Richard Strauss, Stefan Zweig, Collaboration. It was not the title which attracted me, but, of course, the characters. I am ashamed to say I knew nothing about their collaboration, and still do not know the opera, The Silent Woman, which Strauss composed on a libretto by Zweig. I had no idea that Zweig had ever written a libretto. I went to watch the play totally ignorant, and now feel like a “nouvelle riche” having acquired so much new information.
I have a friend who is a great Zweig specialist. When I mentioned the play to him, he of course knew it, but he said something which surprised me, as it had very strangely simply not occurred to me. His first comment, when I mentioned I had seen and loved the play, was to say, yes, but the title is captious. As I seemed puzzled, he went on to explain that it made it look as if Zweig had been a collaborator. I agree that to use the word “collaboration” in a World War II context can be misleading, but it would never have come to my mind that the collaborator, in the wartime acception, could be Zweig. One could have suspicions about Strauss, who, I understand, did not refrain from working under the Nazi regime, although his daughter-in-law and grandchildren were Jewish. Yet, his apparent coziness with the Nazis had more to do, I have come to believe, with hubris than with sympathy.
So the play, despite its debatable title, sets out to describe the collaboration and friendship between the two artists, and is very unambiguous about each one’s role in the war. It does show a seemingly haughty and cocksure Strauss purporting to be, through the immensity of his talent, above politics, partisanship and prejudice, but slowly crumbling under the unbearable pressure exerted on him by the Nazi regime. Much more outspoken from the outset, at least in the play, was his wife Pauline, marvelously portrayed by Christiane Cohendy as a sensitive, uncompromising and brave woman who never fears to speak her mind, be it to her husband, to Zweig or to the Nazi officials themselves.
Zweig, of course, appears to be the more vulnerable of the two artists, and with good reason. He is a Jew and he is scared and, although this is not the subject of the play and would only take place a few years later, he was desperate enough to take his own life and that of his second wife Lotte in their refuge in Petrópolis, in the mountains near Rio de Janeiro. Throughout the play, he seems restless and supremely uncomfortable with the work he is being commissioned to do and, despite the obvious admiration and mutual esteem,, also rather wary of his collaborator.
The play’s elegant and well-structured script depicts this collaboration and the very different temperaments of Strauss and Zweig beautifully and keeps one engrossed and slightly on edge all the time. The actors, as I have previously mentioned, are perfect. Aumont and Sandre do a magnificent job of capturing the minds of their characters, both Germanic and both Romantic, in different ways – Strauss seemingly more comfortable showing his intellectual power and Zweig his profound angst. The mise-en-scène, involving the projection of dates and places on backdrops in between scenes, along with the commendable lack of intermission, which would have totally broken the atmosphere, although absolutely brilliant is never overwhelming. It serves the words and the portrayals rather than direct them.
This is a play one would like to see again. A bit like listening to a tone poem which needs to be understood and relished. It would also make a marvelous movie, should a studio be brave enough to produce and finance such a sophisticated story. I’m sure we all know that this is a rarity nowadays, alas, but once in a while a producer comes up with enough guts to escape the special effects syndrome. I would be very thankful to anyone who would take this powerful story beyond the four walls of a theater house.