Can art be linked to mass murder?
Sydney-born playwright Justin Fleming was musing this question as he began writing Dresden, his play based on a real event, the moment when the 17-year-old Adolf Hitler became “spellbound” by a production of Rienzi.
Wagner’s opera about a populist Italian mediaeval politician who harnesses people power to crush the nobility had been written more than 60 years earlier, but having seen a performance, the future Führer “seriously blurred the stage of the theatre with the stage of the world”, argues Fleming.
Reminded by a boyhood friend in 1939 of his enthusiastic response to Rienzi, Hitler is reputed to have said: “At that hour it all began!”
Dresden will be directed by Suzanne Millar for bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company at Kings Cross Theatre, starring Yalin Ozucelik as Hitler and incorporating elements of Wagner’s score for Rienzi, which becomes its own character or voice in the play.
“I think it obsessed him,” says Fleming via Skype from Brisbane, where he is working in rehearsals for much lighter fare, an English translation of Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow.
“Yes, Wagner’s music was great, but what interested me was that Rienzi was a 14th century Roman leader who raised up the power of the people, wanted to restore Rome to its former glory, and ended up being burned to death inside the Capitol by disillusioned mobs.
“Hitler very much modelled his career, almost to the moment he died, on Rienzi’s life.”
Hitler approached Wagner’s widow Cosima (the daughter of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt) and requested the score of Rienzi, then housed at the Semper Opera House in Dresden, be moved to Nazi headquarters in Berlin.
“He could then say, ‘I have the sanction of the German people, whose greatest theatre artist I now represent’,” says Fleming.
“Wagner would have been horrified by that. Cosima was very firm the score should stay in Dresden. She eventually gave him a copy.”
Beautiful music may have inspired Hitler’s terrible mania, but I tell Fleming I also shiver when I look at images of Hitler’s watercolours – he painted hundreds – and wonder whether rejection by an art school in Vienna contributed to the future German chancellor’s insane fascist trajectory.
“Indeed. In the play he tries to write an opera, tries to mimic a Wagnerian opera. Of course, he just can’t do it. Someone once said, ‘Never give a failed artist an army’,” Fleming laughs.
“I’m sure there was a lot of anger there, because finally he had to make himself the work of art … a terrible travesty of a work of art: ‘Since I can’t do it in music, and I can’t do it in painting, I’ll be the supreme artistic performer on the world stage’.”
Fleming splits his own time writing for the stage between Sydney and London, because his academic wife Fae Brauer, a professor of art and visual culture, is based at both the University of NSW and the University of East London.
The son of doctors, Fleming grew up in North Sydney and was a barrister in common law for 10 years. His parents would often take him to the theatre, often the Ensemble, in the days of the theatre’s US-born founder Hayes Gordon.
“More and more, I just wanted to be writing,” says Fleming, noting his late father, a surgeon, was not pleased his son had chosen law and had suggested Justin pursue theatre full-time instead.
Yet it took a decade to heed his dad’s advice. “Poorer but happier, I continued with writing.”
Richard Wherrett, then at Nimrod Theatre, supported Fleming’s first play and Robert Helpmann championed the second. As well as numerous original works (The Cobra, Harold in Italy and Burnt Piano among them), Fleming is famed for his translated adaptations, particularly of Moliere. His version of Tartuffe was a hit for Bell Shakespeare in 2014 and The Literati was much loved by audiences for Griffin/Bell in 2016. Both featured the comic talents of Kate Mulvany.
His next, The Misanthrope, another co-production by Bell Shakespeare and Griffin Theatre this August, casts Danielle Cormack in the lead, making this misanthrope a woman – an idea of Griffin artistic director Lee Lewis that Fleming loved.
“Moliere gives women, especially lower-class women, a very big voice in his plays,” says Fleming. “They’re often very insolent to their masters. So it isn’t that big a jump for a misanthrope to be a woman, especially when we’re living in times of gender swapping and same-sex desire being played out. It’s right for our time.
“As Lee says, we’re dropping a brick into a small puddle,” he laughs. “We don’t know how big the splash will be.”
In translating Moliere, Fleming employs his own complex system of variable rhyming patterns because the French playwright’s constant rhyming couplets can accumulate more intensely when spoken in English. Also, rhyming to us “is a big deal because we wait for clever rhymes”, he says.
The pressure is to be clever but not for its own sake, while matching the intent of the original text. Fleming brings Australian vernacular to his translations though his work for Griffin in 2016 on The Literati, a play that pricks the pomposity of writing coteries, marvellously paired the very English “bollocks” with “frolics”.
Fleming’s work with Suzanne Millar on Dresden, meanwhile, is part of a long collaboration. “Ten years ago we started. Suzanne then didn’t have the theatre in Kings Cross, so she had to – with her husband John Harrison – find the money and the place to do it.
“She has a tremendous fire and energy in the rehearsal room. I think she only chooses subjects that she herself really has a passion for. The things we’ve done tend to be struggles against the world, individuals making good or terrible mistakes or taking good or terrible action.
“She loves the interplay of actors and text. We talked Dresden for a long time.”
Fleming likes a lot of music in plays and the underscore is particularly important to Dresden. He is adamant that art must be assessed separately from the person that created it.
“It doesn’t matter how far back you go, you have these monsters. Caravaggio stabbing a waiter, for instance. I think Oscar Wilde said the critic must look at the art and ignore the artist. Of course, that didn’t work for him.
“They do have to be separated. On the other hand, there’s great responsibility on artists with what they depict.”
Wagner, being socialist, was a very different man politically to Hitler, but likewise carries an anti-Semitic reputation. According to Fleming, the problem is judging Wagner by modern standards.
“What he objected to was Jewish music and the influence of Jewish music in European culture. He did make some remarks every now and again about the appearance of older Jewish men.
“I went to an evening hosted by Stephen Fry, who is Jewish and a great Wagner lover, and he made a wonderful point, that anti-Semitism before the Holocaust is so different from anti-Semitism after the Holocaust.
“It has to be viewed in its time, as Shakespeare does, with The Merchant of Venice.”
Fleming is thrilled that Australia’s theatre scene is filled with far more writers than when he was growing up.
But even with several new Australian plays premiering across Sydney right now, Fleming is unconvinced that new local works are being more broadly welcomed.
“More and more, independent companies are the way for new plays,” he says.
“When I’m doing Moliere I’m in very big theatres all over the place. But when I’m doing a new play, I’m usually in a smaller venue. I sense there is not the trust in the new Australian play that there used to be.”
Dresden plays at the Kings Cross Theatre, June 15 – 30