“Horváth wrote nothing until, at university, he and a composer friend collaborated on a musical play, The Book of
Dances. Even then, he was unsure that he had found his vocation, and spent the next five years experimenting with -
and tearing up-all kinds of poems, stones, novels, sketches and plays. In 1926 he wrote the first of his mature works,
The Belle Vue (Zur Schönen Aussicht], put it in a drawer and forgot about it. (It was not performed until 1969).
Writing The Belle Vue gave Horváth the breakthrough in self-confidence he needed, showing him how to use drama to
articulate his attitude to the political turmoil of his times. In the remaining twelve years of his life he produced sixteen
more plays and three novels. In 1929 a publisher's contract gave him enough money to live on, and in 1931 he won the
prestigious Kleist Drama Prize. Film companies began to take an interest in his work, and he combined his other writing
with screen scenarios and dialogue.
Unfortunately for Horváth, but inevitably for a political satirist, he fell increasingly foul of the Nazis. They placed his name
on a list of 'decadent artists', condemned him for making friends with Jews (Carl Zuckmayer, the playwright who had
sponsored him for the Kleist prize) and ransacked his parents' home looking for evidence to incriminate him. In the
mid-1930s he began moving from place to place to evade the secret police, and in 1938 he escaped to Switzerland.
The Hollywood film producer Robert Siodmak arranged to meet him in Paris onjune 1 1938, to discuss a screen version
of Horváth's novel Youth Without God. Horváth spent the afternoon at the cinema watching Snow White and the Seven
Dwarfs, and when he came out sheltered under a tree from a thunderstorm and was killed by a falling branch.
Horváth's whole being was defined by the First World War. Until then, the Germ an-speak ing countries had enjoyed
several centuries of high culture and prosperity. Their success had its dark side - constant political and religious wrangling,
mercantile and colonial exploitation of weaker nations, national pride verging on smugness - but they had also been secure
and self-confident to an unparallelled extent.
The First World War shattered all that as vandals smash a mirror. What had been civilised and humane became jagged
and desperate. Half the young generation was dead, ana the survivors - winners and losers alike - groped for the rags of
their lives like beggars on a rubbish-heap. The countries which had won the war imposed savage reparations on the losers,
producing unprecedented poverty and despair. At one stroke, hope was snatched away - and the result (Horváth said)
was that the young, both uneducated jobless and intellectual middle-class, grew to despise their elders, looking at them
with cynical 'fish eyes' and developing a 'tendency to go for the jugular of the vulnerable and weak'. In the old days class,
manners, money and religion had ruled; now everything was there for the taking, and those who didn't like their place in
the hierarchy scrambled over everyone else for a better one.
In such an atmosphere, lies became normal currency. (In fact, thanks to the reparations, the currency itself was lies. At
one point in the early 1920s, ten million German marks might buy a cup of coffee - unless inflation struck while it was
brewing. And the coffee was ground from acorns.) People invented fantasy-selves, and if one fantasy was exploded they
devised another. In Bavaria, Hitler was using balloons of rhetoric (descriptions of a new German Empire even greater
than those of the noble past) to build a six-member political party into a Nazi juggernaut. As the movement grew, its
political ambitions were bolstered by a ruthless amputation of the past ('there is no such thing as history') and the
silencing of anyone who tried to criticise the incessant drive for a brighter future. Sceptics, leftwingers, Jews,
homosexuals, intellectuals, foreigners and any others who got in the way were brutalised and neutralised. (Horváth the
satirist fled for his life, ironically as it turned out; others went to the gas chambers).
Horváth's later work was written in the desperate, heady days of this Terror, when to be an artist of any kind, let alone
a satirical playwright, was an irresistible flirtation with death, a kind of intellectual aphrodisiac. Like his contemporary the
cartoonist Georg Grosz, he liked to work in bars and cabarets, scribbling ideas while strippers and singers entertained
business tycoons and self-important SS officers. His plays and novels are themselves like cartoons, depicting the contrast
between the struggle of ordinary people to retain dignity in the midst of nightmare and the blank-eyed, moral nullity of
those who survive by preying on their compatriots. (His work is a theatrical foretaste of George Orwell's 1984, except that
the nightmare is set not in a totalitarian future but in the even harsher present).
The Belle Vue, written before the Terror, only hints at these bleak, black themes. It is a frantic farce, built, in best Feydeau
style, on the three great themes of money, sex and death, and with a delirium of doors in its final Act. But in Horváth's
hotel (which stands for all Europe) there is no future, no horizon but an unreachable, romantic mountain View; reality
consists of broken furniture, empty cupboards, grubby sheets and emotional predation. For those who live in the hotel, as
for inhabitants of Hell, hope has been long abandoned. Fantasy is identity. And in a society where outsiders must kill or be
killed, the one character who escapes, Christine, raises more questions than she answers. (She represents the Future -
and Horváth leaves us in no doubt what, for Germany at least, that future was to be). Everyone in the play speaks a
fractured, deconstructed version of the old 'high style' of literary German and its culture: in Belle Vue Hotel, even
language loses its identity.
Of later dramatists, only Eugene lonesco and Joe Orton have ever matched Horváth's blend in this play of bleak-ness and
virtuoso comedy. lonesco once wrote, 'When humans peer into the abyss, we scream - with terror or laughter, but the
screaming is the same.' Nothing could better sum up either Horváth or this play.”