Theater Review: Mengelberg and Mahler

Willem Mengelberg (1905)

Mid-twentieth century European classical music was dominated by four titan-conductors:  Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Willem Mengelberg, and Herbert von Karajan.  Toscanini, refusing to have anything to do with Fascists or Nazis, fled to the United States.  The other three stayed in Europe and found ways to deal with the tsunami of repression, deportation, and extermination unleashed by Hitler and his collaborators.

Furtwangler continued to conduct in Germany and Austria and never cleared himself of charges of collaborating with the Nazis; he never joined the Party – unlike von Karajan who joined not once, but twice, to insure his career (indeed, he was known as Hitler’s favorite conductor).  Mengelberg, born to German parents in the Netherlands, served as principal conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra for fifty years (1895-1945).

In the days immediately following the end of World War II the fates of these four men diverged.  Toscanini returned to Europe in triumph; von Karajan shed his Nazi skin like a snake and became an international celebrity, a glamorous star of matinee idol looks who favored fast women and faster cars; Furtwangler never recovered his reputation: he denied charges of Party membership and collaboration before a de-Nazification tribunal, but died a broken man.  Mengelberg’s case shows some similarity to Furtwangler’s:  he lost his position and after being interrogated by the Dutch Central Arts Council was forbidden to conduct the Concertgebouw for the rest of his life – exiled, he died in 1951.

The cases of Furtwangler and Mengelberg have been the subject of plays:  Ronald Harwood’sTaking Sides (1995) illuminates Furtwangler’s dilemma by focusing on his interrogation by an American army major.  Broken but not unbowed, Furtwangler flashes a well-known imperial defiance as he defends himself and the observer is left to determine the truth (though the weight of dramatic evidence seems to fall against him).

Now the case of Mengelberg provides the material for a play of its own:  Daniel Klein has revised his never-filmed screenplay, The Titan, into Mengelberg and Mahler. His collaborator on the screenplay, the Dutch filmmaker Emile Fallaux, directs the production, which received its world premiere at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts on 12 June.

Robert Lohbauer
Kevin Sprague

Mengelberg and Mahleris a one-man show with Robert Lohbauer taking the role of the Dutch conductor, an assignment that keeps him on stage for ninety uninterrupted minutes.  The play opens and remains set in the year 1947, in Switzerland; the seventy-six year old Mengelberg is in disgraced exile at his mountain villa.  For collaborating with the Nazi regime in the Netherlands, the Dutch Council for Honor in the Arts had initially denied him the right to conduct his beloved ensemble ever again; but that sentence had been reduced to five years and the Mengelberg we see and hear in the play eagerly awaits expiration of the sentence, or perhaps reprieve and an immediate return to Amsterdam.

Structurally, the play is a monologue and though we never actually hear the words spoken by others (Mengelberg conveys their words occasionally), what we have is a series of phantom dialogues as Mengelberg reviews major moments in his career:  his first meeting with Gustav Mahler (in the early 1900’s), whose “decadent” music he championed; his interrogation by Arthur Seyss Inquart, the Reichskommissar during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands (1900-1945); his later interrogation by the Dutch Council; and his interaction with the Concertgebouw.

What is singularly fascinating here is the absence of a dialogue between Mengelberg and his conscience, but that is the point, I expect.  For what Mengelberg engages in here is an impassioned self-defense, an elaborate exercise in excuse-making for his reprehensible actions.    We may initially feel some sympathy for the suffering artist-in-exile, deprived of what he needs more than anything else in life, his instrument, the Concertgebouw, but as the dialogue with Mahler unfolds, we hear perhaps more than Mengelberg wants us to hear:  vicious racism and the temperamental taunts of any ageing artist directed not only at the great composer who chose a different way – and whose work was so appropriated by Mengelberg as to become his and not Mahler’s – but at the Jewish people and the Dutch who flocked to Mengelberg’s concerts.  Mengelberg sees himself in multiple roles, but the one he likes best is the Redeemer, crucified for all-consuming love (of music, he would have us believe, of himself we do believe).

In the course of his self-mythologizing, Mengelberg rehearses his orchestra and much more.  In his responses to Reichkommisar Inquart we hear him become so accommodating that he will do anything if only he can continue to make music.  No “sacrifice” is too great:  he accedes to the request that the sixteen Jewish musicians in the Concertgebouw be moved to the back of the orchestra, then to their being expelled altogether (the “purification” of the orchestra).  They were allowed to form an all-Jewish ensemble and performed at their own hall for a while, so it’s all right, isn’t it?  That the concentration camps were only a short remove from their hall, well. . .

By the time we hear of Mengelberg’s exchanges with the Dutch Council, he has sunk below our sympathy, certainly below our pity, his response nothing more than elaborate denial and a transparent tissue of evasion and rationalization. Whatever pity we might have felt for him early only, whatever belief or faith we might have invested in him has evaporated.  All that’s left is contempt and the faint whiff of sulphur said to filter through the air in the devil’s presence.

This is drama with a point – thought-provoking and intellectually-engaging – from a dramatist, director and actor too wise to interpret for us:  Like Mengelberg, we are left on our own to decide.  While it may be possible to still feel pity for Mengelberg by the end of the play, we are more likely to come away feeling that this is a deeply flawed human being who valued music too much, who made fatal compromises with evil all the while rationalizing bad choices in the name of art.

In the end, at least three of the sixteen Jewish musicians expelled from the Concertgebouw Orchestra were exterminated in the death camps among the millions of other Jewish victims of Hitler’s insane campaign; Seyss Inquart was sentenced to death at Nuremberg; but Mengelberg lived on, dying in Switzerland in 1951, just shortly before the expiration of  his sentence.

Shakespeare and Company has succeeded in staging a difficult play – the perils of producing a one-person drama are well known; here, in addition, that device of having the protagonist play the roles of several antagonists through relayed speech and description becomes just a little formulaic and tedious.  That aside, the production shines:  Lohbauer gives a demanding performance of sustained passion and flair, appropriately shaded with nuance and gesture.  Emile Fallaux’s direction is sure-handed and non-intrusive.  The main stage with its three-part division into office, podium, and sitting room is economical and evocative; the use of black and white film footage screened against the backdrop wall and the integration of gorgeous excerpts from four of Mahler’s symphonies and the Kindertotenlieder enhances the experience of Mengelberg and Mahler.

“Summer theatre” this is not:  Mengelberg and Mahler is theatre. TC mark

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