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
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
"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!
Commented Mr. Siegel, "Having the grave and all
this human irritation is already dramatic."
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!
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
VERNIER. Ladies and gentlemen!...Some
very bitter fighting took place here, and there were very heavy casualties,
especially in 1916 and 1917
Miracle at Verdun continued on page
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!