Legend of a Life: The Story of Stefan Zweig

  • 08, Oct 2018
  • Theatre in Paris exclusives
  • Rupert Comer

The life of Austrian playwright Stefan Zweig

An author, dramatist and biographer, Stefan Zweig was one of Austria’s most celebrated writers. Reading his work is to take a plunge into the extravagances of Europe of the early 20th Century, an era he loved and thought lost with the rise of Nationalism and the horrors of the Second World War. In his prime, Zweig travelled extensively across the continent and his friend remarked that no matter where you saw him, his demeanour suggested he had a half-packed suitcase in the next room. Often pursuing a hedonistic and adulterous lifestyle, much of his work deals with themes of vice, shame and guilt. Zweig lived the experiences of the characters in his plays and novellas, and that is why his story is so interesting.

stefan zweig portrait

 

Background

Born in Vienna in 1881 to a wealthy Jewish family, Zweig went on to study philosophy and literature and published his first volume of poetry while still a student. After his studies he began his travels and planted himself in a range of intellectual circles, becoming friends with figures such as Sigmund Freud and Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren. In his autobiography, Zweig poetically names this period “Detours on the Way to Myself”, and it was to inspire much of his later writings.

stefan sweig cigar
the grand budapest hotel sweig

 

World War I

The First World War left a strong impression on Zweig. Working for Austria’s War Archive he was shocked by the horrors he was charged with documenting. This experience led Zweig to renounce the patriotic feelings he had once held and he became a pacifist, advocating peaceful action in his 1917 play Jeremiah. Shortly afterwards he wrote Legend of a Life, a psychological play that deals with family relationships, as a son is forced to confront secrets discovered about his late father, with Freudian implications. Legend of a Life is currently showing at Théâtre Montparnasse until January 2019, in Paris’ famous artist district, with subtitles in English.

legende d une vie

Still from Théâtre Montparnasse’s production of Legend of a Life by Stefan Zweig.


 

Stefan Zweig in Exile

In the early 1930s, Zweig’s novels began to be denounced and then banned. National Socialism was also taking hold in Austria, as politicians searched for a union with Germany. In 1934, policemen arrived at Zweig’s home and searched it for weapons. As soon as they were gone he packed his suitcase for London, remarking in his memoir that, “behind this intrinsically insignificant episode I sensed the present gravity of the state of affairs.” While in exile many other writers rebuked him for not speaking out publicly against the Nazi regime. Zweig was refusing to confront the political situation in Europe, believing if he kept quiet he would be able to carry on with his work as before.

casa stefan zweig

Casa Stefan Zweig, a museum in the writer’s last residence in Brazil which celebrates his life.

 

Second exile

It was the shock of the fall of Paris in 1940 that drove Zweig to once again abandon ship, fleeing London for New York, Connecticut and finally Brazil, settling in Petrópolis, a city colonised by mostly German immigrants. Increasingly despairing of the situation in Europe, a continent torn apart by war, Zweig and his second wife Lotte carried out a suicide pact in 1942, just one day after he had posted his memoir to the publishers. A work that would go on to inspire director Wes Anderson’s wonderful comedy film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

 

Zweig’s tragic death does not diminish the literary skill and humanism his work demonstrates. It is therefore encouraging to see that more and more of his output is being translated, published and adapted for the stage. Tickets for Théâtre Montparnasse’s adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s masterful Legend of a Life with English surtitles can be found here.

legende d une vie

Still from Théâtre Montparnasse’s production of Legend of a Life by Stefan Zweig.

 

Stefan Zweig's significant works

The World of Yesterday is Zweig’s autobiography and one of his most defining works. As well as recounting his travels across Europe, punctuated with many anecdotes about the intellectuals he met along the way, it also paints a picture of the continent throughout the author’s lifetime. Zweig’s despair at the rise of Fascism, destroying the continent he loved, can be seen as the narrative that links the work together.

 

The Royal Game is one of Zweig’s many novellas, and the action takes place against the political backdrop of the Nazi occupation of Austria. A political prisoner keeps his sanity by memorising chess games in his head. Later, on a cruiseliner he puts his skills to practice against a chess champion with strange psychological consequences.

 

Beware of Pity is Zweig’s only novel and his longest work of fiction. It tells the tale of a young lieutenant who promises out of pity to marry the disabled daughter of a wealthy Hungarian. With a perfectly crafted plot, it brings to life the tension of Europe on the eve of World War One mirrored with that of its characters.