Love in a cold climate

The Last Waltz season celebrates fin de siècle German playwriting
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The Independent Culture

When Mark Rosenblatt was at university, he "fell in love with the political plays of the Edwardian period - Shaw, Granville Barker, Galsworthy". Later, the artistic director of Dumbfounded Theatre, whose family fled Germany with the rise of Hitler, began to wonder: "If we still lived there, what plays would I have studied?"

When Mark Rosenblatt was at university, he "fell in love with the political plays of the Edwardian period - Shaw, Granville Barker, Galsworthy". Later, the artistic director of Dumbfounded Theatre, whose family fled Germany with the rise of Hitler, began to wonder: "If we still lived there, what plays would I have studied?"

Rosenblatt's search through early 20th-century German and Austrian drama has resulted in The Last Waltz, a three-month repertory season at the Arcola Theatre of newly translated plays by three giants of the time: Frank Wedekind's Musik, Gerhart Hauptmann's Rose Bernd and Artur Schnitzler's Professor Bernhardi.

Few of their works are known in Britain - two of Wedekind's plays were made into the film Pandora's Box and the opera Lulu; Schnitzler's notorious Reigen, with brief blackouts for the audience to imagine sex between the actors, became the Max Ophüls film La Ronde.

Rose Bernd is a naturalistic play about a peasant girl caught between a dull suitor, a married lover and a rapist; Professor Bernhardi a mordant depiction of professional infighting; and Musik, calling to mind an anguished Schiele drawing, is a forerunner of expressionism in its dissection of a ménage à trois. But their themes overlap: in two of the plays, a woman is punished for an illegal abortion; two of the dramas feature the death of an illegitimate baby. All three follow the struggle of an individual who is at odds with society.

"They're all very moral, very powerful plays," says Rosenblatt. The most relevant today is Professor Bernhardi, in which a Jewish surgeon who has offended a priest is under pressure to make amends by promoting a mediocre Catholic doctor rather than a Jew. Many of the characters are anti-Semitic, but, says Rosenblatt, "that's not the subject of the play - it's about the problem of belonging to an institution and being caught up in its politics."

If Bernhardi gives in to the indignant Catholics, he will endanger the lives of his patients, but even his sympathetic colleagues are put off by his willingness to immolate himself rather than to give in, and to pull the hospital down around him.

Contemptuous of the priest for saying there is a higher value than truth (obedience to God), he tells him: "God, who created you so humble and me so presumptuous, surely has His own mysterious reasons."

"If Arthur Miller had written it," says Rosenblatt, "this scene would go on forever, and be full of grandstanding and pronouncements." Instead, there is swift, savage wit - Schnitzler described the play as "a comedy".

"From 1914," says Rosenblatt, "English theatre has gone along with the unpleasant preconceptions that many people have of Germany and has overlooked the literary and humanitarian qualities of its drama. The opposite is true over there - they love our playwrights. I think it's time we stopped denying ourselves a great culture."

The Last Waltz, Arcola Theatre, London E8 (020-7503 1646; www.arcolatheatre.com) 15 March to 7 May

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