After a dramatic life and a singularly dramatic death, Odon von Horvath's name virtually disappeared from the theaters of Europe, where in 1931 he had ranked with Brecht. Next fall Arena Stage will introduce him to America.
The play is Horvath's most noted, "Tales from the Vienna Woods," which, in a translation by Christopher Hampton, was presented last year on the Olivier title is bitter irony for Horvath was writing of the decay of a society haunted by inflation and lurching toward fascism.
David Chambers, in his new role as associate producing director of Arena during a year's absence for Zelda Fichandler, has made a stimulating choice of his first production. There will be other directors during his year of command, but he will stage the Horvath himself in the Arena.
Chambers' next choice for the Arena will be the Christmas bill, "Mysteries and Miracles," adapted by Robert Montgomery, who wrote "Subject to Fits," with A.J. Antoon as guest director. Drawn from Biblical sources, this new adaptation of the medieval pageants will use music, spectacle, humor and parables in the manner of those early church plays.
Another highlight of the season will be the return of Romania's Liviu Ciulei, whose striking "Hamlet" is winding up its Arena run tonight. There's some question what Ciulei will stage. He leans to Gogol's "The Inspector General," but one hopes it will be Moliere's far less familiar "Don Juan." Moliere subtitled it "The Feast of Stone." It raised even more oppostion than the usual Moliere storm in 1665, and there is no memory of any previous Washington production. Fitting as Gogol's satire on government workers may be to Washington, "The Inspector General" is all too familiar and the Monliere "Don Juan" would be a novelty.
If, for his first choices at the helm, Chambers seems to have turned to Europe, American writers are very much in his plans. His problem now is to choose from several categories.
Philip Barry's "Hotel Universe," which always comes up for talk of a revival but very little action, will probably have to fight for a spot against Robert E. Sherwood's "Idiot's Delight." Both plays are of the 1930s, and Chambers' interest in them is based less on nostalgia than as historical plays. Both appeared before Chambers, now 32, was born, and he has seen neither.
Look for the younger American play wrights, too. On his list for the Kreeger stage are new ones by David Rabe (of "Streamers"), Christopher Durang (who wrote "A History of the American Film") and Albert Innaurato (of the current "Gemini"), all of them presented at the Kreeger. There's also a chance for Sam Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class" about a family whose land is worth so much money that it can no longer be farmed.
Two plays in repertory are planned in the Kreeger for a Women's Theater Festival, either recent or new by women. Chambers envisions this for next spring, as well as a "fringe festival" to include readings and workshops dealing with sexuality and relationships in today's America.
Black Theater will combine two prominent writers, theater poetry by Ntozake Shange, who wrote "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf," and "Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act," by Athol Fugard, the white South African author of "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead." This double bill is still "in the thinking stages," Chambers cautions.
So far Chambers' choices indicate a strong political and social bent, but his wind-up for the Arena will be something different, "a no-holds-barred, out-and-out musical," possibly "Irma La Douce" or Coward's melodic "Bittersweet." Chambers has ideas for novel musical staging. Will he remove the south tier seats as was done in 1967 for "Oh, What a Lovely War!"? That's not been done since, but it would be at the cost of losing income.
As for his Broadway staging of "A History of the American Film," which closed after three disappointing weeks, Chambers is philosophical: "I learned a lot. In a theater over twice the size of the Kreeger, the subtleties and humor got lost. It was all blown up too much, and we should have kept it the size it was in a smaller house. It was painful, so was the flu I developed during rehearsals, but I'm determined to look ahead now to October."
At his age and a graduate of the Yale University School of Drams, Chambers is hardly a stranger to Washington audiences. For Ford's he restaged "The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show," which he had written and directed for the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. For the Folger he directed "Medal of Honor Rag." For Arena's Old Vat room he did "Forever Yours, Marie-lou" and "What the Babe Said."
Apart from the detailed planning, which Chambers knows will engulf him more than he will relish, his mind must be working on his Horvath challenge.Until Hampton's translation, there was no English version of this Austro-Hungarian playwright who wrote in German. Hounded across Europe by the Nazis, he wound up in Paris because a Dutch clairvoyant had told him "it is absolutely essential you go to Paris because the greatest adventure of life awaits you there."
And in Paris on a June night in 1938, Horvath broke his custom of never going out at the end of May or the first of June because he was convinced he would die accidentally at such a time. Walking down the Champs Wlysees in a thunderstorm, he was struck on the back of his head by the branch of an elm, hit by lightning. He died instantly at the age of 36, the author of 18 plays.