The New York Times, March 12, 1944


In Which the Writer Explains a Comedy About A Tragedy


In Hollywood one evening M the spring a 1941 I was invited to dinner by the late Max Reinhardt to meet Franz Werfel. Some months earlier I had read in The New York Times an item to the effect that Mr. Werfel had been captured by the Nazis in France and killed. His publisher, Mr. Huebsch, told me that all efforts to reach Werfel, even through the Red Cross, had been unavailing. He had tried through every conceivable agency. He could find out nothing about him and there was nothing further he could do.

Some of the folks who will be seen in the Franz Werfel-S. N. Behrman comedy, "Jacobowsky and the Colonel," that comes to the Martin Beck Theatre Tuesday evening. In the usual order: Oscar Karlweis, who is Jacobowsky; Annabella, J. Edward Bromberg and Louis Calhern in the colonel's raiment.

Here, at Max Reinhardt's dinner table, was the escaped victim, cherubic, forcing himself to talk, out of courteous deference to me, an ersatz English, and recounting the long story of his exaggerated death. I had met many refugees, great and small, and from all of them I had heard an account of their experiences. But this was something new in horror stories. For Mr. Werfel, talking with a gusto unhalted by the idiosyncrasies of English syntax, his blue eyes gleaming, kept the table amused and spellbound for well over an hour.

I have never heard nor ever read an account which gave me an idea so vivid of what it meant to be in France in that summer after her fall, a step ahead of the Nazis: the frantic crowds in front of the consulates, the pulverization of the consciousness into one acrid grain of desire—to get a stamp on a piece of paper. "Our blood," said one of the characters in the play that came out of this evening (that is, he said it until the line for some forgotten reason was cut!) "is the ink on visas." Werfel described one scene which I shall never forget. We meant to get it into the play, but couldn't; perhaps one day it will be in the film version.

In Fallen France

A frantic polyglot crowd is milling about in the hot sun before the consulate of a little town in the south of France. The badgered consul is sitting before his desk, a little mountain of passports before him. For days he has been answering questions, making life-and-death decisions, stamping papers. The room is clammy in spite of the sun outside; a fire burns in the grate behind him. The line of applicants reaches from his desk to the square outside. A Czech traveling on a Polish passport or maybe a Pole traveling on a Czechish is before him. He weaves about in a labyrinth of technicality. Suddenly, lost in it himself, blinded by it himself, trapped panically in an unnamable claustrophobia, he is seized with a maniacal impulse for his own freedom. He seizes the pile of passports on his desk and flings them into the fire. The papers burn to ashes, as do the hopes of the unfortunates whose names were on them.

Among the anecdotes Werfel told was one which became fixed in my mind because of some peculiarity of compactness. A Polish-Jewish business man buys a car from a rascally chauffeur. Having bought it he is faced by his inability to drive it. Happens along a reactionary Polish colonel who can drive.

The colonel consents to drive the refugee's car to the coast, first throwing out from it all of his possessions, substituting his own. This seized me at once. There came irresistibly into my mind the pattern of one of my favorite plays, "The Front Page," by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

A Play Begins

Werfel went on weaving his farcical phantasmagoria—for when the conventions of property, justice, the divisions of life and death are all held in abeyance by an arbitrary god, the habits based on these conventions evidently jumble into farce like a macabre Alice in Wonderland—while I kept thinking: "Two men in an ambivalent relationship—two men from the opposite ends of the earth—opposites spiritually, physically, mentally—held together during a flight by a common enemy and a mechanical thing—they hate each other—they part—they miss each other. . . ."

After dinner I went to Werfel in the living room. I told him that I thought that in this story of the Polish refugee and the colonel there might be a comedy. It seemed simple and natural; it seemed to fall out into beautiful folds like a fine linen sheet when you shake it a bit. We stood around there in Max Reinhardt's drawing room shaking it around a bit. It is curious that in spite of the creative trek this play has taken in the intervening three years its main outline is the same that it assumed that evening not ten minutes after Werfel had finished his tragi-comic odyssey.

Some Questions

How is it that one of the greatest tragedies in history should seem funny on the lips of one who had acutely suffered it? To answer this one would, perhaps, have to command an ultimate psychology. Why, in exile, do Ernst Toiler and Stefan Zweig kill themselves, while Franz Werfel settles down in the same exile to write "Embezzled Heaven" and "The Song of Bernadette"? Why does Virginia Woolf throw herself into a lake, while the speeches of Winston Churchill twinkle with an ineluctable humor. They all saw the same sights, endured the same privations, were faced with the identical dragon. Is humor the amalgam of resilience in adversity? And yet many of the saints and martyrs lacked humor whatever else they possessed. Perhaps humor is the salt of survival and the lack of it the hemlock of martyrdom.

In the pre-New York tour of "Jacobowsky and the Colonel" several of the critics gave the effect of rubbing their eyes at the phenomenon of watching a story essentially tragic and nevertheless enjoying it. The great scene of Shaw's "Saint Joan" is "full of laughs" while the subject under discussion is the exact judicial and spiritual justification for burning Joan at the stake. The "comedy relief" in Shakespeare's tragedies does not offer the asylum of analogy for in this play the comedy (let us hope!) is not interlarded—the point of view on the whole tragedy is comic. Must one apologize for this? If man is the only animal who can laugh, need he apologize for his distinction? I can only say that Werfel, a profound mystic as his books show, made us all laugh on that spring evening at Max Reinhardt's. None of us felt therefore that he had suffered less or felt less.

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