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
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).
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
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.
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.
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.