Monday, March 30, 2015


Miracle at Verdun suffered from various problems as it moved to theatres in different parts of the world during the 1930s.  Each culture related to the premise of the play differently since the political situations varied greatly from one country to another. The experimental script’s style as it mixed “isms” together was an unfamiliar mode of drama in many countries as was the unusual production values used by directors and designers.  This combination of experimentation was thought to make the new drama exciting as well as thought provoking, but it was often jarring to audiences’ expectations theatre. While “Miracle” is reputed to be the last antiwar play to be permitted on Germany stages in the early 1930s, it was met with neither the same sense of urgency for its message in the United States nor was there an appreciation of its provocative staging elements.

The Theatre Guild held its New York opening on March 16, 1931 and the performances ran into April for a total of forty-nine. The English translation used for this production was the work of Julian Leigh. Brooks Atkinson wrote in his New York Times review on March 17, 1931: “When Hans Chlumberg’s ‘Miracle at Verdun’ is published here it may be possible to form an opinion about this ghoulish war play that created a sensation when produced in Germany last autumn.” He also stated: “. . .trickery of the dynamic theatre has taken precedence over dramatic ideas.” That problem was noted by other reviewers who did not like the three motion picture screens with images they claimed were low quality, the blaring amplified sound and many staging problems. Director Herbert J. Biberman was highly criticized for the problems relating to the production style. Aaron Copeland created the incidental music for this production. However, Atkinson’s summary regarding the theme of the play discusses the significance of this theatrical piece: 

But the fantastic idea of bringing all the war dead to life again, and
then measuring their sacrifice against the brazen greed of the world
that has climbed up on their broken bodies is certainly a startling
theme for a play, and certainly ought to harrow us. 

Since the play requires many actors, the Theatre Guild cast actors in multiple roles. The only actor singled out for commendation in Brooks Atkinson’s review was young Claude Raines. “Claude Raines as the Prime Minister of Belgium, makes himself heard above the general din, and gives a splendid, potent performance.” Raines also played the role of Heydner, the German tourist who had the dream, plus several other minor parts.
Miracle at Verdun received stage and radio productions in European countries and Great Britain during the early 1930s. The script used in England was translated by Edward Crankshaw. The play appeared in London during the Fall of 1932 at the Embassy Theatre and then it moved to the Comedy Theatre. The newspaper reviews are mixed since some reviewers considered the play to be a masterpiece while others were less enthusiastic. The comments related to the production style seem to indicate it was less of an issue than the American production. Amateur productions of this play appeared in a number of British cities over the following years.

Miracle at Verdun had another type of recognition more than forty years after its premier. Eli Siegel, poet and founder of the philosophy known as Aesthetic Realism, delivered a lecture that was recorded on April 3, 1977. He began this lecture by saying:

The Miracle of Verdun I have come to feel, all in all, is the most
valuable play telling about contempt. I think the meaning of
contempt—its full meaning—is the most valuable information
the world needs to know. . . This play makes. . .the knowledge of
it clearer and greater. There are two kinds of contempt: the kind
you can see immediately accompanied with. . .a sneer of the lips,
and then the contempt which is very quiet.

Eli Siegel’s definition of contempt is “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” It was gratifying to learn that this forgotten play was reintroduced to another generation of students. Hopefully some of them read it and tried to imagine it on stage.

While it is may take a bit of effort to find Julian Leigh’s translation of the play in a library or through a used book vender, it is possible to read the play in German as well as an English translation online. See The title is translated as Wonders of Verdun.  This German edition was published in 1932 by S. Fischer in Berlin. I have not compared the on-line translation or the one by Edward Crankshaw with the one by Julian Leigh. 

CHLUMBERG, HANS.  Miracle at Verdun. New York: Brentano’s, 1931. Translation by Julian Leigh.

Reference for Miracle of Verdun photo:
   Roy S. Waldau. Vintage Years of the Theatre Guild. 1928-1939. Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University. 109.

If you read this play in English or German, please share either your reaction to the play or provide a comparison of the scripts.

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