Simon McBurney: Beware of Pity is chillingly resonant in the Trump era

The director describes the gruesome appeal of staging Stefan Zweig’s novel about the faultlines running through a society on the brink of destruction

“Why Zweig? Eeeuwww …”

No. That doesn’t quite do it. I am trying to re-create the sound that Thomas Ostermeier, artistic director of the Schaubühne theatre in Berlin, makes when I propose to him that I adapt and direct Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig’s novel of betrayal and obsession. That combination of letters doesn’t quite evoke his musical lip-curl.

“Why do you choose that?! Why not do a Shakespeare?”

Truth is, I am never sure why I choose what I want to work on next. I try to remember the circumstances of recently reading the book. Early September. The previous year, 2015. Glorious sunshine. My son, aged five, gazes over my shoulder at the screen. It’s too late to close it. He asks:

“What is that?”

“Terrible things. Where there is war … Shall we go out on the bike?”

“Can I ride on the back?”

“Hold on tight …”

My son and I like to cycle to the bookshop. A regular shelter. A roof of books and words against the deluge of information that pours on our daily lives. My son was quickly in the rockets and robots enclave. I excavated among piles of novels for Joseph Roth, who I had not read, and in a desultory manner picked up Zweig’s Beware of Pity. Unable to put it down, not even sure I liked it, it drove me to its conclusion. It disturbed something in me. In an extraordinary translation by Anthea Bell, I found myself gripped and troubled. So now I tried to formulate a convincing reply for Thomas. Why Zweig? I could only think of robots.

“You don’t like it?” I asked Thomas.

His nose wrinkled disdain. “My mother had three books on her shelf beside her bed. The Bible, something about agriculture and a novel of Stefan Zweig.”

I was reminded, looking at Thomas, of how Michael Hofmann memorably and thrillingly laid waste to everything Zweig-ian in his review of The World of Yesterday upon its reissue a few years ago. A furious denunciation motivated, no doubt, by Hofmann’s deep love for Joseph Roth. His contemporary and colleague, Roth became dependent, in somewhat humiliating circumstances, on Zweig’s wealth and welfare for his survival. The hugely famous and absurdly wealthy Zweig, as far as Hofmann is concerned, did not deserve to wipe Roth’s shoes. Let alone be considered in the same division of talent. Hofmann seals his disgust for Zweig’s writing with a final excretive: “putrid”.

Rotten, bad, off, putrefied, putrescent, rancid, stinking, spoilt …

But rotting decay also supports a wealth of life. And in Beware of Pity, Zweig’s longest and perhaps most complete novel, this sense of creeping decomposition is compulsively alive. It is hypnotic.

Simon McBurney
Artistic director of Complicite, Simon McBurney: ‘Perhaps there is a choice to be made, which begins deeply within ourselves.’ Photograph: Eva Vermandel

A young, impoverished cavalry officer, one Anton Hofmiller, invited to dinner in the house of a local aristocratic landowner, makes a faux pas. Having eaten and drunk his fill, he waltzes the evening away until he becomes aware he has omitted to invite the daughter of the landowner to dance. He promptly does so, only to discover she suffers from an incurable paralytic condition. In attempting to make amends for what he considers his gauche unthinking act, he gets dragged, by what he considers his own sense of compassion, into a horrific situation from which he is unable to escape.

Hofmiller behaves as he does because he believes he is doing the right thing. His uncontrollable “pity” draws him into a paralysis of his own, a paralysis of inaction from which he cannot flee. But in truth, it is his own self he cannot escape. Peering within, he recognises that what is inside him is a mirror image of his own society. What he sees he finds monstrous; but the monstrous makes for compulsive viewing. Just as we can’t stop ourselves gazing at the next horror emanating from the new elected president of the United States, our inability to look away, curiously, also results in a kind of paralysis.

Beware of Pity at the Schaubühne.
Beware of Pity at the Schaubühne. Photograph: Gianmarco Bresadola

It is easy for us to smile at the optimistic delusion of that idealistically dazzled generation, which thought that the technical progress of mankind must inevitably result in an equally rapid moral rise. We, who in this new century have learnt not to be surprised by any new outbreak of collective bestiality, and expect every new day to prove even worse than the day just past, are considerably more sceptical about prospects for the moral education of humanity.

Not an observation of our times, Zweig wrote this about the Europe of the 1930s – from which he fled, to live the rest of his life as a refugee. Donald Trump, seemingly, had not even the remotest possibility of being elected when, in 2015, I chose to adapt Beware of Pity for the Schaubühne. So I do not claim that as the reason for my choice. But certainly, the compulsive self-loathing of the central character Hofmiller coerced my attention. There is something repellently true about the power of his guilt to continue down the wrong path. And there is no doubt that a year and a half on from the original staging, the novel’s sense of unstoppable disaster has become chillingly resonant.

It was in 1938, when the refugee Zweig was living in Bath, that he wrote Beware of Pity. Every weekend he would take the train to visit his friend Sigmund Freud in Highgate, north London. Their talk, no doubt, feeding Zweig’s fascination with the unconscious drives that rule our so-called rational choices. Appalled at the nationalism engulfing his native Austria, guilty about abandoning his mother, and utterly disorientated by the unfamiliarity of his new surroundings, Zweig ruthlessly forces his drama to read like a howl of despair. Though perhaps the welcome in Britain was warmer than today, nonetheless he was aware that his hosts did not truly believe war would come. Thus the opening of Beware of Pity has the older Hofmiller feted as a war hero, the only one who realises that history will repeat itself. Europe will once again be engulfed.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a multi-ethnic, multicultural entity encompassing many languages and completely differing sets of beliefs under one sprawling umbrella state. The lens Zweig applies to Hofmiller’s shock of discovery at his own inner fault line zooms out to show cracks in society zig-zagging in every direction. And it is inevitable that, as a consequence, a vast break up will occur. But perhaps there is a choice to be made, which begins deeply within ourselves.

“We all know from experience,” wrote Zweig in the novel, “how the human tendency to self-delusion likes to declare dangers null and void even when we sense in our hearts that they are real.” And as the novel unfolds, the connections between our inner worlds and outer reality develop in symphonic detail.

Hofmiller encounters a doctor who tends the young woman at the centre of the novel. This man, Dr Condor, makes it clear to Hofmiller that moral choices, of course, have consequences. If we fail to follow through on our good intentions, there can be disastrous results. We may think by acting kindly we are doing no wrong. But intentions are merely a veneer, a kind of superficial cultural glue from which we are, frequently, unable to free ourselves. And thus we cannot distinguish what are really true moral choices and what are those that simply make us feel better.

As the good doctor puts it: “There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to harden yourself against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only one that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, is to truly place yourself in the position of the victim. This pity knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.”

  • Beware of Pity is at the Barbican, London, 9-12 February. It will be live-streamed on 12 February at 3pm GMT and available to watch online until 26 February.


Simon McBurney

The GuardianTramp

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