide as a quasi-rational protest against the banality of suburban life. In the novel, on the other hand, Yates is clear that April is just mentally unwell, a condition aggravated but not fundamentally caused by the banality of 1950s suburban America, and that her gesture is not tragic but pointless. Likewise, when Marie contemplates taking her life in solidarity with Desiree, Freder dissuades her: "One way or another, life goes on". If that is so, and it is, then Bruckner's bleak work shows not so much the futility of bourgeois life, as the futility of trying to escape it.

The author thanks Miss Katie Jenner for her assistance in writing this review.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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