I was young—in my later thirties, but my time-table has always been in retard; I had more money in my pocket than I felt was due me as “professorial lecturer” at the University of Chicago. I had had a relative failure or two during the Depression years with The Woman of Andros and Heaven’s My Destination. But I was healthy, filled with curiosity, and ignorant.1

What I was principally ignorant of was politics. I was thoroughly book-taught in politics from Aristotle down and I took a lively interest in presidential elections that turned on our hopes that a wise government would repair the appalling condition into which the country had fallen. In writing the book which I have designated as my second failure I had written—without knowing it—a political novel. My ignorance consisted in an inability to relate the general ideas which are called politics with the relations of the individual citizen to the agencies of government that shape his life—an area of intense struggle which is also called politics.

I was young and as happy as a cricket and I went abroad for several summers in succession. On two of these trips I visited Salzburg during its festival of music and drama.

I am not fond of music in general. I deplore grand opera. But I am so admiring of great music and of a dozen grand operas that I arrange to hear them infrequently, I might say as seldom as possible. Just as I choose to read Don Quixote once every ten years on the decades of the year of my birth. Music is a rhetoric like another—that is, a mode of expressing the emotions in a language that has undergone a long and complicated development. (Salzburg is a pilgrimage-place, for two of these rhetorics—for music and for architecture.)

So early in the spring I purchased my tickets—a pair of tickets for each performance—from a travel agent. On such and such a night I would be hearing Toscanini conduct Fidelio; then I would be present at Max Reinhardt’s production of Faust with Paula Wessely as Gretchen. Then Bruno Walter’s Don Giovanni with Dussolina Giannini, and his Die Zauberflöte. I would hear the Masses in churches a stone’s throw from the composer’s birthplace.

Both summers enjoyed beautiful weather. The rain itself fell in sunlight. The narrow streets and bridges were crowded. There were not many automobiles; a few were conspicuous: a flag on top of the hood meant royalty, as the right hubcap meant an ambassador or senator or perhaps a brash assumption of importance. Buses brought throngs from Berchtesgaden, fifteen miles away, and from Vienna. The afternoon performances of Everyman in the Cathedral Square seated many hundreds; there were concerts and open-air serenades. An unending queue awaited admission at the door of Mozart’s birthplace. (As I was a professor and looked like a professor, I was often stopped on the street by strangers and asked in one language or another “Was he really born there?” One cannot be too careful.) But the tickets for the principal performances had been long sold out and prices for them on the black market had risen to extraordinary heights.

There was a feverish tension in the town not solely attributable to the presence of so many notable persons or to the expectation of masterpieces. Politics freighted the air. Hitler’s rule was in the ascendant; Mussolini was reaching toward a revival of the Roman imperium; the hope of social resolution was organized into parties throughout the world. In every country in Europe politics exerted its pressure on every aspect of public and private life. Families selected their guests, publishers their authors, civil servants their office workers either by a judicious mixture of “left” and “right” or by a bold resolve to support one tendency or the other. Particularly in France, Italy, and Germany the commitments assumed daily reached agonizing proportions. They involved the disavowal of old friendships and loyalties. “Your brother will not be allowed in this house.” “Godmother or no godmother, you will not speak to her in the street again.” Men and women seem to feel that not only their own livelihood but the security of the world and the happiness of generations unborn depended on their selection of friends and associates.

But surely we would be spared this torment in Austria—Austria, celebrated so long for its tolerance. And surely we would be spared in Salzburg, a town pre-eminently under the sign of Art. How often we had been told that art knows no boundaries, that music tames even the savage breast. Art is educative. The masterpieces of the human spirit will save us.

After the performances the town—except for one place of entertainment—soon closed up. The visitors, exhausted by their brush with the sublime, had a supper of trout or Wienerschnitzel and cucumber salad and went to bed. For the wide-awake and the well-provisioned there remained the Cafe Mirabell, its supper rooms and its gambling tables. At that time the government permitted and participated in four gambling casinos in Austria. The gamblers—industrialists, certain mysterious men and women who were said to be spies limitlessly subsidized, nobles who had somehow pulled through the dire decades—seldom did more than glance into the supper rooms and shudder. The people in the supper rooms devoted to conversation the passion that others spent upon chance. I never saw any of the artists at the Mirabell; presumably they were supping in their rooms or at Max Reinhardt’s Schloss Leopoldskron or at one or other of the hospitable villas like Stefan Zweig’s that surrounded the town. By exception, however, one night Alexander ——— appeared among us. The previous night he had asked and received permission to witness a childbirth in the town’s hospital. He so shrank from this experience that he deemed it necessary to view—several writers were engaged in dramatizing The Idiot and portions of The Brothers Karamazov for him and he felt that it was a Russian thing to do—it prepared him—inured him—to play Dostoievski.

Like many others I had long groped for an adequate translation of the word Stammgast. I was often offered another foreign word, habitué, which fails to suggest the solidity of the German word. An habitué admittedly frequents certain milieux: one is not a Stamm-
gast
at the opera or at the gaming tables or at the races. Finally I decided that a Stammgast is one who can be found at the same place of public refreshment every day at the same hour unless he happens to be somewhere else. An approximation of the meaning is merely to say a “faithful.” I became a faithful at the Cafe Mirabell.

By two o’clock Ferenc Molnár had drunk a great deal of cognac as he was reported to have done every night for many years. He was, as so often, between wives, and in great need of comfort and admiration. During one of these summers he was fortunately sustained by a sort of attentive and soothing nephew he had acquired—Hans Albers, the popular singer in operetta, who had suddenly revealed himself in middle life to be a great actor and who had created the title-role in Liliom for the public in Berlin. In the late hours, however, Molnár, increasingly drowsy, could think and speak only in Hungarian. Thinking in a language that no one in the neighborhood can think in tends to intensify a feeling of isolation. Molnár was given to weeping. Again fortunately for him, a Faithful at a nearby table, surrounded by bar friends, was another Hungarian, the fascinating Marion Mill Preminger, who from time to time would throw him a life-line. At another table Erich Maria Remarque—ever buoyant, ever young—sat in a company, all buoyant, all young. At another table an extremely popular and witty old man. No one knew anything about him, but the Faithful at the Mirabell were above the lower forms of curiosity; there was very little gossip. Rumor, however, said that Dr. Helm was an unfrocked priest who sent long reports twice a week to Moscow. He was generally seated between two beautiful young women whom we all knew as Fräulein Mitzi and Fräulein Klari. They were from Vienna where they were known to be among the faithful at the Eden-Roc. They were always welcome at Dr. Helm’s table, where they could be found nightly unless they happened to be somewhere else. I was the only American among the Faithful, though I brought guests to my table, old or new friends I had met in the town. The chairs and even the tables were light and there was a constant shifting of place.

The Mirabell Cafe closed at four o’clock and from a quarter before four the waiters—eminently among the Faithful and often called on to settle merry disputes—directly presented bills and snuffed candles and removed covers. But in every such company there are always a few who once having watched until four cannot go to bed until the sun rises. This was particularly true of Ferenc Molnár, who could neither retire, nor pass the hours without more brandy, nor could he drink alone. There was one bar in Salzburg that remained open all night—at the railroad station. Hans Albers, ever attentive, ever deferential, acceded to the old man’s wish to continue the congenial evening there. He begged the departing guests to accompany them.

On the night that I am recalling there had been a number of more than usually spirited discussions. Eleanora von Mendelssohn (Eleanora, by right, as god-daughter of La Duse) had maintained that music was the chief of all the arts. Dr. Helm reserved that role for architecture. Remarque, who had already begun assembling his distinguished collection of paintings, affirmed that the eye was the channel of the real. Johann Neponinck, the headwaiter, Fräulein Mitzi, the historian, and the American could not be shaken from their conviction that the word was pre-eminent.

“And what is your opinion, Fräulein Klari?” asked Dr. Helm.

Both the young women had drunk many glasses of cognac and were to drink half a dozen more that night. We all react to alcohol in a different way. Fräulein Mitzi showed no sign of inebriation. Fräulein Klari had disassociated herself from our discussion. She floated; she had become seraphic. In a gentle voice without emphasis she replied: “All the arts are childish.”

The Faithful were caught short. They could not believe their ears.

“What do you mean, Fräulein Klari?” I asked.

She turned her beautiful blue-marble eyes toward me and said: “All the arts are childish. They conceal from men the things that must be done.”

Suddenly politics had entered the supper room at the Cafe Mirabell. The Faithful knew at once that a prostitute from Vienna was quoting a garbled Karl Marx—a Karl Marx as delivered in clubs for the working classes—four schillings for six lectures; sign your name and address when you leave.

Dr. Helm (born in the former Austrian Empire) replied, “But my dear child, men without the vision set before them by the poets and the artists would have neither the desire nor the perseverance to do what you call the things that must be done.”

Fräulein Klari did not answer. She returned to the sphere above our heads—seraphic and completely assured.

An Austrian had again poured oil upon the water. Tolerance like a gentle tide flowed in about us. Only Hans Albers passed through the phase of confusion, anger, and outrage—tolerance is not a characteristic of North Germans—but finally became subdued to the climate about him.

The conversation passed on to other subjects, but presently Dr. Helm, with the flourish of tact which is in the native blood, reintroduced the awkward subject in a playful vein: “I must confess that at times I too have felt as our charming friend does,” and he placed his hand lightly on that of Fräulein Klari. “We are often told that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. I have never been confident that he fiddled well.”

Closing time came. Hans Albers begged us to adjourn to the railway station. Five of us willingly chose to do so: Remarque, Dr. Helm, the two young women, and I. There were always a number of taxis and horse-drawn carriages awaiting at the door. (The drivers’ wives had awakened them at three-thirty after a refreshing sleep.) In good weather a few tables and chairs were set up on the long platform between the tracks and Josef Strunck the proprietor of the refreshment-bar (his wife replaced him at seven) welcomed us with lively enjoyment, “Lieber Meister” . . . “Herr Doktor” . . . “Verehrte Herr Remarque” . . . “Gnädige Fräulein” . . . ).

The will to converse had relapsed. Molnár’s eyes were open (he was inveighing against something or someone), but his head had shrunk deep into the fur collar of his overcoat. Hans Albers had continually to straighten the glass in his hand.

Dr. Helm drank only coffee. He put down his cup and said: “There is a secret joy in sitting calmly in the open air in a city one loves—an hour before dawn. In Prague, in Paris. It is at hand, but one cannot see it. There is no awkward detail to arrest your attention.”

Fräulein Klari from far above, again without emphasis, said: “There is no such city. Even the blessed do not know of any city where there is no awkward detail to arrest the attention.” Then suddenly she descended from the seraphic realm and addressed Erich Maria Remarque. “I was born in Salzburg. I was a shop girl here. My parents moved to Vienna. When I return here in the winter I know almost everyone I pass in the street.”

There was a pause.

“You have no affection for Salzburg?” I asked.

Again she rose into the upper air; her words drifted down to us like pollen. “There is no city on earth that one can love. That city will come.”

The absence of emphasis in her words prevented their disrupting our meditative contentment.

The sky lightened. A cooler breeze began to lift the corners of the tablecloth.

At a quarter before six we heard the tinkle of a bell at the end of the long station platform in the direction of the town. A priest was approaching. It was his duty to officiate at Mass for the railroad workers. In his hands he bore the Host on a paten under its veil; an acolyte preceded him, wearing a cotta none too fresh, and ringing his small silver bell. Remarque drew in his long legs to let him pass. Only two of us took notice of his office. Josef faced him and lowered his head; Fräulein Mitzi rose and genuflected.

Molnár’s hotel was across the street. Hans Albers raised his voice and said:

“Franz! Franz! You must go to bed—”

Molnár opened his eyes and, like an owl, blinked at the horrid dawn. They took their departure. Remarque bowed to the ladies and gentlemen and hailed a carriage. Dr. Helm offered to take the ladies to their lodging. They thanked him in the Viennese dialect for the pleasure of the evening, but they wished to stay a little longer at the railway station. Fräulein Mitzi wished to hear Mass; Fräulein Klari was lost in thought and did not wish interruption.

We moved into the refreshment bar. Mass was being served in the baggage room that adjoined it. The crowd was so huge that the door could not be firmly closed to contain them. The workers on the line, section Salzkammergut, arrived every morning with their families. Their wives had served them coffee and rolls and schnapps (by dispensation: they were permitted to partake lightly before the office). The wives until the last moment held the lunch they had prepared for their husbands. There were dozens of children, the girls with handkerchiefs or bits of lace on their heads. Papa did not depart on his daily task unattended.

The Mass came to an end. The congregation passed through the room. The workmen took leave of their large families, who returned to their homes without lingering. The last to appear were the acolyte, who hurried back to the town with his sacred furniture, and the priest, who came through the door, kissing his stole and folding it into one of the capacious pockets of his cassock.

The station policeman came in from the street. I was introduced to Father Grieshaber and the Herr Wachtmann Strohl. Steaming coffee, crowned with whipped cream, was served to all. Herr Strohl turned off the lights as though reluctantly. So there were six of us left in the station room sipping our coffee meditatively: the proprietor, the policeman, the priest, two girls from Vienna, and I.

Suddenly Fräulein Klari said: “Have I no affection for Salzburg? I hate Salzburg.”

Father Griesberg said gently: “My daughter! Moderation! Moderation!:

Klari said quietly: “With all respect to you, Father, the word is not too strong. Mozart—everybody talks about Mozart from morning to night. Mozart hated Salzburg. He hated to put foot in it, he said. No wonder. He was kicked out of the Prince-Archbishop’s reception room. On the toe of Count Arco’s boot. With the Prince-Archbishop shouting at him that he was a worthless irresponsible good for nothing.”

“Yes, a sad story,” said the policeman.

Fräulein Klari subsided into her airy brooding.

“Herr Strunk,” I asked, knowing the answer, “are there any Haffners left in Salzburg?”

“Some,” he replied, lowering his eyes.

“They played the Haffner Symphony yesterday and they’re playing the Haffner Serenade tomorrow.”

Josef pointed to the program on the wall. He asked me, “Herr Professor, did you hear Fidelio tonight?”

“Yes.”

“Frau Lotte Lehmann—very fine?”

“Very, Herr Strunk.”

He leaned forward confidentially. “I sang with Frau Lilli Lehmann.”

“Oh?”

“She did everything for Salzburg. She was the greatest of all sopranos. With her own money, with her own time, she did it all. In the town theater and in the churches. For love of her and for love of the composer all the greatest artists came and gave their work.”

“You sang with her, Herr Strunk?”

“I was a boy. I sang in the choir at St. Michael’s. She listened to us, one by one, and she picked me to sing one of the boys in Die Zauberflöte. They use girls now, don’t they?” His hands indicated an ample bosom. “My father sang too; he sang for thirty-five years in the Sängerverein. He sang in the chorus of priests and he sang in the Mass. A ticket for my mother was two schillings, Herr Professor. I could have found a ticket for tomorrow night for thirty schillings.” He rattled the coins in his pocket. “But a man doesn’t go to Die Zauberflöte alone—without his mother and his mother-in-law. I would be ashamed. But sixty schillings, gute Nacht! We have our opera and theater here in the winter.” Again he leaned over the bar and said, “My grandmother was a Haffner. Fräulein Klari has a dozen cousins who are Haffners. Isn’t that so, Fräulein?”

“Herr Strunk, I never heard of a Haffner writing music.”

Josef mastered his mortification. With Austrian tolerance he said, gently: “Fräulein Klari, you are not an easy person to get on with.”

“Oh yes I am,” she said, “when people are not talking about dead things.”

The policeman had been thinking. “I cannot take my wife and mother-in-law to the operas. Every other night I have to stand at the back of the hall beside the fireman. I listen, but I can’t help thinking: Everybody here paid thirty schillings.—Father Grieshaber, I ask myself, too: do rich people hear the same notes as poor people?”

The priest laughed. “Oh, my young man,—what a question!”

The policeman looked around timidly. “Is that a very stupid question?”

“What he means,” said Fräulein Klari, smiling at the dawn, “do they love in the same way, do they weep at the same things, do they say ‘God’ in the same way. That is not a stupid question.”

Fräulein Mitzi rose in indignation. “Klari, shut your face. I’ll never come on a vacation with you again. All you do is think—think awful things.” And Fräulein Mitzi burst into tears.

Father Grieshaber turned to Fräulein Mitzi and spoke to her soothingly in the dialect. I could not understand. Then he turned to Fräulein Klari. “Fräulein Klari, say what you wish to say; say it to the end.”

Fräulein Klari looked at him evenly for a moment. Then she turned back to the policeman. “Herr Torgd, ask me. I know. I have been a lady’s maid in five palaces and castles. Ask me. Listen. Everybody says that the poor have cares (Sorgen). That’s just a word. It is the rich who have cares. We have sufferings (Leiden). Sufferings are great; they are unbearable, but we learn to protect ourselves against them. And we can rejoice when they are lifted. My mother and father, and Herr Strunk’s mother and father—do you remember the war?—what suffering. But Saturday evenings at the White Stag—what laughter! As a young girl I could not believe my eyes when I saw my parents laughing so. But cares do not come and go; they are a blanket over the rich man’s house. Ask a lady’s maid. Everything irritates them; nothing is ever right. My parents had small envies, small rivalries, small ambitions. But in a palace there is nothing but envy, rivalry, and ambition. Now I will answer you: your Mozart wrote about joy and suffering, but he did not stoop to write about cares. The thirty-schilling audience, of course, does not hear the same notes. They are so accustomed to cares that they have forgotten what it is to suffer. Now I will say something else: Only a poor man can love. Ask me. I know!”

Again Fräulein Mitzi rose outraged. “Shameless.” She covered her ears. “Father, make her stop.”

“But Christ said the same thing!” replied Father Grieshaber.

Fräulein Klari said: “Now I am finished. I hate Salzburg and all this art, art, art. All the arts are childish. They prevent men from seeing the work that must be done. Burn your concert halls and opera houses. Bring down fire from heaven on your art galleries and on your cathedrals,” here she turned on me and cried, “on your Cafe Mirabells.”

1 This essay is excerpted from Thornton Wilder, edited by J. D. McClatchy; The Library of America, 788 pages, $35.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 6, on page 22
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
https://newcriterion.com/issues/2012/2/at-the-cafe-mirabell

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