March 3, 2003

Arthur Schnitzler’s Das Weite Land (1911) is one of the twentieth century’s greatest plays, and a masterpiece by any standard. In an English version by Tom Stoppard as Undiscovered Country, it was successfully presented in London with John Wood and Dorothy Tutin, and in Hartford with Keith Baxter and Mary Layne, directed by Mark Lamos.

Broadway was interested, but what with four sets and 28 speaking parts, the play was considered unproducible. Now the deserving Mint Theater offers an estimable mounting, under the title Far and Wide. On the positive side, the translation by the director, Jonathan Bank, assisted by Peter Sander, is excellent, and the cast, reduced to thirteen, is competent or better. Bank’s staging is intelligent. On the negative side, the Mint’s limited budget and cramped space preclude conveying much of the play’s visual potential and its full social implications. This does not lessen the staggeringly acute psychological and sexual insights or the dramatic power of the work, but it forfeits its sweep and grandeur.

Even the title is a problem for the translator. The German weit means both far and wide—hence the Mint title. But the reference is to the human soul, a realm both distant and far-reaching. (The French version is called Terre étrangère.) One suspects that the country in question may also be death, for the play both begins and ends with a violent offstage demise. Schnitzler deals sovereignly with male-female entanglements—sexual and platonic, marital and extramarital, passionate and evanescent, manifest or unconscious. In the process, he touches diverse other issues, principally the paradoxes of our existence: its quakes and aftershocks, its ludicrous contradictions and devastating ironies. Witty and profound, poetic and brutal, subtle and shocking, the play prompted Schnitzler’s comment: “Feelings and understanding sleep under the same roof, but they run their own completely separate households in the human soul.”

This Far and Wide does only partial justice to Schnitzler, but how often do you have a chance to see even an imperfect version of a seldom-available absolute masterwork?