1930s

Journal 1935-1944

Source: Mihail Sebastian (trans. Patrick Camiller), Journal 1935-1944 (London: Pimlico, 2003, orig. pub. 1996), pp. 188-189

Production: Mihail Sebastian, Jocul de-a vacanţa, Comoedia theatre, Bucharest, 17 October 1938

Text: Monday, 17 [October 1938]

Sunday evening’s performance was the last performance. They’ve played the dirty trick of putting Ionescu G. Maria back on for the last two days before the tour, yesterday and today. So now the impression is given that I’ve been taken down from the boards and replaced with an old play – as if it would have been such a disaster to keep me on for another couple of days! For a moment I was quite indignant. But then it passed. In the end, I don’t want to make a tragedy out of anything that’s happened to me at the theatre.

It’s been an adventure – and now it’s over. I didn’t gain a lot from it, nor did I lose much.

On Saturday evening, at the last performance but one, I watched the whole play for the first time since the Sunday immediately after the premiere. I’ve seen bits of each act at various times, depending on when I dropped by the theatre on my way back from the cinema or to see Leni. But I have only twice seen the play from beginning to end. I’m used to it by now, and it is almost impossible for me to judge it. The image of this production has almost completely covered the image I originally had of it. At first the differences between my conception and the stage performance were quite glaring. Little by little, however, the actors’ gestures (even if they were wrong) and their tones of voice (even if they were false) substituted themselves for what I had imagined at the time of writing. Sometimes I’d have liked to protest, to get them back on the right track, to restore my original text, to force them to act the play I actually wrote – but it would have meant too great an effort, and I wasn’t even sure it was worth it.

On Sunday evening I again watched the third act – for the last time! I was in the balcony, from where the stage appears far off and for that very reason somehow magical, and sometimes I shut my eyes to listen the words. Maybe it was the thought that this really was the last time, that none of these words would be spoken again, that they would remain in a typewritten file or, at best, in a printed book – maybe all these thoughts, with their sense of leave-taking, made me listen with emotion for the first time. I said to myself that something was dying, departing forever, breaking loose from me. Never again will I see the audience’s heads turned toward the stage, in the silence of an occupied auditorium, in the darkness broken only by the footlights, listening, taking in, echoing, answering the words written by me. Never again will I hear that laughter rise in warm animation toward the stage.

Next to me a girl was crying. She is the last girl who will cry for Jocul de-a vacanţa.

Comments: Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945) was the pen-name of the Jewish Romanian playwright and noveliest Iosif Hechter. Sebastian’s journal, not published until 1996 – when it gained huge acclaim – records the rise of Fascism in Romania through to the Second World War, the fall of the dictator Ion Antonescu’s fascist government on 23 August 1944, and Romania joining the Allies. Sebastian suffered from anti-Semitic persecution, but survived the war, only to die in a motor accident in May 1945. Jocul de-a vacanţa, or Holiday Games, was his first play. He was romantically involved with actress Leni Caler, who appeared in the production.

The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan

Source: Count Harry Kessler (translated and edited by Charles Kessler), The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), p. 388

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, Savoy Theatre, London, 24 May 1930

Text: Saturday, 24 May 1930, London

In the evening saw Othello at the Savoy Theatre, with Paul Robeson as Othello, Maurice Brown as Iago, Sybil Thorndike as Emilia, and a strikingly pretty and attractive young actress, Peggy Ashcroft, as Desdemona. Apart from her and Robeson, who was a dignified, passionate Othello, it is a moderately successful production. The casting of the smaller parts like Cassio, Rodrigo, Brabantio, and the Duke is comically inadequate and reminiscent of smaller German municipal theatres. The Weimar National Theatre is on the whole a better company and, seeing that it would have done quite well in comparison with this Othello performance, I am now less surprised that Brown should have thought of bringing it to London, His own rendering of Iago was presentable but average.

The Savoy Theatre has just been rebuilt and is regarded as the most modern in London. Nevertheless the revolving stage, or some other backstage machinery, creaked loudly during the most tragic scenes between Othello and Desdemona and Emilia and Desdemona, ruining the tension. The auditorium is modern is the less complimentary sense of the term, constructed in a style which in Germany we have nearly outgrown, all tinsel and meaningless ‘modern’ ornaments appropriate to a third-rate bar, the way that we built ten years ago. Theatre architecture in London and Paris is half a generation behind Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Stuttgart.

Comments: Harry Kessler (1868-1937) was an Anglo-German aristocrat and diplomat. His diaries are an exceptionally vivid and observant account of art and politics in Weimar Germany, and documents visits to many European cities. He saw the American black actor Paul Robeson in Othello at the Savoy Theatre, London, 24 May 1930.