Postcard from Vienna: Deep in blood: Frederick Baker on a striking Croatian version of Faust that has opened old wounds

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SLOBODAN SNAJDER, a 45- year-old Zagreb-born author, has joined Christopher Marlowe, Goethe and Thomas Mann in retelling the classic story of Faust, the man who sells his soul to the devil. I met him in Vienna where his play, The Croatian Faust, has been running at the Burg theatre. Snajder's boyish face seemed weary after years at the cultural battle- front. His play is about 'art, and how art functions in a repressive state, a general theme.' But it is set in the specific context of the Ustasha regime which ruled Croatia as a Nazi puppet state during the Second World War, and has put him at the centre of a stormy controversy about this dark chapter in the history of his homeland.

The Croatian Faust is based on the true story of a first-night performance of Goethe's Faust at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, March 1942. The cream of Ustasha Croatia are assembled with their guests and masters from Nazi Germany. The company of actors has been cleared of Jews, Serbs and communists, by Dusan Zanko, the theatre's director. Or so he thinks, because unbeknown to him, partisans have infiltrated the cast. Faust, who is played by Croatia's greatest actor, Vjeko Afric, disappears into the woods to join Tito's partisans the next morning.

From here Snajder's play keeps closer to the spirit, rather than the letter, of events. The fascist Zanko takes over the role of Faust. Farce and tragedy mix in grotesque slapstick, until the devil goes on strike and refuses to damn Faust, because Croatia is evidently already hell. At the end of the play Afric returns with his victorious partisans, only to be forced to play Faust again, but this time by the communists. Afric groans at the returning cycle of history, and protests: 'But this stage is already so deep in blood that you could wade in it.'

The blood has flowed in the play's reviews since its 1982 premiere in Croatia. Even in those days just after Tito's death, the play was attacked for being unpatriotic. But Snajder sees the play's latest premiere at the world's leading German language theatre as a breakthrough for his homeland. It is the first play written in the Croatian language to be performed in Vienna's great playhouse. The Croatian press are, however, less than jubilant. Before the first night, Ingrid Englitsch, the Austrian correspondent for the Zagreb daily Vjesnik, wrote to the Burg theatre asking: 'Why out of the numerous Croatian authors, from the Renaissance to the modern period, was it decided to perform Slobodan Snajder's piece?' She suggests that the play 'publicly sentences prominent persons . . . and thereby the whole people, by portraying actual events in a false light'.

The Zagreb papers sent no reporters, says Snajder, who accuses them of trying to 'kill the play with a conspiracy of silence'. Although 95 per cent of the Austrian reviews were positive, only the criticisms were published in the Zagreb press.

'Nobody loves it,' says Snajder, 'but there are pieces that are nevertheless necessary.' He believes that like Germany, Croatia has to come to terms with its fascist past. He warns that, 'When history is suppressed then it must always repeat itself horribly and that is what has happened. It is terrible when the former criminals portray themselves now as victims. The children of the Ustasha and the partisans are now fighting one another. I will never allow people to say that the Ustasha were good and the partisans were traitors.'

Like his play, Snajder has become overtaken by history. He has lost his job as editor of the Yugoslav theatre journal Prolog. At a very well attended post-performance discussion with the public he felt as if 'Zanko is in control again'. He is sure that his Faust will never be played by the Croatian National Theatre until there is a change of government in Zagreb. But Snajder sees himself as a fighter, like his partisan parents: 'You, the state, can misuse me, but I will exact revenge. Art is stronger than any ideological abuse.'