October 8th, 2021. Present (row-by-row from top left): David Whitworth; Colin Ellwood; Fiz Marcus; Marie Collett; Amelie Eberle; Simon Furness; Sophie Juge; Kevin McMonagle; John Chancer; Jamie Newall; Samuel Meyer; Julia Winwood
Good to be back after about two months summer break. And to be exploring a play as good as Von Kleist’s extraordinary political/expressionist psychodrama from – would you believe - 1809, in this ‘version’ by Dennis Kelly, from the Donmar in 2012.
The eponymous Prince is a naïve, arrogant, impulsive, entitled, feted, vague, disconnected, juvenile, indulged cavalry commander in the Prussian army of the Great Elector fighting the Swedes for survival in the late C17th. Exhausted from relentless combat and prone to sleepwalking, he is discovered by the Elector and his entourage sleep-enacting/dreaming what seems to be a kind of personal myth – plaiting a laurel wreath of victory for himself. The Elector responds by doing what C20th dictators became very good at: he manipulates the Prince’s dream/myth, in this case by weaving his own (the Elector’s) chain of office into the wreath and having the court’s ‘anima’ - Princess Natalia - present it back to the Prince, still as he dreams. It’s a wonderful composite image – an eroticisation of military victory in the service if the state. The intensity of the Prince’s response spooks the courtiers and the Elector. Something obsessive has clearly been triggered, something implanted or amplified in his psyche. As the courtiers retreat, the Prince, still dreaming, snatches Natalie’s glove, and this further validates the Prince’s merging of dream and reality when, awakened, he discovers that the ‘real-world’ incarnation of the ‘dream-glove’ is indeed Natalie’s. In his subsequent schizoid/fugue state, he can’t focus on the convoluted military briefing for the next combat, and the eroticised myth/metaphor/dream world overwhelms him:
In the past fortune has glanced in my direction, touched my hair, cast the odd favour at my feet. But now she rushes at me like a bullet fired from a gun, the wind lifting her veil so I can see her face and she is smiling. She is smiling at me. I think I shall search her out on this battlefield today – and even if she is chained to the Swedish victory cart I will rip her free and all her blessings will be mine.
Later, presumably still at the mercy of this myth-reality, he disobeys orders and attacks the enemy when he should have held back, in the process behaving with extraordinary arrogance and ignoring the pleas of fellow officers charged with the task of managing his renowned impulsiveness. On the one hand, his actions win the battle; on the other, disobeying the Elector’s orders is a capital offence, and the Prince is accordingly arrested on the Elector’s orders. This seems potentially to set up a battle between pre-modern magical/mythical thinking and ‘modern’ managerial instrumentalism as the appropriate driver of action in relation to the state. But the Elector clearly involves himself with both. Is he looking to engineer Homburg as the perfect totalitarian disciple, 'breaking him in', so to speak, to a point where law/instructions and instinct are one? Or is he just teaching him a lesson, or even eliminating a potential rival? (In accounts of the battle, the Elector doesn’t come out terribly well, but Homburg is lauded. And Homburg’s tacit marriage proposal to Natalie threatens to remove her potential usefulness to the Elector as a diplomatic ‘marriage pawn’). Or maybe the Elector is just as he claims, a stickler for (his new imposition of) military micro-managerial instructions
Still in his adolescent ‘myth-world’ the Prince doesn’t take his death warrant seriously, dismissing the subsequent court martial as just a chance for the Elector to enact his own entry into the Prince’s fantasy:
How could he have paraded me before that table of judges, hooting their song of death at me if he himself did not intend to enter their circle, god-like, and overthrow the verdict? My friend, he has amassed the storm clouds around my head so that he may rise through them like a sun and pierce my gloom
But when it looks like his is going to be a real execution and not a mythical/symbolic one, he falls apart.
I have seen my grave. I have seen my grave on the way here, by torchlight. I saw the open hole that will receive my body tomorrow. Aunt, these eyes that look at you now are to turn opaque and dull, shadowed with death. This breast is to be pierced with the cold metal of bullets. Already they’ve sold the seats in the windows that overlook the marketplace where my blood will pour from my veins, and he who currently stands before you on life’s summit looking forward into the future like it were a myth will tomorrow be rotting in a box with nothing but a stone to say ‘He Once Lived’.
He repudiates Natalie to her face and cravenly and humiliatingly begs for his life. It seems the classic ‘Franz Klammar’ moment of someone who has previously been able to operate on instinct in pressured situations suddenly waking up/looking down and having to deal with an enhanced sense of real-world consequences. Everything that happens to him feels like a dream (as he continually remarks) until it doesn’t.
But then something even more subtle and interesting ensues. Natalie confronts the Elector, aiming to get the Prince exonerated as a ‘child’, but quietly as a back-up she also arranges the mobilisation of military forces that could potentially stage a coup if the Elector doesn’t acquiesce. But he seems to do exactly that, writing a letter offering the Prince total exoneration, ready for Natalie to take to the Prince’s cell. When the Prince subsequently reads it, however, the condition demanded by the Elector is the logical one that the Prince state that the Elector was wrong to condemn his (literal) insubordination in not following orders
‘My dear Prince of Homburg, when I ordered your arrest for disobeying orders with your premature attack, I believed I was doing my duty. Indeed I believed that you yourself, as a general and a man of honour, would’ve approved my actions. So I ask of you this question – if you believe that I have done wrong then give me two words and I shall send you your sword upon the instant’.
The Prince won’t do it. He calls the Elector’s letter a ‘masterpiece’ and says:
I will not stand so unworthy before him who stands so worthy before me. I am guilty as charged, as well I understand. But if he can only forgive me if we dispute the facts and force me into a lie, then I’m not interested in forgiveness.
It looks as if the dream, the ‘golden chivalric myth’ is again trumping the sordid, terrifying reality of death. Or even that - given that it was the Prince's ‘mything’ and his ignoring of the Elector’s ‘managerial’ instructions that got him into trouble in the first place - his accepting of the death sentence occasioned by the latter is a kind of integration of both myth/dream/instinct and law/instruction/reality/death, such that both can be ‘held’ together in the imagination. Which of course in a sense is the perfect totalitarian (and proto-fascist) state of affairs (and affairs of state): law becoming instinct in pursuance of the primal myth of authority. And when this ensues in a death, then this symbolic/real erasing of the individual in relation to the ‘myth’ of the state is surely a welcome additional emblem of self-abnegation.
The thrust of this seems to be consolidated in another fascinating, deft and well-engineered phase of the play. Now Natalie swings into action with her ‘plan B’, engineering a confrontation between the military and the Elector in support of the Prince. One officer’s argument to the Elector – the veteran Kottwittz – is surely key:
You talk of rules? The highest rule is that which beats in the hearts of your generals, it isn’t written with papers and pens. It is an ideal. It is the flag of this Fatherland we build, it is the crown and he that wears it. Rules? Why should it matter to you what rule defeats an enemy, so long as that enemy is defeated, so long as he lays at your feet. The rule that destroys those who threaten you and your people is the only rule.
But of course the opposition between rules/laws and instinct here is in many ways a false one. The ‘rules’ they have in mind are ultimately not there to enforce rights of the individual for example, but just slightly different means of ensuring the same result as would whatever emerges from ‘that which beats in the heart’. Could the Elector very cleverly be ‘catechising’ this answer all along - just as he manipulates the Prince’s self-condemnation through appearing to offer the opposite (the Prince’s acquittal?. Wonderfully, Kleist leaves this possibility in play, along with the opposite, that the Elector is being put under severe pressure and simply responding to events in order to try to save his own skin.
The protest/debate is closed down anyway when the Elector produces his trump card – the Prince himself, who declares himself for death.
And here the Kelly ‘version’ and Kleist’s original diverge. In the former, the execution is carried out, with conspicuous lack of support of the military and the court. It’s a crude and brutal account of a straightforward political killing that surely overplays the ‘fascism’ of the Elector and suggests he won’t last long (when I fact we know that the regime set up by the Prussian ‘Great Elector’ lasted very long indeed, and with ultimately terrible consequences). The original is much more disturbing, and surely much more telling in relation to the ability of modern autocracies to get into the heads and dreamworlds of its inhabitants:
At the apparent moment of execution, the Prince’s blindfold is removed. There follows the staged-managed (by the Elector again) apparent continuation of the Prince’s myth/dream from the beginning of the play. Natalie crowns him with his laurel wreath, puts the Elector’s chain round his neck, and presses his hand to her heart. He faints – a mythical/symbolic rather than a real death - and on reviving he asks if it has all been a dream, to which the courtiers reply ‘yes’. Brecht does a very similar thing with Galy Gay in Man Equals Man regarding his renouncing his former identity to become the perfect fighting man. It is the creation of the perfect totalitarian subject through the unifying of law and instinct in pursuit of an image that fuses also personal honour (the wreath), the state (as embodied in the ruler – hence the Elector’s chain) and erotic desire…(Natalie). And to have all that experienced at the level of dreams. Kind of what Hitler and Stalin did, surely?
Immediately after this, the play ends with them all charging into battle defying the enemies of Prussia/Brandenburg
The difference between the characters and the audience is that we have the option of seeing this process from the outside. Whether Kleist did (see it from the outside), is surely a moot point, but the tortured quality and general tenor of his work surely suggest that sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t – which ambivalent position also surely is conducive to the most telling and effective of art
And of course that inside/outside-the-dream vision – that accommodates the cool perspective of a Brecht on the mechanisms of power, along and the interior schizoid intensity of the Expressionists – would make for a very interesting production challenge
An extraordinary and richly ambiguous play, then, full of vivid secondary (military) characters, reminiscent perhaps of Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion, and with at its heart three very modern, psychologically acute, ambivalently-drawn individuals: Natalie, the Prince and the Elector. And in the case of the last of these, also one of at mystery: potentially a Grand Inquisitor, the Duke from Measure for Measure, but genuinely put under pressure in conducting his exorcism, his psychological vampiric rebirthing of his acolyte the Prince
On Friday all given a characteristically characterful and urgent reading (and we read both the ‘Kelly’ ending, and Kleist’s original)
12/10/2021 02:14:42 pm
Thanks Colin for a wonderfully absorbing afternoon and reading of both play and your article. I still think the poor Prince is suffering from what we’d term PTSD today (certainly combat fatigue). It does justify his crucial lack of attention at the briefing. A rediscovered gem certainly.
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