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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?


The
Miracle
at
Verdun

Great War Cemetery in Northern France"

Contempt as the one enemy of peace, brotherhood and sanity

By Lynette Abel

I was stirred, as I heard Eli Siegel speak in the recording of the April 3, 1977 class about the importance of the 1930 play, hardly known now, concerning World War I, by the Austrian writer, Hans [von] Chlumberg (1897-1930).  He began by saying:      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 Mr. Siegel 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:

 In the sketch Chandler tells 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": "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."  In the sketch, Chandler presents Chlumberg's "highly novel conception" of "The Miracle at Verdun."  He writes: I respect Hans Chlumberg enormously for the questions he was dealing 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."  Listening to this play with its courageous descriptions of contempt, I felt even more the necessity of strict self-criticism.

The Plot

There are eight 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:

Commented Mr. Siegel, "Having the grave and all this human irritation is already dramatic.  Something like this [likely] occurred today with persons visiting the graves at Gettysburg."

      Vernier finally gives in and opens the gate, and there is this description:

There is a sense here of something both serious and everyday.  The scene continues and we can ask: Is there contempt here?

Then we see another aspect of contempt — how a war can make for good business prospects.  Vernier explains that the area, surrounding the historic cemetery, now has a hotel which "is equipped with the most modern conveniences.  It has an excellent jazz band, golf courses and tennis courts."  There is satire here, as Chlumberg deals with opposites in every person: nobility and cheapness, large and small, life and death, the ordinary and the strange.  In his writing, we feel he informs and criticizes us.  The dialog continues:

Contempt is Building

Commenting on World War I, Mr. Siegel noted, "Americans didn't see how much Europe suffered.  "Of course America suffered somewhat herself but not the way Europe did."  As the dialog goes on, contempt is building: the Americans and English have it for the French, the French for the English and Americans — all this going on in a cemetery with persons visiting, seemingly, to honor soldiers lost in battle.       Shortly after this exchange we are deeply moved as Vernier explains that the French and German trenches "ran parallel to each other and hardly more than 100 meters apart" and here in a mass grave they "lie side by side."       Vernier mentions that the next day there will be ceremonies commemorating the soldiers, and "divine services" and prayers for the dead.  Government delegates will be visiting and speeches will be given.  A German tourist asked "What do they want, for those fellows down there...? What will they ask for, in their prayers...?

The Dead Rise from their Grave

In Scene One, Part Two, the MESSENGER, sent by the Lord, tells the dead of Verdun to rise,

     In researching for this report, I learned that after World War I, there was a desire in people in many nations that there never be another war, and various treaties were signed.  My colleague, Lois Mason, who teaches American history, told me about the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1929, which was eventually signed by 62 nations, making war illegal.  Meanwhile, during the same years militarism was building in Japan, Germany, and Italy.  "With all the talk of pacifism and the call for war," Mr. Siegel explained, "the cause — that of contempt — was not given."  And with the understanding that people throughout the world desperately need to know, he said: It is a momentous fact of the 20th century, that Eli Siegel described what contempt is and showed it to be not only the cause of domestic pain and cruelty, the cause of mental weakening, insanity, but also the cause of war.  That this explanation is not known worldwide even now, as horrors are taking place, is for one reason: the press and media out of conceit have kept the knowledge of Aesthetic Realism from reaching people.  What's in this one lecture should be on the front pages of newspapers tomorrow!

     Chlumberg describes the German and French war dead rising from their graves so movingly:

The Dead Are Not Welcomed Back

      But as the risen war dead begin making the journey back to their towns, countries, and homes, nowhere are they welcomed — in fact, people are angry that they have come back to life.  In Scene III various political dignitaries of France, Germany, and England are told of this, and each contemptuously dismisses the news.  "[This scene] is more like a customary play," Mr. Siegel observed, "[it has the] social and domestic."  The French Premier MICHEL DELCAMPE gets the call at 2 AM at the home of his mistress:       At the same hour, the home of the German Reich Chancellor is called.  Grumbling about being disturbed, "After... such a strenuous day! [with] The speeches and all that nonsense," the Chancellor's wife, Frau Overtuesch answers the phone.  Hearing of the dead soldiers rising from their graves, she says: Then she tells her husband who asks about the call: And the Prime Minister of England, Lord Grathford, meets this astonishing news with complacent, cold indifference.

      What Mr. Siegel was showing about contempt in this play needs to be known by people everywhere so there can be lasting peace in the world, not widening war.  This is the urgent, beautiful study that Aesthetic Realism provides.  I close my report with these great sentences by Mr. Siegel from issue 165 of the international journal, The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known titled “What Caused the Wars":

 

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