The Eternal Road, Acts III and IV
By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Kings and Prophecies: A Road of Promise, performed on Oct 4, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Whether in excerpts or in its entirety, The Eternal Road has eluded revival for over sixty years. One might think that such a grand spectacle created through the collaboration of three seminal figures of twentieth-century European culture-composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950) , author Franz Werfel (1890-1945), and Director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943)-would have seen the light of many days. The difficult history of this vanished epic stems, however, not only from the legal morass which led to the collapse of the New York production or even the deteriorated state of the surviving performance materials (recently edited brilliantly by the scholars of the Kurt Weill Foundation, making today’s performance possible). A primary reason for the disappearance of The Eternal Road was that it was written by three German-speaking Jews-one from Dessau and Berlin, one from Prague, one from Vienna-at the dawning of the catastrophe of the Nazis’ seizure of power and Hitler’s surprising legitimization by foreign leaDers and nations. The Eternal Road opened before Kristallnacht and vanished before World War II, the Holocaust, and the birth of the state of Israel. In other words, the intellectual, social, and cultural world which engenDered this masterpiece birth was completely overtaken by subsequent events. As a result, those who bothered to take a look at The Eternal Road since the 1950s have been struck by how out of step it appears with respect to the events that immediately followed it and with the realities of the second half of the twentieth century.
One concrete example will suffice. Recently the distinguished Weill scholar David Drew prepared an excerpt of the final act (Act IV) of The Eternal Road for concert performance in 1998 for the Proms in London and in later in Vienna. The excerpt, entitled “Propheten,” replaces the original ending with an ending from the preceding Act III, “Kings.” Drew made the change in part for musical effect. The change solves a difficult ideological dilemma. In the original form (which you will see today), the Jews retain their “exceptional” status as a people without a homeland or political entity of their own. Assimilation into the hostile host nation is not discredited and armed resistance to oppression is represented as improbable and implausible. The Jews seem fated to wanDer forever among other nations and be faced perpetually with minority status and a legitimate pressure to acculturate and assimilate. If one compares the ending of The Eternal Road to Felix Mendelssohn’s setting of Goethe’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht, one is struck by a vital difference. Mendelssohn, although bearing the most celebrated name in early nineteenth-century German-Jewish history, had been converted and become a devout Protestant. Nevertheless through his music he celebrated with empathy and pride the courageous resistance of the Druids to the siege on their traditions and beliefs laid by violent Christian attackers. In contrast, The Eternal Road ends much more ambiguously with a vague hope for a return to Zion among a defeated and divided community, bowing to a fate of perpetual exclusion, persecution, and powerlessness.
Of the three authors of The Eternal Road, Kurt Weill was the least distant from Judaism. He was also the youngest. Despite his premature death in 1950, he has emerged as the most well-known of the three. Unlike Franz Werfel, Weill embraced America and turned his back both musically and politically on his German past. He is followed in reputation by Max Reinhardt, whose impact on Hollywood and whose founding of the Salzburg Festival as well as his remarkable career as a Director has kept his name alive. Reinhardt was undoubtedly the most original Director in German-speaking Europe; his production of Elektra inspired Strauss to write his opera. He had some success in America and in 1935 directed a legendary film of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Mickey Rooney and James Cagney, which used Mendelssohn’s music adapted by Reinhardt’s fellow Viennese é;immigratesé;, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Franz Werfel has for English-speaking audiences vanished into obscurity. He was a gifted poet as a young man and was one of the people who first recognized the talent of Franz Kafka. He remains a hero to the Armenian people for his novel Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933), which brought the tragic massacre of the Armenians to international attention. Although now largely forgotten as a novelist (his historical novel Verdi merits attention), he also authored several brilliant short novels including one of the most perceptive novels of adolescent school life ever written, translated as Class Reunion (1927). Werfel also went on to Hollywood and enjoyed his greatest success with his screen adaptation of his best-selling novel celebrating Catholicism, The Song of Bernadette (1941). Accompanied to America by his notorious wife Alma Mahler (an anti-Semite, as was her stepfather, the painter Carl Moll) Werfel published in 1937 a heartbreaking essay “Upon the Meaning of Imperial Austria.” In this essay he romanticizes the Habsburg Empire as a political entity holding the promise of transcending the evils of nationalism, in which the Jews could function as ideal citizens, as cosmopolitan people of ideas and culture without irrational allegiances to blood and soil. All three creators of The Eternal Road were in fact exemplars of the exceptional status of the assimilated Jew as protagonist of modernist aesthetics, anti-nationalism, and the virtues of art and culture. They were genuine Europeans: Jews who had realized for themselves the promise of emancipation from the ghetto by helping to create an international community of science and culture seemingly beyond politics.
The success of Nazism and of anti-Semitism in Europe during the late 1920s and early 1930s (including the anti-Semitism of Austro-fascism) challenged the funDamental premises of the majority of German-speaking Jews who had enjoyed until 1933 the most promising experience of integration into a non-Jewish European environment. The degree of assimilation in Eastern Europe and even in France was not nearly as great as what had occurred in Germany in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, despite the persistence of official and unofficial anti-Semitism. In 1933, however, all German Jews who qualified under Nazi law as being non-Aryan were forced to come to terms with their identity as Jews, despite intermarriage, conversion and upbringing with very little understanding of Jewish history and tradition.
The Eternal Road closes with the prospect of another Babylonian exile, which the authors knew was a period in Jewish history of great intellectual achievement. The Babylon of modern times was to be America, albeit a reluctant America, whose immigration policies were restrictive and prevented millions of Jews from surviving. By the time of their collaboration, Weill, Reinhardt, and Werfel knew very well that tens of thousands of German Jews were seeking to emigrate, but that no nation including America would have them. They knew that Palestine was essentially closed to mass immigration. They also realized that many German Jews wanted to stay in Germany, hoping that the Nazi regime would be temporary, and were enduring indignity and hardship in the expectation that bad times would pass once again. It is in the eerie historical interlude marked by fading hope and betrayal by trusted friends and neighbors that The Eternal Road came into being. None of the authors, actors, audience members in 1937 had an accurate idea of what history would actually bring to the Jews of Europe. But despite the efforts of these three individuals to generate a politically powerful integration of the Bible and modern history, they never conceived of either the extent of the disaster that was already looming or the possibility that the Zionist dream would be realized.
What happened of course is that over six million Jews perished and a Jewish state was created in 1948. From the perspective of the present day The Eternal Road, particularly its conclusion, seems at best naïve if not erroneous. Zionism’s success and the history of the state of Israel during the past fifty years have proven, often painfully, a point that was perhaps incomprehensible to the authors of The Eternal Road. That point is that the Jews are not doomed to be exceptional. Given the chance to have their own political life and act as a nation, possess power include military power, and engage in politics as a majority, Jews naturally display all the virtues, vices, shifts and conflicts of any nation and culture. The exceptional Jews of European history-artists, scientists, and intellectuals-could not have foreseen the successful normalization of the Jewish people after 1948 in Israel, but operated only on the premise of a continuation of the European diaspora experience. Even in America, since Jews were white and not the dominant minority in an environment where race was the decisive criterion of discrimination, the Jews, in contrast to all European experience, found their way into the majority and have become normalized in the sixty years since the opening night of The Eternal Road, particularly after 1945.
The obscuring of the conclusion of The Eternal Road may therefore be convenient, but in my view it does no justice to the integrity of the original conception. The Eternal Road is a powerful work of storytelling, music, and theater, and the ending is in fact more affecting because it reminds us of the psychic and material devastation experienced by German Jewry in the mid 1930s. Death camps have rightly dominated our image of what the Nazis did, but we should not dismiss the traumas created by the segregation, dispossession, and violence that led up to that ultimate horror. The Eternal Road tells the story of a vital and patriotic community of Jews dismembered, expropriated, and persecuted by their neighbors who tragically embraced the leaDership of the Nazis.
Dwelling on what was best about the Jews in their European historical career, the three authors cling to the idea that what is ultimately human is not essentially political. It is not wealth or power that make life worth living, but rather the life of the mind and imagination-traditions of belief, philosophy, literature, learning, art, music, theater. Exile is not permanently devastating because the spiritual possibilities of the future always survive political disenfranchisement. The proper context in which to consiDer The Eternal Road, therefore, is not in the ideology of the Zionists who realized that the Jewish people could only be secure if they had a politics of their own and consequently reversed the conceit of an apolitical or supranational Utopia. Nor is it in the romanticization of minority status in which a people compensate for a restricted form of life by making culture and learning a primary tenet of identity. Today’s audience might think of The Eternal Road in the context of Sigmund Freud’s exile to England and the perspective on past and future evident in his three late essays The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents and Moses and Monotheism.
Our decision to revive The Eternal Road coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the state of Israel and the centennial celebration of the city of New York. It is ironic that both these events pay homage to the two most successful historical responses to the fate of the Jews so eloquently portrayed in The Eternal Road. There is no need to apologize for the ideology of this spectacle. The revival is in fact timely because it reminds us of the need to restore the memory of the German Jewish experience and the plight of European Jews before the outbreak of World War II. Precisely because of the triumphs we are celebrating, we can afford to be empathetic to points of view regarding Jewish history and European history that flourished before 1939 that do not point inexorably either to the Holocaust or the creation of the State of Israel.
Finally, as Guy Stern and Edward Harsh point out, The Eternal Road was a self-conscious effort on the part of its three authors to break the apparently impenetrable barrier between high art and popular culture. This opera/theatrical drama was designed to appeal in all its elegance and profundity to a mass audience without descending into cynical theatricality. In this sense, it contributed to a pivotal and defining debate in twentieth-century music. What kind of music constitutes the voice of modernity, and for whom should contemporary concert music be written? It is fitting to open our season-long look at the twentieth century with The Eternal Road, which set a very high standard for what we might today deem a “crossover” genre, from which future generations can easily learn. Art, entertainment, and moral edification are brought together in this work in an unforgettable and brilliant manner.