What lay outside was foreign. The district where they were born and grew up, the splendid, loud, teeming worker neighbourhood was stiffly silent in the January mud, because military vehicles were rumbling through the streets. Thecity that was called ‘Red Vienna’ was a shy, almost hostile, a foreign city. The city felt forgotten, deserted, and very lonely.
Ever since 2006, the collective of the Viennese experimental political theatre group FLEISCHEREI (_mobil) has been working on musical and dramatic interpretations of the novel fragment ‘Thus Died a Party’ by Jura Soyfer (1912-1939). The political dramatist, poet, journalist, and documentarist of Red Vienna (1918-1934), largely unknown outside of Austria, has often been called the ‘Austrian Brecht’. He has left behind an extensive oeuvre of so-called ‘Mittelstücke’ – a form of political theatre that arose as a new genre in the Viennese cabaret of the 1930s, mixing elements of folk theatre and magic acts – political essays, poems, calls, sketches for the Social Democratic Party, and the novel ‘Thus Died a Party’, which could only be salvaged in fragments. Literary historians consider it one of the most important literary- political documents of Austria’s inter-war years (1919-1939). The 27-year- old Soyfer, after a brief meteoric career, met his death in the concentration camp of Buchenwald.
The long-term work on Soyfer’s ‘Thus Did a Party Die’, which conveys a complex historical panorama of the inter-war years, was developed in several successive phases and more than ten versions with about a hundred performances in a variety of stagings using different titles – ‘Under Unpropitious February Skies’, ‘Then Close, Much Closer’, and ‘A Foreign City!’). These were presented in almost half of Vienna’s 23 districts, and
each performance consisted of several locations in open spaces, ranging from theatres to district town halls, schools, and adult education schools, cafés, and restaurants to the University of Vienna, a former Nazi bunker, and the Jewish Theatre of Austria.
After the prologue, which goes through the events from 1919 to 1932 in quick motion, the external action is concentrated in the last year of the First Republic. The first six chapters – two of which have only come down to us as outlines – are set in the first three months of 1933, which sealed Social Democracy’s fate. The weeks before Hitler’s victory in Germany on 30 January, the Nazis’ victory celebration in Vienna, the Social Democrats’ counter-demonstration on 11 February, the railway workers’ strike on 1 March, the resignation of the three National Council presidents on 4 March, the violent obstruction of the 15 March session of parliament, the banning of the Republican Militia (Schutzbund) on 31 March – the documentary ‘action’ comprises all of this. The second part begins after a considerable time lapse and deals with temporally less specific processes in the summer and fall of 1933 and finally in January 1934. The document ends abruptly about fourteen days before the February Uprising.
Jura Soyfer wrote his incomplete realistic historical novel under the direct influence of the socio-political tensions of the early 1930s. He deals with the causes and consequences of the failed revolt of 12 February 1934 and the increasing rigidity of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SDAP) of the 1920s and 30s, its bureaucratic ossification, and the political stagnation that was coupled to creeping corruption, the isolation of party functionaries, and the downplaying of the fascist danger. The initial pathos of the SDAP’s political slogans is drowned out by almost religiously coloured hopes of salvation, tending to downplay the rightward shift, while the still young democracy headed towards its demise and Austrofascism, which in the end sealed the ‘death of the party’. Moreover, specifically the lack of support for the revolutionary workers essentially led to the brutal defeat of the February Uprising by the Austro-fascist Dollfuß-Schuschnigg regime (1934-38). As the well-known Soyfer biographer Horst Jarka puts it:
These 125 pages are the most effective representation of the agony of the First Republic that we find in all of Austrian literature. As regrettable as it is that the work remained a fragment, Soyfer’s penetration of politics and psychology, atmosphere, and historical events so forcefully represents the conditions that led to the catastrophe that the depiction of the catastrophe itself, although it would probably have been the dramatic climax, could have hardly done better in deepening an understanding of its causes.
Although Soyfer’s realistic political novel follows the course of political events it is characterised by a creative intent that allows history – for Soyfer that of the most recent past – to be experienced as a many-layered drama that drifts towards catastrophe. Political and literary concerns interpenetrate.
Jura Soyfer was born on 8 December 1912 in Kharkov, in the Russian Empire in a family of well-to-do Jewish industrialists who fled from the Bolshevik Revolution to the suburbs of Vienna in 1921. At the age of fifteen he began to study history, art, literature, and the socialist classics and became a Marxist and in 1927 joined the Association of Socialist Middle School Students. He soon was active in political cabaret in the ambit of the Social Democratic Party, and from 1931 on he wrote weekly political satire for the Arbeiter-Zeitung (Workers’ Newspaper) as well as articles for Politische Bühne (Political Stage), a socialist newspaper connected to the Red Players group. His approach to drama was close to Brecht’s ‘epic theatre’, which in contrast to bourgeois drama and its embrace of identification, empathy, and illusion seeks to convey historical and political knowledge and insight through ‘alienation effects’, that is, by a dialectical distancing style of acting, stage design, and commentaries. In 1938 Soyfer was arrested as he tried to cross the Austrian border into Switzerland, brought to Dachau and later Buchenwald concentration camp, where he died of typhoid fever the day after his release was granted, on February 16, 1939.
From his early youth Soyfer participated in the cultural and political conflicts of Red Vienna, that often glorified epoch of democratic breakthrough, revolt, and artistic exploration in which artistic and political activism interpenetrated. It was a historically unique and universally admired socio- cultural experiment carried out by Austria’s labour movement, which could never again be built upon, not even after 1945. From today’s viewpoint Red Vienna appears isolated as one of the last humanist periods in Austrian history, carried by a vision of an egalitarian society beyond class struggle, scarcities, and exclusions. But these were unfulfilled hopes.
The staging concept was not oriented to showing ‘real’ characters, even if historic models did influence this epic; for example a central episode is dedicated to the pioneer Austro-Marxist thinker Otto Bauer. Nor was it the intention to translate the worker milieu and the revolutionary mass movements – that is, to represent ‘revolution’ on the stage. The dramatisation could not and did not want to do more than theatrically work out excerpts of the fragment and follow the sketchiness of the novel in its broad depiction of the personalities involved.
From the dramaturgic point of view, the performance was intended for very diverse performance locations and occasions, in which the succession of scenes in short episodes, songs, and choruses presented the panorama of the downfall of a party, articulated through the concrete experiences of the protagonists with typological character traits, their desires, illusions, and mistakes. In this text there are no heroes, the historical-political theme is conceived collectively, and political processes are displayed exclusively via poetic-cabaret depictions of the behaviour and mistakes of the characters in order to reveal historical-political conflicts. Accordingly, the (inner) party intrigues and power plays of the dramatis personae take shape via satirical exaggeration, and the figures are recognisable as prisoners of their time.
The point of departure was the principle of Environmental Theatre, that is, a joint arrangement of public and action in an open space, in this case made up of loose rows of chairs occupied by the public on the model of train compartments, with a great deal of the action playing out in and around the Austrian Railways and its trade unions. In this way, the public is spatially directly included and becomes an organic part of the happening. Moreover, while they act the performers have index cards in their hands with texts, a makeshift solution to deal with scarce resources and short rehearsal times but which convinced the public as a legitimate aesthetic measure. It pointed to the fragmentary character of the work and signalled a Brechtian ‘alienation effect’, that dialectical method of ‘de-alienation’ of ‘epic theatre’ that demands a historical distance between the reality of acting and the material, which is to make possible a clear-headed insight into the represented reality and lead the spectator to change the world after enjoying the theatre. As Brecht’s contemporary, Soyfer too felt committed to this method of distancing, even if he deployed other means, such as Viennese folk theatre or cabaret-style exaggeration of characters and action. The index cards were retained in all subsequent performances and represented a conscious stylistic means of translating literature to the stage.
Jura Soyfer not only recognised the humanist dimension of the theatre, which otherwise subsists silently, as it were, in its dramatic forms, but in view of the fascist threat to everything human he always tried to raise it to the level of consciousness of the issues. [His texts give us an idea] of the richness and greatness Soyfer could have brought to the renewal of Austrian literature, if he himself had not fallen victim to this threat.
The first performance in December 2006 was commissioned by transform!europe, the foundation and think tank corresponding to the Party of the European Left (EL) and took place on the occasion of the International Otto Bauer Conference in the Great Hall of Vienna’s Architekturzentrum in the Museumsquartier. But the project soon grew beyond this stage and developed into an (almost) full-evening performance with a dramaturgically polished structure, a choreographic and musical execution that alternated with dramatic monologues and dialogues.
Soon the group was invited to show a public rehearsal in the Flakturm Arenbergpark in Vienna’s Third District at the invitation of the art project 77 Positionen – ‘FAKTUM FlakTURM’ (directed by Markus Hafner and Marianne Maderna), which by the very uniqueness of the space – a former Nazi anti-aircraft gun tower (Flakturm) – lent the project an eerie dimension. This was followed in March 2007 with an excerpt of the performance with the title ‘Robert Blum, the Outsider’ in the Jewish Theater of Austria with the inter-cultural Singaporean actress Sun YAP in the framework of the International Jewish Theater Festival TIKUN OLAM / Repair the World. In 2008 a new version was created as a contribution to the local FESTIVAL Kultur.Herbst.Neubau on the theme of Revolution, and between 2011 and 2015 several district tours in twelve of Vienna’s districts brought to the project wholly new sectors of the public not used to theatre. Taking into account the architectonically specific atmosphere of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historicism in these districts’ town halls (primarily governed by the Social Democrats), there emerged a series of impressive stagings in which the public was invited on a journey through time and space as it wandered through the spaces.
In 2014, a new version was proposed as a contribution to the commemoration of the February Revolution and tried out for a premiere in Vienna’s Kulturcafé Siebenstern as well as for succeeding performances in adult education centres and district town halls in Vienna. This afforded an opportunity to evaluate the original version, tapping new political insights to hone the performance politically and performatively. Eight years after the first performance, when the period of Red Vienna had appeared like a distant memory to us, the political situation heated up with the 2008 financial crisis. Suddenly the press was no longer reacting only to the corruption scandals of political parties – including the Social Democrats – but minds were newly inflamed by fear of cuts in social services, fundamentalism, and social polarisation, recalling the social dislocations depicted in Soyfer’s novel.
At that time Walter Baier, economist, adviser and coordinator of transform!europe, wrote a contribution to the programme folder in which he characterised the final workers’ revolt before the Second World War in the context of international interests: ‘The uprising through which the Austrian working class defied the Austrofascist dictatorship was of European significance. One year after Hitler took power in the German Reich it showed the example of an armed resistance to the establishment of a fascist regime. Afterwards, many of the defeated Schutzbund militia took part in the defence of the Spanish Republic. Moreover, Austria’s downfall in March 1938 can only be understood in terms of the defeat of the labour movement in February 1934.’
In reaction to the changed political situation, the structure of the staging was reorganised, provided with new songs and choruses, in which, in contrast to the site-specific 2011 performance in which the public followed the action through various spaces, the action was concentrated in one open space. The scenes of the worker couple were cut to the benefit of the outsider figure Robert Blum who has a special dramaturgical position in the novel and whose name points back to the historic revolutionary of 1848. In contrast to the other figures drawn in a cabaret style, this secret protagonist of the novel has a complex biography. He embodies the lower-level conscientious Social Democrat functionary and social loser who is disadvantaged by nature (physiognomically), who fails in everything, and is the object of other malice and rejection. This figure of the ‘foreigner’ is filled in with more detail and serves as an example of the masses’ structural anti-Semitism. Blum is denounced, lands in jail, develops schizophrenia, and in surreal monologues conjures up the impending collapse of democracy.
Inclusion of the Blum scenes had become possible because a new actress was available and allowed us to focus on the ramifications of the theme of ‘exclusion’, on which we wanted to take a stand. Here Jura Soyfer functions as a sensitive seismograph; with Robert Blum the spectre of the Holocaust appears, which is all the more astounding as these sketches come from the early 1930s when hardly anyone could foresee what was coming over the historical horizon.
New musical settings of the Soyfer songs by a musician duo from Africa and Latin America served to actualise the traditional workers’ songs (among them, ‘Wir sind die Arbeiter von Wien’) with an intercultural ‘soundtrack’. In addition, special events completed each of the performances – after each one there was a discussion with historic witnesses such as the Spanish Civil War brigadist, trade unionist, and participant in the 12 February 1934 uprising Walter Stern, the Auschwitz survivor Rudi Gelbard, and the curator of the exhibition in the laundry room of the Karl-Marx-Hof, alternating with Soyfer song evenings and screenings of the documentary film Der Schatten ist lang, Jura Soyfer und seine Zeitgenossen [The Shadow is Long: Jura Soyfer and his Contemporaries] (Eva Brenner, 1993, DOR Film).
Three levels of performance were put into relief: the musical composition, the public’s narrative function, and the focus on the Robert Blum figure. The other figures remained the same and were played by the old ensemble. New additions were amateurs from the community, who were entrusted with the revolutionary mass scenes and choruses. The chorus repeatedly intervened in the play and referred to historical narrative texts, and further commentaries were read by the public. The involvement of the workers’ chorus opened the platform for deeper interaction and discussion with the community; recitation and action developed at the coffeehouse tables of the locale, at the bar counter, at the entrances and exits, and a spare use of changes of position and movements, as well as dances, songs, and group activities drove the action forward. Excerpts from a film produced for the staging in Karl-Marx-Hof and photographic material from the film Der Schatten ist lang were projected on the wall. Choruses with waving red flags, choreographically realised demonstrations and marches gave living expression to Soyfer’s enthusiasm for Red Vienna, which brought out all the more sharply the farewell song at the end and the disillusion at the failing of the party. Jarka writes:
Soyfer’s positive identification with the ‘party family’ explains the extent of his embitterment at the fact that this magnificent organisation of the international labour movement, the SDAP, had foundered – and, as he implicitly realises, through its own fault, through its misguided politics. For Soyfer, his turning away from the party is only the final consequence of his left-oppositional critique, and he applies this analysis to the party’s prehistory.
Overture: Film ‘Im Karl-Marx-Hof 2012’ (funeral procession of the ensemble), with SONG 1: ‘Das Lied des einfachen Menschen’ [The Song
of the Ordinary Person ] (recitation/voice)
SCENE 1: Self-portrait of the neo-Nazi Franz Josef Zehetner
REPORT 1/2: Battles in the streets of Vienna
SONG 2/RAP: ‘Telegraphen-Chanson’
SCENE 2: Portrait of the trade-union leaders Dworak/Dreher
REPORT 3: March of the Nazis
SCENE 3: Portrait of the party functionary Robert Blum
SONG 3 and 4: ‘Sturmzeit’ ‘Auf, auf ins ferne Indien’ [Away, Away to Far Off India]
SCENE 4 (video): Dialogue of the worker couple Käte Haider and Franz Seidel
SONG 5/RAP: ‘Ballade der Drei’ [Ballade of the Three]
SONG 6: ‘Das Dachaulied’ (recitation/voice)
SCENE 7: Dworak-Dreher Dialogue (Moral Cowardice)
CHORUS: Text fragments ‘Otto Bauer’ – Workers’ Chorus/Ensemble
REPORT 4: Strike of the Railway Workers
SONG 7: ‘Wir sind die Arbeiter von Wien’ [We Are the Workers of Vienna]
SCENE 8: Blum in prison 2 / Traum, Ich-Spaltung und Befreiung [Dream,
Split Ego, Liberation]
REPORT 5: Social Democracy caves in
SCENE 9: Dissolution of Parliament (ensemble)
SCENE 9A: Otto Bauer wavers
CODA: A Foreign City (weapons search) – Workers’ Chorus/Ensemble ‘Lied von der Erde’ [‘Song of the Earth] (parallel to video film at beginning)
SONG 8/RAP ‘Matrosenlied’ [Sailors’ Song] (end, Ensemble)
In 1998 the interdisciplinary troop of freelance theatre workers – which had been founded in 1991 as the Association PROJEKT THEATER/Wien
- New – opened an experimental laboratory for theatre and performance and rebuilt an open space with a glass roof into a multi-functional white box space. Its goal was to create a small fixed theatrical ensemble and – with continuous training, borrowing methods from Brechtian ‘epic theatre’, especially the Lehrstück model of the early 1930s, and post-Brechtian avant-garde theatre, including the canon of the US avant-garde, theatre improvisations on the model of the Polish theatre visionary Jerzy Grotowski, and the socio-cultural and theatre-pedagogical work of the Theatre of the Oppressed – introduce a long-term development of internationally networked theatre and performance projects. These were communicated in workshops, concerts, exhibitions, and art and discussions of art and politics.
In the course of a few years the STUDIO became an established phenomenon in Vienna’s theatre landscape. Its synthesis of inherited methods developed new working formats such as ambitious ‘marathon performance cycles, immigrant cooking shows, street theatre, refugee projects, and political discussions on the local Viennese television station OKTO.tv – with the goal of thinking through and bringing together avant-garde political formats.
A policy turn was introduced by the Social-Democrat-dominated so- called ‘Wiener Theaterreform’ in 2003 in whose wake the group lost 60 per cent of its funding from the City of Vienna. Looking for a new home base the troop moved into a former shop location, the FLEISCHEREI, and politicised its work. After the sudden death of its mentor and curator Peter Kreisky and further budget cuts the FLEISCHEREI had to close and the group accustomed itself, with the concept of a FLEISCHEREI_mobil, to a radical new positioning with new cooperation in Vienna’s peripheral districts. The beginning of the Jura Soyfer Long-Term Project in 2006 occurred at FLEISCHEREI’s high point. It was not to be until 2018 that a new fixed locale could be found. The art factory brick5 in the inter- cultural fifteenth district of Vienna provided the ideal framework for new community theatre projects, whose outcome in 2018 was Flüchtlingsgespräche (Refugee Conversations) based on texts by Brecht and in 2019 by Herbert Marcuse, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Peter Weiss.
When the theatre left the theatre – this phrase can be read as the creed of the tendencies of the 1960s and 70s and indicates the direction in which the theatre, at the crossroads of art and political progress […] opposes revolt to the passivity of the individual in society […]. The politicisation of theatre was paralleled by the demand for social change and brought art out of its isolated, ineffectual ivory tower.
In the course of the nomadic phase of its work (in the streets and in public space) the basic features of a new performance genre crystallised, which were codified in a series of transformance manifestos. Following the dictum of the avant-garde artist Joseph Beuys that ‘every person is an artist’, transformance requires performance at the interface of political performance and social-critical activism. Transformance advocates diversity, pluralism, participation, reappropriation of the ‘political’ in theatre, the reconquest of public spaces, and the development of new funding models, that is, a redistribution of resources from top to bottom. Decentralised community work, art in public space, and the creation of new work formats are the focuses of ‘transform- ative’ theatre work.
It was in this context that the group tested the contemporary efficacy of Brecht’s Lehrstück model and that of the Theatre of the Oppressed, created by the Brazilian theatre visionary Augusto Boal, for which theatre represented a ‘rehearsal for the revolution’. Any serious political-theatre work has to be able to draw on historical models, re-evaluate them, and adapt them to contemporary needs. With the Lehrstück Brecht expanded the concept of ‘epic theatre’, and set into motion a self-reflexive political-pedagogical acting process, in which the separation between ‘protagonists and observers’, and the ‘politicians’ and ‘philosophers’ (theory and practice) is transcended. Playing theatre or Lehrstücke means collective artistic exercises for purposes of the self-understanding of the players and the spectators as co-actors. The performers are not only learners but ‘producers’ and the actual ‘protagonists’ of the theatre – Boal calls them ‘spectactors’.
Socio-theatrical projects work against the lack of education and knowledge of languages, social exclusion, the rightward shift, and radicalisation, especially of the youth. Starting from historical concepts of political theatre, integrative theatre projects draw in those marginalised groups which suffer from growing xenophobia, intensified anti-foreign legislation, and cultural ostracisation. An example of successful integration of the avant-garde into the community is the signature project AUF ACHSE (‘on the road’), which has been in development since 2009, an annual site-specific street theatre in cooperation with artists, immigrants, refugees, small business owners, and neighbourhood people.
In 2010 the AUF ACHSE project was awarded the prize for international exchange of the IG Kultur Wien. For months, artists of the theatre, in parallel workshops with target social groups, worked on an intercultural theatre procession with colourful scenes, songs, dances, and dialogues, which ended with performances in stores, pubs, schools, galleries, and other locales. People from the community were invited (at no cost) to immigrate, join in, and have a say. These performances at the city periphery are a perfect example of how experimental theatre that originates in the cultural contexts of the artistic elites can contribute to the development of the communities and make the city’s multiculturalism visible.
The long-term experiment with Jura Soyfer’s novel fragment signals a milestone in the process of our appropriation of twentieth-century cultural/ political traditions – especially the achievements of Red Vienna and the culture of earlier political avant-garde artists who were ostracised in the era of postmodernism. It brought into play comprehensive research of our own cultural-political roots – in a kind of catch-up historical education, which is sorely missing in schools, universities, and art academies, and insisted on the self-conception of participating artists as political creators of theatre.
It became clear that theatre is in a position to accomplish more than just communicate political content, present interesting ideas, gain subsidies and pay wages to artists, which at least keeps the infrastructure of the independent scene going. We recognised our civil-society role in the alternative theatre scene and our historical bridging function between the generations. From then on, in the context of the ‘transformance’ genres, what has counted for us is to (re)awaken new utopias, broadly discuss the failure of Social Democracy, which is becoming a concern today throughout Europe, constructively deal with the programmatic deficits of the independent theatre scene, to not be discouraged in view of the ongoing budget cuts in cultural policy, and to continue struggling for a contemporary political theatre. The practical remembrance work in terms of a neglected epoch of our history can, mediated through theatre, be a substitute for the lack of political education in schools and serve as a guide to civil-society engagement in the coming political confrontations.
With the results of the Soyfer theatre project and the nearly hundred performances in a good half of Vienna’s 23 districts, each with a different, heterogeneous public, we succeeded in anchoring Jura Soyfer’s life and work in the mainstream. Up to the 1980s he was marginalised as a ‘communist’ author, and a Soyfer Renaissance began to appear only in the wake of the 1968 movements. Today, his plays are present in small, medium-sized, and large stages, his texts have been newly set to music, and he is acknowledged by scholarship and the media. We can quite rightly say that Jura Soyfer has become part of the dramatic canon.
For us, getting closer to the public, the education of the public, is no aesthetic, empty slogan, but an activity that has long been practised by each individual author, each actor, from performance to performance. To explore and change the public! Where this will and practice is missing it is not revolutionary proletarian theatre that develops but pseudo-revolutionary ineffectual intellectual affectation. […] How do we come up with a more precise designation for the nature of our theatre? By understanding that our spectators are a constantly developing stratum that stands in a continuous reciprocal relation with its theatre. We can arrive at a fruitful definition of socialist partisan theatre by the dialectical observation of the public!