Sunday, October 17, 2010


A distinguished playwright and implacable foe of the Nazis, Odon von Horvath (1901-1938) was doomed to die in a freak accident.  

Born in Fiume in Austria, he studied in Budapest before moving to Germany. Horrified at the rise of the the Nazi Party during the 1920s, he wrote the landmark play Tales from the Vienna Woods (1930), which took him to fame, winning the Kleist Prize the following year. The darkly comedic work charts the rise of Nazism in a small village, and so insidious is the ideology’s influence that the villagers hardly notice it is taking over their lives. 
His views brought him to the attention of the Nazis, and he was forced to flee Germany in 1933. He followed his initial success with plays including Stranger from the Seine (1933), and Figaro gets a Divorce (1937), and novels including The Age of the Fish (1938), in which he warned that in the terrible time to come the faces of people would become as rigid as fish. 
Although German Nazism already cast a long shadow by 1938, war was still a year off when on the first day of June he was out walking on the Champs Elysees, among the strolling crowds enjoying the early summer sun. The day was windy though, with a thunderstorm approaching, and von Horvath, who had always feared dying from being struck by lightning, took shelter beneath an old chestnut tree, when a strong gust caused a bough to break. It fell onto the young playwright, killing him.

Tales from the Vienna Woods was successfully revived during the 1960s, including a widely produced English translation by British playwright Christopher Hampton. It is renowned for many famous lines, among them that murmured by the world-weary tobacconist Valerie, "that's life captain... the human condition."

From my book "Dead Famous: Deaths of the Famous and Famous Deaths".

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