Lynette Abel  / Aesthetic Realism & Life

The Miracle at Verdun, discussed by Eli Siegel

     In the lecture I'm reporting on of April 3, 1977, Eli Siegel spoke about the importance of a 1930 play, hardly known now, concerning World War I, by the Austrian writer Hans Chlumberg.  He began by saying: 

    The Miracle at Verdun I have come to feel, all in all, is the most valuable play telling about contempt.  I think the meaning of contempt--its full meaning--is the most valuable information the world needs to know....This play makes...the knowledge of it clearer and greater.  There are two kinds of contempt: the kind you can see immediately accompanied with...a sneer of the lips, and then the contempt which is very quiet.
     Hans Chlumberg, who lived from 1897 to 1930, Mr. Siegel said, "represents a big feeling in Germany [and Europe], which gave rise to expressionism; it is very much in this play."  When The Miracle at Verdun, was put on in 1931 by the Theater Guild in New York, it failed, yet in Europe it made a “profound impression.”  "The feeling after the first World War that people had," Mr. Siegel commented "didn't take the form that [the war] was caused by contempt, but there is enough [here] that you can see it."  Contempt, he has defined as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." 

     Before he read a sketch of the author from the book Twentieth Century Plays, edited by Frank W. Chandler and Richard A. Cordell, he placed some of the history of the time, saying: 

     One should put oneself in Germany in 1918 with Hitler coming to be about 12-14 years later and [think about] what was felt.  Verdun was seen as the most costly battle in the history of the world...2 million took part, 1 million died.... Stalingrad [the turning point of World War II, which occurred in 1941] at least had a decision.  Verdun never had a decision.
     The editors tell of how Hans Chlumberg at the age of 17 at the outbreak of World War I, "went into action as a lieutenant of cavalry on the Italian front": 
    He fought bravely, bearing part in the battle of the Isonzo, but was shocked by the scenes of carnage he witnessed and impressed by the madness and futility of it all....Chlumberg hop[ed] that the reign of might would soon be succeeded by the reign of right, and that the ideals of peace and brotherhood which he had always cherished would prevail.
"The large question here is:" Mr. Siegel asked, "Is contempt the one enemy of peace and brotherhood, let alone sanity in the world?  That's the thing I'd like people to see as real."  The editors present Chlumberg's "highly novel conception" of The Miracle at Verdun, and write: 
    What if the soldiers who fell in the War were to rise from their graves and return to the world they had died to redeem?  Would that world really want or welcome them: Would they find it any the better for their sacrifice, or the more determined to prevent such a catastrophe in the future? 
I respect Hans Chlumberg for the questions he deals with in this play.  How urgent they are now.  Mr. Siegel said: "I don't know of a play that can make contempt more seeable, more something that has affected people not just some of the time but all of the time."  Hearing scenes from it, I felt more than ever the necessity of accurate self-criticism. 

      There are 8 scenes, and Mr. Siegel read the first three.  He gave this brief description of the plot:  "Some of the soldiers, both French and German, arise from a mass grave, but their return makes for too much of a disturbance in the world, so they go back to their graves." 

      Scene One begins at a war cemetery in the Argonne Forest in France.  There is a mass grave.  It is August, 1934--20 years after the beginning of the war.  A group of tourists--French, German, British, and American--have arrived late to view it.  The stage directions tell us that MAZAS, the tourist guide pulls the bell-cord "violently," and calls out "Hello! Hey!" and the tourists "shake the barred gate and pull long and hard at the bell-handle.]  There is this dialog: 

    VERNIER [disabled cemetery attendant who wears a military cap] [grumbling].  What the devil!...Who is it?...Don't you know when we close up?  No more visitors today!

    TOURISTS  [out of sight]  What's that?  What's he saying?  No more visitors?  Why not?  What do you mean?  Open!  Open up!...We paid our money! 

Commented Mr. Siegel, "Having the grave and all this human irritation is already dramatic." 

      Vernier finally gives in and opens the gate, and there are these stage directions: 

    The TOURISTS enter, conversing in their native tongues.  Many of them wear sport clothes and carry field-glasses or cameras slung over their shoulders.  They walk over to look at the graves, try to read the inscriptions on the crosses, study their maps and [guidebooks], or prepare to have a brief picnic.... 
There is a sense here of something both serious and everyday.  The scene continues and we can ask: Is there contempt here? 
    VERNIER.   Ladies and gentlemen!...Some very bitter fighting took place here, and there were very heavy casualties, especially in 1916 and 1917

    JACKSON (an American) [making notes].   Wait a minute.  How many were killed?

    VERNIER.  The exact number isn't known, sir....I should say about ten thousand....Or even fifteen thousand, perhaps!  But anyway, the losses were very great, sir. 

    JACKSON [making notes].  Ten thousand, fifteen thousand.  So. [Pause.] Now last year we were in Flanders and they showed us battlefields where four hundred thousand were killed!  Six hundred thousand!  In a single year! 

     The Miracle at Verdun continued on page 2

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