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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sganarelle, 1848

O er hat nicht unrecht, jener populäre Philosoph, wenn er sagt, daß das Sein, nur ein Begriffsaggregat mit markierten elektro-magnetisch-psychologisch-galvanoplastischen Momenten ist. – Nestroy, Freiheit in Krähwinkel

It is strange that Nestroy’s Freedom in Kraehwinkel (Martin Swales once suggested that the title should be Englished as ‘Freedom comes to Chickentown’), which combined songs and music with farce, was never transposed into some equivalent of the Magic Flute of 1848. It is a political farce that takes revolution as another route to the improbable junction of two hearts; it makes a light operetta of revolution and reaction. Those with an interest in opera and Marx – ahem, Chabert? - would, I think, love Nestroy’s play – if this ain’t achin’ for a dialectical-materialist-allegorical reading, I don’t know my Benjamites! That someone like myself, not exactly an expert in real music, especially after the lifetime I’ve spent under the dulling influence of pop, that even I can hear the ghost of the opera it could be in the play, must count for something.

Okay, to come clean, people. Yes, there is one Nestroy play all Americans know. Except they don’t know that it came from Nestroy, via Thornton Wilder. I mean, of course, Hello Dolly. This can’t be helped - and hey, I love the Louis Armstrong version of this, so go fuck yourself if you have a problem with that! So there, my full confession has been made. The Nestroy play was also recast by Tom Stoppard as On the Razzle.

Freedom comes to Chickentown was revived in 1980 in Schwechat, a suburb of Vienna that contains the Schloß Rothmühle. This was the castle where Mesmer produced some of his first cures. It is now the center of the international Nestroy society. The history of revivals is pretty bizarre. The play was revived after the Anschluss, and – ah, the abysses that open up! – the word “Führer” was substituted for the word “Freiheit”.

The most interesting character in the play is Eberhardt Ultra, a journalist, and thus by trade a troublemaker. He appears in numerous disguises in the place – now as a Russian general (the Russians were called in by Franz Joseph to help crush the revolution), now as a priest, and once, crucially, as Metternich himself.

This play fits so well with the metaphoric of ghosts that Derrida explores in Specters of Marx that it is … ghostly. Except here the ghost is not communism, but just the opposite:

“Ultra: Also, wie's im großen war, so haben wir's hier im kleinen g'habt, die Reaktion ist ein Gespenst, aber G'spenster gibt es bekanntlich nur für den Furchtsamen; drum sich nicht fürchten davor, dann gibt's gar keine Reaktion!”

(Thus, as in the great world, so in the small, reaction is a ghost, but a ghost, as is well known, only exists for the timorous. thus, stop being afraid and reaction will just cease to exist!)

As we will see when I get to those Herzen posts, the ghost metaphoric is written all over Herzen’s 1848 writings. I think I will postpone, however, making the Derridean connections until then.

The plot of Freedom comes to Chickentown is your usual farcical fare. The established power – reaction – in Krähwinkel is represented by the mayor and his chief official, Klaus. Klaus has a marriageable daughter, Cecilie, who Klaus wants to marry to Jesus Christ – highing the obedient Cecelie to a nunnery, in short. But Cecilie is secretly smitten with Siegmund – who Klaus believes is in love with the Night watchman’s daughter. This belief is essential to the trick that brings Cecilia and Siegmund together, which I won’t reveal – I mean, one day you all might see this play! On the side of ‘freedom’ are the mid level Kraehwinklers – there’s little reference to labor. Thus, the Nightwatchman and his friends, Pemperl and Schabenfeller, among others, represent freedom and revolt. Pemperl is in it mainly for the sensation – as he says, he “just wants to see a little revolution”. The true liberals, here, are members of the ‘new class,’ relatively speaking. There’s Ultra, the journalist. And there is the vaguely upper middle class widow, Frau von Frankenfrey, with whom Ultra is smitten. Ultra’s disguises are not only in the service of the revolution – they are primarily designed to free Frau von Frankenfrey from the manipulations of the Burgermeister, who is manipulating the terms of her late husband’s will to force her to marry him.

Such is the genius of farce that the path of love and the expulsion of the villain create a perfect vehicle for freedom - freedom - freedom. Although by the time the play was performed, on July 1, 1848, reaction was on the verge of coming back. Ultra’s exorcism was uttered just as the specters were changing.

LI is interested in how, exactly, it came about that after 1848, an attitude arose, shared among the intellectuals of the three sites I’ve already referred to – the pessimists, the liberals, the radicals – that “freedom” was a secondary value for the ‘people’ – whereas, pre-1848, freedom was considered to be a subversive shibboleth that bonded together the dangerous class. On the one hand, there was the visible betrayal of the cause of the people by the liberals to the cause of legitimacy. On the other hand, there was the adoption of a narrower political notion of freedom – I would label this, provisionally, as the defeat of existential political freedom, the freedom to disturb the social order, and the rise of liberal freedom, which named a specific order. Ultra represents this split – he is visibly, in his changing costumes and his tricks, a Lord of Misrule, a visitor from the older notion of freedom – but at the end, with the Burgermeister expelled by fake students, Klaus’ rule over Cecilia overturned, and Ultra’s suit accepted by Frau von Frankenfrey, nothing really changes the order in Chickentown. The exorcism of the ghost of reaction at the end point is truly a surface phenomenon, the end of the rule of pigtails, or Zopf, representing the pseudo ancien regime of Metternich. The restricted order of freedom, the compromise with reaction that, in fact, became the norm, had the effect of demystifying freedom – taking away its former, chthonic power, and in essence removing it, in the perspective of the intellectuals, from the interest of the people.

A little note: that Ultra of Ultras, Karl Marx, was in Vienna on August 28, 1848, where he analyzed the struggle for democracy in terms of the struggle between the workers and the bourgeoisie, comparing it to what was happening in France. After he ended his talk, a man arose and said that no, the Viennese workers weren’t conscious, like the French ones were – they simply wanted 5 more Kreuzer a week. (G. Herman, Karl Marx in Wien, in Der Kampf, 268)


roger said...

Speaking of the "free air" which figures, comically, in Nestroy's play as a threat - an anecdote:

In a Russian cookbook submitted to the censor under Nicholas I, there was a recipe for a baked good that recommended taking it out of the oven and letting it set “in the free air’ to cool down. The censor crossed out ‘free air’ as “too incendiary” (Die russische Freiheit: Wege in ein Paradoxes Thema by Manfred Hagen, 53)

Chuckie K said...

Chickentown? Maybe Chicken Corners or Chicken Junction (for us geezers who remember Petticoat Junction) might better capture the bucolic connotations of Winkel.

roger said...

Corners! Exactly. More peckerwoodish than bucolic, though.