The Pendulum by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

A Tragedy of 1900 Vienna

The Play

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The play had its stage debut, from which the above poster comes, in London’s West End in 2008 (produced by Jermyn Street Theatre Ltd. and Mephisto Productions Ltd.) Below is the cast list, followed by the author’s introductory essay from the programme, followed by a brief synopsis along with production shots.

The play scripts, both the first draft and production draft, are posted separately below that with an introductory note from the author.

Following that is the press from that production, beginning with a pre-publicity interview with the author from Condé Nast’s Tatler magazine and the reviews, in chronological order, beginning with the UK’s longest serving theatre critic, Michael Billington of The Guardian.

Author’s Programme Notes

1900 Vienna

In an Empire of a dozen peoples at the dawn of an era of unprecedented ethnic and nationalistic violence, the Emperor Franz Joseph may have been conservative in spirit, but was liberal in action. After his, the two strongest voices of authority and calm in the Empire were the largely assimilated Jewish bourgeois elite – and their descendants who increasingly ceased to view themselves as Jewish, despite how they were viewed by others – and the largely German military aristocracy. Between them they ran the arts, the finances and the highest level of government. However, these “two households, both alike in dignity”, locked in a narrow-minded obsession with their own spheres’ of influence, and tragically incapable of joining forces, left the Empire fatally vulnerable to the events of 1914 and what was left of Austria to those of 1938.

This was something foreseen by many, including the Emperor’s own son, Crown Prince Rudolph. However, his ambitions were frustrated by a distant father and an even more distant prospect of ruling, and so, driven half-mad by cocaine and morphine prescribed for a range of ailments including depression and syphilis, he killed himself and his lover, the seventeen year-old Baroness Vetsera, in a suicide pact at the Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889. Compounding the family tragedy, in 1898 Rudolph’s mother, the Empress Elisabeth, was stabbed by an anarchist with a nail-file before boarding a steamboat on Lake Geneva. Famous for her tiny waist, but now sixty years old, the tight corset she wore concealed the fact that the wound was to her heart. When the corset was removed aboard ship she died within minutes, saying only, “What happened to me?” I cannot think of two more emblematic events of that time and place.

Vienna was most of all a place of romantic irrationalism twinned with scientific and material progress. As terrible a combination as that would later become, there is something extremely touching about the naivete of the period as typified in its memoirs, such as Stefan Zweig’s elegant The World of Yesterday. Reading them, one feels that only a people youthful in spirit, despite the age of the Hapsburg dynasty, could live as the Viennese did, with music on every corner and ceremony at every occasion. Equally, only the very young at heart could die as they did: in epidemics of suicides caused by books of philosophy and poetry, or dueling over love affairs and other matters of honour. It was an age in which I would not like to live, but perhaps to visit for a while. I hope that you agree.

In loving memory of Jules William Fiske Harrison (1969-1988).

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Lieut. Friedrich von Leiben – Alexander Fiske-Harrison
Miss Elena Suttner – Sian Clifford
Dr. Artur Neurath – Gareth Kennerly
Otto Melk – James Clarkson

Director – Allison Troup-Jensen
Designer – Kevin Jenkins
Lighting designer – Matthew Eagland
Sound desginer – Tom Gibbons
Image designer – Andy Cooke
Photographer – Matt Jamie
Stage manager – Vicky Eames
Assistant stage manager – Andrew Herbertson
Assistant stage manager – Martin Yellowlees

Synopsis

Friedrich von Lieben is a young Cavalry officer in 1900 Vienna, living up to the now fading ideals of a bygone era in the Habsburg Empire, a man of honour and a romantic, but also a gambler and incipient alcoholic. His friend Artur, a physician in the city of Sigmund Freud, already has one foot inside the door of the modern world. At the New Year’s Eve ball, 1899, Friedrich meets a beautiful young artist, Elena. Artur points out that she has Jewish blood, but Friedrich refuses to believe him and a bet is made.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Sian Clifford

Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Sian Clifford

Friedrich marries Elena and they appear to be happy and in love, although tensions quickly appear over Elena’s sensitivity over her racial heritage – her maternal grandmother was Jewish – and her husband’s jealousy combined with his long-standing rivalry with another officer, Captain Wilhelm Schlessing.

As the relationship is tested, Artur attempts to help his friend, but a series of mistimed events lead Friedrich to the conclusion that Elena is having an affair and he challenges Schlessing to a suicidal duel.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Gareth Kennerley

Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Gareth Kennerley

The play ends with Elena broken by Friedrich’s death, Artur leaving her with the knowledge that it will not be long until she follows him.

The Script

The Pendulum by Alexander Fiske-Harrison – First Draft

The Pendulum by Alexander Fiske-Harrison – First Performance Draft

A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR

Enclosed above are two downloadable drafts of the script.

The first draft was written between my time acting in the drama The Future (by Andrew Harrison – no relation) in a theatre in Hampstead, London in the summer of 2007 and my acting in the comedy Alone Together (by Lawrence Roman) in a theatre in Hamburg, Germany, the following winter. It is in part a reaction to these two plays and in part to personal circumstances. As a result it is occasionally melodramatic and at others almost histrionic. It was also written by a working actor – hence too much written direction – and something of a novelist manqué – hence too much scene-setting. That said, there is definitely something there in terms of a purified and refined essence of tragedy.

The second draft, which was staged at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London’s West End in the Summer of 2008 (see reviews below) was rewritten, at first  at the request of, then at the insistence of, and the final scene by the director of that production. I can only say of my relationship with that director that it began as fraught and mistrustful and got steadily worse. I personally believe that their relationship with the story itself was similar and I cannot claim to understand their motives for attaching to the production in the first place. I am inclined to agree with the critic who said about the product of the director’s changes that it “feels like an eviscerated version of a much longer script. Every situation is so lightly sketched, with so little detail, actual dialogue or time for it to develop, that the entire tragedy feels like it is over before it even started.”   

It is worth noting that the earlier draft is almost exactly twice the length of the later one. I hope one day to attempt to combine the good points from both drafts.

AF-H

The Press

From Condé Nast’s Tatler magazine, July issue, 2008. Tatler feature article on AF-H, July 2008 

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Theatre

The Pendulum

Jermyn Street Theatre, London

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 Michael Billington 

The Guardian, Monday 9 June 9008

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What does one look for in a new play? Preferably, an original vision and a distinctive tone. The strange thing about this well-organised piece by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, an Oxford graduate in philosophy, is that it feels more like an old play than a new one. If I had been subjected to a blind-tasting, I would have sworn it was an adaptation of a short story by Arthur Schnitzler.

Set in Vienna in 1900, the play deals with the collision between the city’s military aristocracy and assimilated Jews. A cavalry officer takes a bet that the vivacious painter with whom he has fallen in love is not Jewish. Discovering, after their marriage, that she has a Jewish grandmother, he disclaims any overt prejudice and champions the emperor’s liberal ideals. Yet his mind is corroded by insane jealousy, leading to savage attacks on his blameless wife, suspicion of a fellow officer and the inevitable duel.

Fiske-Harrison has clearly done his homework: he understands, for instance, the tensions between Franz Joseph’s imperial benevolence and the antisemitism of Vienna’s populist mayor, Karl Lueger. The author himself plays the disintegrating hero with the right poker-backed irascibility; Sian Clifford lends his wife a spirited independence; and there is solid support from Gareth Kennerley as a doctor-friend and James Clarkson as a family retainer. Yet, while it is refreshing to find a new play that gets away from bedsit angst, one wonders why Fiske-Harrison has tackled this subject now. If there are contemporary parallels, they are not obvious, and one comes away with the sensation of having seen an accomplished, but oddly impersonal, historical play.

· Until June 28. Box office: 020-7287 2875 

 

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What’s On – Reviews

The Pendulum

Published Tuesday 10 June 2008 at 10:55 by John Thaxter

In Vienna in 1900, an Arthur Schnitzler drama is drawing the cultural elite, many of them from Jewish families happily assimilated into Austrian society. But Schnitzler himself, having mocked the army’s obsession with its formal codes of honour, is about to be stripped of his commission by the German military aristocracy – a hint of simmering anti-semitism.

Against this background Alexander Fiske-Harrison has written this new and touching four-hander about a fateful marriage between a rising army officer and his beautiful bride, she a successful portrait painter with links to Parisian artistic circles, but who carries a trace of Jewish blood from her grandmother.

The first act is largely concerned with scene-setting, almost literally so in the case of James Clarkson, who supplies a marvellously subtle portrayal of the old family retainer, happy that his young master has made a love match, but increasingly disturbed when tiny rifts appear in the domestic scene.

Fiske-Harrison himself plays the officer with something of the style of a handsome British film idol of the fifties, more concerned with burnishing his career than spending time with his wife. She has the profile of a Shavian ‘new woman’ – amused, talented and independent, given a delightfully detailed performance by Sian Clifford.

Completing the cast, Gareth Kennerley plays an ambitious young doctor, friend of the couple, who acts as a voice of moderation when the husband wrongly suspects his wife of infidelity, while she responds with bitter irony which fuels a tragic split between them.

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Old Fashioned Cocktail Triumphs

The Pendulum, Jermyn Street Theatre, London

June 14 2008

by Tom Boulter

“A touching and beautiful story that lends itself perfectly to the stage… The Pendulum bucks the trend, partly because there is no grounding in the here and now; the writing and the subject matter are both wilfully old-fashioned. Nevertheless, the Pendulum is that rare bird: a new play worthy of the attention it demands. “

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From June 15, 2008

The Pendulum, Jermyn Street

Theatre, SW1 – the Sunday Times review

“…acute on matters of jealousy and grand passions…”

 

The Pendulum

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