The World of Yesterday

I must get down my thoughts on this ‘spectacle’ whilst Stefan Zweig’s words continue to swim around in my head. His is a fascinating first-person account of the cultural circumstances in Europe as its constituent states tore each other apart in brutal warfare. The book has had a very perceptible impact on me in the short term, and time will tell of its influence in the long term. Regularly I find myself recalling Zweig’s extraordinary perception of human development and the sad victory in his time of patriotism and bigotry over internationalism and intellectualism. There are many reasons that current issues in the world call for a thoughtful reflection of this great memoir. The unthinking reactionary spirit with which Zweig characterises the opening skirmishes of the First World War is harrowingly familiar in a time where a single 140-character statement can shatter careers and entrench divisions between millions of people. The heart-warming empathy Zweig fosters in describing all-comers is a quality that was lacking in his time, but desperately so today, when mistrust and resentment prevail over curiosity and cooperation. Too often people seek self-definition in the land on which they or their parents entered the world, the language they speak, or the practices of the society into which they were raised. How much preferable would it be if more people disregarded their passport and looked to how they themselves respond to the world in an effort to discover who they really are, and not just the badge they wear? Such people certainly do exist, and it would be contradictory to divide the world into those who fit these criteria and those who don’t – all are capable of empathy.

Stefan Zweig in 1940. Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. 28 November 1881 - 22 February 1942.. Image shot 1940. Exact date unknown.

With the currency of such issues in mind it might strike one as a stroke of visionary genius to stage a performance based on The World of Yesterday. The potential exists for an alarming and visceral piece of contemporary theatre that emerges from the parapet as a monument for our times. Sadly, what Jo and I went to see at Print Room at the Old Coronet Cinema in Notting Hill left that gap in the artistic market untouched. Perhaps we were foolish to expect any more than what we got; the show advertised a performance in French based on The World of Yesterday. And indeed we were treated to extracts in rapid French (of a German book in an English theatre with English surtitles) read out unadorned by a single man on the stage. I feel stunningly hypocritical now for saying this, but only the French could conceive of something so outrageously pretentious! For an hour and twenty minutes this man merely read a book at us and called it art. Granted, there was a touch of lighting and a few snippets of inoffensive music, which (unfortunately) was not enough to divert our attention from the main attraction. Oh, I almost forgot there was a bunch of chairs strewn either side of the stage. Were they left there from the previous show, or was it the closest thing to set that could be mustered? The recurrence of this question in my mind was about the most entertaining aspect of this performance which challenged only the speed of our reading the surtitles (to have followed the French at the speed it was spoken would have been a fool’s errand).

What is so staggering about the brazen egotism required for such a rendering of Zweig’s book is how far removed such an act is from the character of the man himself. The opening words of his memoir’s foreword are almost cringe-inducing in their self-effacing disavowal of the sense of self-importance normally associated with autobiography: “I never considered myself important enough to feel tempted to tell others the story of my life.” Zweig’s modesty is no mere rhetorical brushstroke; time and time again he seems astounded at the success he found in life, despite the prodigious ability he demonstrated with the written word throughout his life. The idea of reading out his life’s memories out loud in front of an audience would have appalled him: “I hate nothing so much as having to show my face on a platform or some other public space.” The spirit of Zweig’s book is lost the instant one decides to present him and his words in this way. It might have been possible to buy into the conceit if the performer had presented a degree of removal between himself and Zweig, but intention was clear: that our actor was acting as Zweig – a pill too big for anyone to swallow!

There’s not much more I really have to say about this show (maybe I’ve forgotten something), but I’d like finally to comment on the venue. This is the first time I have been to the Print Room at the Coronet, and I hope not the last. The bar in particular leaves an impression on a visitor to the theatre. The uneven floors, the clutter of dilapidated furniture and rusty old light fittings, the dim-lit gloom all contribute to the place an enchanting nostalgia. It is entirely conceivable that Zweig himself would have spent time in a cinema so decorated during his later years in London or in Bath. He describes in his book one visit to the cinema that shook him to the core. The French audience with whom he shared an auditorium was whipped into a frenzy on seeing Austria’s Wilhelm II fill the screen. He saw in the reaction of the ordinary, otherwise good-natured people to heroes and villains the torturous divisions rent by nationalist propaganda, and he made it his life’s work to fight hopelessly against these forces.