Act I Scene 10


The Café Pucher. The government ministers all assembled.

HEAD WAITER, EDUARD (to Franz):    There are some magazines missing again, the Musket[1], the Flea[2] and the Interessante. As for the Bomb –

(Five people are coming in to sit at a table nearby. The Prime Minister turns to the Minister of the Interior.)

OLD BIACH:    God preserve us, he said something about a bomb –

HEAD WAITER, EDUARD (bringing over some magazines):    Excuse me, Your Excellency, have you finished with the Bomb yet?

OLD BIACH:    Oh, I see –

THE OTHERS (all at once):    About a what?

OLD BIACH:    Nothing – my mistake

PRIVY COUNSELLOR (to his neighbour):    It’s quite interesting really, in today’s –

(The waiter Franz has reached the table. All at once orders are called out: ‘Double espresso for me!’, ‘Froth and quite milky!’ ‘Whipped cream on top and the evening paper!’ ‘Cappucino filtered!’

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    Latte, no, you know what, just for a change you can bring me a walnut-gold coffee[3] and the New Free Press!

OLD BIACH (picking up the New Free Press):    Magnificent!

ALL:    What?

OLD BIACH:    Look, this is so impressive, Benedikt’s been celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the New Free Press for a fortnight now, it’s always on the front page, then comes the battle of Lemberg with all the analysis, etc. At least the anniversary shows there are still positive events in Austria. After all it’s an unprecedented occurrence. The bulwark of Germanic liberal culture, thought, civilisation, but that’s not all, what about the big names offering congratulations to him – here – wait – three, four, no, five pages. Competing to congratulate him, even the elite of the elite aren’t embarrassed to do it.

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    I wrote today – you see, it’ll be in tomorrow.

OLD BIACH (excited):    If you’ve written I shall write too. It will be quite an honour to be in such company –

PROFESSOR:    Funny though, I notice that – with each letter, thousands upon thousands of congratulations, with each one he prints his own address, in full: The Right Honourable Herr Moriz Benedikt, Editor of the New Free Press, Vienna I, Fichtegasse 11. I can’t help feeling – a little vain? He could skip the Right Honourable; wouldn’t twenty times or so do for the address?

CHUM:    I don’t think so. One can hardly hear it often enough.

PRIVY COUNSELLOR (almost at the same time):    I don’t accept that at all either, he simply doesn’t want to alter any of the letters, that’s how everyone wrote to him and so that’s how they should be printed, He’s quite right.

OLD BIACH:    What’s he saying? What was he saying?

CHUM (calming):    It’s nothing – Lemberg is still in our hands.

COUTURIER:    Above all one sees that these communications are genuine, look, quite a coup, Montecuccoli[4], and a whole string of Excellencies –

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    What’s all that about, Montecuccoli and a string of Excellencies? And Poldi Berchtold, what is he a poodle now? Yesterday he went round and offered his congratulations personally!

OLD BIACH:    Well, what does Berchtold matter! Here’s Weiskirchner[5], the mayor! There, before your very eyes, what can I say! Would you even credit it? Weiskirchner, the greatest anti-Semite of all! He congratulates Benedikt with ‘heartfelt sincerity’. Look what it says there. Now that really is choice, ‘the New Free Press is the prayer book of the cultured classes’.

CHUM:    And it’s absolutely true! And see what it says here! Dukes and Co. is delighted to enjoy the warmest of relationships with the New Free Press. Only the biggest advertising agency in Vienna, if you please!

PROFESSOR:    Look! Even Max Harden’s[6] there – the most brilliant stylist around, everyone knows it – what does he say, he describes Benedikt just brilliantly, listen to this, as ‘the Commander-in-Chief of the Intellect’!

COUTURIER:   Clever-ish, but unoriginal. It’s been in a dozen letters.

OLD BIACH:    And after all that comes the battle for Lemberg, naturally, how could it be otherwise? The speeches at the banquet, magnificent –

CHUM:    Not a banquet, the banquet was cancelled due to the war.

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    Out of humility.

COUTURIER:    Overzealous solicitude.

OLD BIACH:    Now, now! So there wasn’t any nosh, it was still all tremendously festive. If it wasn’t for the war we’d have seen something! But they didn’t spoil it altogether. It was wonderful how they all lionised their editor, you know, even the accounts department, even the first female newspaper vendor. A party thrown by the press is a bit of a family affair really. I’m told the speeches were transcribed by a stenographer on the spot.

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    Didn’t the stenographer get to celebrate too?

OLD BIACH:    I’m sure, but she got on with her job in the meantime.

CHUM:    Just take a look at the list though, it’s never-ending –

PROFESSOR:    Yes, it’s sad.

CHUM:    Why sad?

PROFESSOR:    Oh, I see what you mean, I was just looking at the casualty lists underneath, they happen to come right after the congratulations.

OLD BIACH:    It’s too bad – what can one do, but yes, it is an event that stands out as something even our children’s children will be talking about.

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    Quite true, not every day a newspaper turns fifty.

OLD BIACH:    Of course, but I was thinking of – Lemberg, the battle.

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:      Who’s talking about Lemberg?

PROFESSOR (looking around carefully):    I’m afraid there’s really no denying it, it’s a battle that does us no great credit.

OLD BIACH:    Excuse me – no credit? I dare you to say that out loud!

PROFESSOR (quietly):    Look, what I mean is Lemberg –  

OLD BIACH:    Who needs to argue about Lemberg? If you must get dispirited, despondent, take heart from Benedikt’s front page – his jubilee!

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    You know what impresses me most? It’s not what’s on the front page, not what’s in the middle, it’s what’s at the back! Remember, on the day of the anniversary, one hundred advertisements from the banks, full page? They shelled out, in the middle of the moratorium on advertising too, till they were bled dry! The press is powerful all right, no one can rattle it – but when it goes a-rattling the plums drop from the trees.

OLD BIACH:    What do you expect? Benedikt’s chutzpah[7] is second to none in Austria today? He’s got imagination and heart and character and attitude and like Nimrod he is a mighty receiver before the Lord[8].

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    You know who you remind me of, Herr Biach, in the way you speak.

OLD BIACH:    Who is it? Who do I remind you of?

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:   OfBenedikt himself with all those ‘ands’!

OLD BIACH:    So? Is that a surprise? One has no choice but to be under his spell! Have you read his Layman’s Questions and Answers in the evening edition lately? Such sterling stuff!  It’s really in the evening edition that he’s fully himself. Everything can be reprised anew. When it was announced that Lemberg was still in our hands, he said, ‘What strikes us above all here is the word “still”, our eyes drill into it and we can visualise everything.’ Invariably he gives us everything, everything and much more besides! ‘It was reported yesterday – it is reported today’; you can’t get phrases like that out of your head. He speaks the way we speak, only more articulately. Who knows, does he speak like us or do we speak like him?

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    It’s a big beast of an editorial! The first sentence – who could replicate that? ‘The Brodsky family[9] is one of the wealthiest in Kiev.’ It’s done. You’re in Kiev in the thick of it all. Then he leapfrogs, he talks about Talleyrand[10], then what he said over dinner, and before you know it you’re in 1867 in the middle of the Hungarian Compromise[11].                        

OLD BIACH:    What impresses me most is when he says, ‘Can’t you see it?’ Or when he appeals to the power of the imagination, grabs hold of us, and we visualise it all straightaway, as if, God forbid, he was standing among the smoking guns and us with him. He attaches the greatest importance to atmosphere and detailed impressions, it’s mesmerising when he describes how his passions are aroused. For myself, I like it best when he imagines them all tossing and turning at night, especially Poincaré[12] and Gray[13], even the Czar[14], fear gnawing away at them as their bastions crumble. ‘And perhaps at this very moment and perhaps already and perhaps and perhaps’, such high drama! I’m told he dictates when he writes. Can’t you see him dictating an editorial? I can’t tell you how my imagination relishes that picture, the chandeliers shaking as he dictates.

PROFESSOR:    Just by chance I can, because I took a complaint up to him personally, it was that article about the rubbish collector and the flies[15]

OLD BIACH:    So what did you see?

PROFESSOR:    They haven’t got any chandeliers.

OLD BIACH (excitable):    What have they got? No, that’s enough, Professor, everyone knows you’re a wet blanket – so they’ve got standard lamps! It doesn’t matter – the chandeliers shake! We like our illusions. Waiter, bring me the Jewish Chronicle and the Army Gazette[16]!

CHUM:    Just a moment! Now – if we could only hear what the ministers are saying! (All listen. Old Biach moves close to the ministers’.)

PRIME MINISTER:     Look at Pschütt-Cartoons again today, all the funnies are in a hopeless state – they should be locked away not hung from a hook – they really are taking liberties. By the time we get hold of them they’re in an appalling condition – more stress is really the last thing I need with my constitution – we simply have to put an end to it.

OLD BIACH (very excitable):    You know what I’ve just heard? Good God, I heard every word distinctly: we’re in a hopeless state and people need to be locked up or hung from hooks –

CHUM:    Sshh –

OLD BIACH:    Conditions are so grim that the only hope is to put an end to the constitution –

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    So it’s come to that!

PROFESSOR:    This is political dynamite, and straight from the horse’s mouth!

OLD BIACH (proudly):    What do you say about that?

COUTURIER:    It’s your duty to leak it to the press before the day is out.

OLD BIACH:    Yes, these are grave times –

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    – and who know what tomorrow will bring –

COUTURIER:    – and the state does have an obligation to reign in people’s passions once it’s stirred them up –

CHUM:    – morale matters –

PROFESSOR:    – disquiet is spreading –

OLD BIACH:    – and it’s already ten and my Rosa’s sitting at home and she doesn’t like it when I come back late and that’s the reason I’m for paying the bill and heading off.

(The head waiter comes over, and they go, looking back at the ministers’ table with apprehensive concern.)

OLD BIACH (as he leaves):    We’ve witnessed an historic moment. As long as I live I shan’t forget the portentous expression on Count Stürgkh’s face[17].(Change.)   

[1] ‘Die Muskete’ (1805-1941), Vienna, satirical weekly; Schönpflug was one of its cartoonists.

[2] ‘Der Floh’, (1869-1919), Vienna, satire and caricature; it was vigorously anticlerical.

[3] Some waiters carried a colour chart so that customers could indicate the shade of brown of their coffee.

[4] Rudolf Montecuccoli, count (1843-1922), admiral and sometime First Sea Lord.

[5] (I n.37)

[6] Maximilian Harden, real name Felix Ernst Witowski (1861-1927), German Jewish theatre critic and political journalist; Kraus thought his style was so baroque impenetrable that it needed translation.

[7] Gewure, a Yiddish word meaning ‘forcefulness’; it would have sounded Yiddish to Kraus’s audience.

[8]‘Ein grosser Nemmer vor dem Herrn’, ‘a great taker/receiverbefore the Lord’; ‘vor dem Herrn’ is a phrase that appears many times in the Bible, but only once in a sentence that can echo this one: in Luther’s version, ‘Er war ein gewaltiger Jäger vor dem Herrn, darum sagt mann: Wie Nimrod, ein gewaltiger Jäger vor dem Herrn,  ‘He was a mighty hunter before the Lord: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord’ (Gen 10:9). In Judaism the meaning of this is disputed; Nimrod’s strength and prowess were a good thing in the eyes of God; as the builder of the Tower of Babel he represents rebellious mankind and, pointedly, first brought war to the earth. Kraus replaces ‘gewaltiger Jäger’  with grosser Nemmer’; Nemmer seems to be a Yiddish version of Nehmer, ‘one who takes’ (there is a Yiddish proverb, ‘A nemmer is nit kein geber’, ‘A taker is not a giver’); it is ambiguous like the word ‘receiver’ in respect of its nefarious implications; is he a receiver of gifts from God or a receiver of stolen goods? It seems unlikely that Old Biach doesn’t mean the former; even more unlikely that Kraus doesn’t suggest the latter. It is appropriate to add Nimrod to the sentence; what was self-evidently a biblical reference is so no longer.

[9] The Brodskys were one of Russia’s wealthiest Jewish families, especially during the liberal rule of Czar Alexander II, when Lazar Brodsky was chairman of the Kiev stock exchange; they fared less well in the pogroms that followed his assassination in 1881 – ‘To Brodsky’s’ was the Black Hundred mob’s rallying cry. They financed the building of a huge synagogue in Kiev, destroyed by the Nazis but recently restored. After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand the Russian government planned to expel ten thousand Jewish families from Kiev; any problem was an opportunity to present the Jewish population as an enemy within.

[10] Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, prince (1754-1838), hugely influential French diplomat; though an aristocrat he supported the French revolution; he was later Napoleon’s Foreign Minister. He then travelled full circle and was instrumental in re-establishing the Bourbon monarchy; he also concluded a secret agreement with Britain and Austria-Hungary that effectively marginalised their former ally, Russia.

[11] The Hungarian Compromise (1867) established Austria-Hungary as a dual monarchy, with governments in Vienna and Budapest; although it kept Hungary within the empire it only exacerbated the grievances of other minorities, like the Czechs, Romanians and Croats; it was a sticking plaster over a gaping wound.

[12] Raymond Poincaré (1860-1934), politician, cabinet minister, president of France during the war.

[13] Edward Grey, viscount (1862-1933), British Foreign Minister (1905-1916), later Leader of the House of Lords. His words: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’.

[14] Czar Nicholas II (1868-1918), last of Russia’s Romanov rulers; Russia was another vast and crumbling empire, seething with unrest, controlled by an autocratic and out-of-touch aristocracy; already on the verge of collapse the Russian Empire would not survive Nicholas’s decision to take direct command of the army.

[15] Vienna began waste collection in 1839; the collector, Mistbauer, announced his presence with a bell and householders brought garbage to his cart; after the First World War a bin collection service was introduced. Inadequate rubbish collection was a long-running issue for the New Free Press: so were the consequences.

[16]Blochische Wochenschrift’, Viennese weekly magazine aimed at the Jewish community and promoting Jewish interests, published by J. S. Bloch; ‘Danzers Armeezeitung’, a journal for and about the military.

[17] Karl von Stürgkh, count (1859-1916), Prime Minister (1911-1916); with no parliament during the war his rule was increasingly autocratic shot in 1916 by Social Democrat Friedrich Adler (1879-1960).