Wednesday, June 28, 2017


While living in Vienna in 1925, Franz Werfel (1890-1945) wrote Juarez and Maximilian.  Early in World War One he served at the eastern front in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Later he was posted to the Military Press Bureau located in Vienna. By the time Werfel wrote Juarez and Maximilian, he was an established playwright, novelist and poet.

Juarez and Maximilian is described on the cover to its published English edition as “A Dramatic History in Three Phases and Thirteen Pictures.”  The plot recounts the trials and tribulations of Maximilian I (1832-1867), the only monarch of the second Mexican empire, at that time Mexico was controlled by the French Empire ruled by Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873). Maximilian was the younger brother of the Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph I (1830-1916). Since Maximilian was a member of the House of Hapsburg, he was related to nearly every monarch in Europe. Maximilian was married to Charlotte (1840-1927), the daughter of King Leopold I (1790-1865) of Belgium. When she became Empress of Mexico, she took the name Carlota (Spanish for Charlotte). The English translation of the script spells her name “Carlotta”. 

The action of the play commences either late 1864 or early 1865 and ends in June of 1867. It follows the general pattern of the actual events that occurred in Mexico during that timeframe. Maximilian’s antagonist was Benito Juarez (1806-1872), who had been elected by the citizens of Mexico and served as President of Mexico since 1858. It is easy to understand why some critics, reviewers and audience members understood this play as simply a dramatization of those historic events.

But Werfel was a man of his time and he told this story by using several theatrical devises that made the story telling more contemporary to 1920s audiences. He divided the major segments of the play into “Three Phases” instead of designating them as three acts. Each phase represents a different and distinct time-frame in the history of Maximilian’s rein in Mexico. Werfel uses the word “picture” instead of the term scene. A change of location and situation are represented in each one of the thirteen pictures. Over the course of the play one understands how Maximilian’s situation changed dramatically.  At the beginning of the play Maximilian had 40,000 soldiers from France, Belgium and Austria to support his rein in Mexico. By the Third Phase all of those troops had returned to their homelands. Also Werfel’s use of the term “picture” which represented to me a specific image, therefore, I was more conscience of this play as a visual piece akin to a film.

Werfel had written some of his earlier plays in the expressionist style. It was thought by critics that his style changed, as did that of so many young writers, due to the sobering effects that World War One had on playwrights. However, the characters and the situation are more realistic in Juarez and Maximilian. Werfel use of different designations for theatre terms, as mentioned above, as well as never having Juarez appear on stage indicated he was still experimenting with style. While Juarez the antagonist is invisible, his agents carry Juarez’s messages in order to demonstrate his haunting presence.

Juarez and Maximilian is “A Dramatic History” that points beyond the nineteenth century. There were several times during my reading of the script that I was very aware of being involved with the events and emotions of the 1860s as well as being conscious of 1920s sensibilities with which the plays seems to be imbued.  Since Juarez is never seen on stage, it does not matter that in 1865 he would have actually been fifty-nine years old and twenty-six years Maximilian’s senior. Yet the feeling from the play is that Juarez is a leader who gathers youths to his patriotic vision for Mexico. Werfel’s vision of Juarez and his supporters is reminiscent of the various patriotic youth movements across Europe in the years leading up to World War One as well as during it.

During the Twelfth Picture, Maximilian states: “The age of royalty is over.”  Then following his next sentence, he states: “The hour of the dictators has come.” Those statements hold a modicum of truth for Mexico, but they seem too encompassing for Mexico alone. However, these thoughts are less representative of the European situation in 1867.  Both statements ring with truth for Europe during the 1920s. 
When Juarez and Maximilian premiered in Magdeburg, Germany on April 25, 1925, Carlotta was still alive and living at Bouchout Castle in Belgium. The play opened in Vienna during June of 1925. This production of the play was directed by Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). The review in The Stage June 25, 1925 was positive. “The play beautifully produced by Max Reinhardt with the aid of many original costumes and contemporary photographs proved to be a triumph for Paul Hartmann (1889-1977), who was a Hapsburg to the life.” The review ends by claiming there were sixty curtain calls.

Juarez and Maximilian opened in Berlin at the Deutsche Theatre in February of 1926. An article in the New York Times on February 21, 1926 that was written by Special Correspondence from Berlin claims “Mexican Official and Historian Praises Work of Werfel, German Dramatist.”

The New York production of Juarez and Maximilian was created by The Theatre Guild and it opened October 11, 1926. It played for forty-eight performances. The script was translated by Ruth Langner (1899-1959) and the production starred Alfred Lunt as Maximillian, Clare Eames as Carlotta, and Edward G. Robinson as Porfirio Diaz. The cast included other well-known actors such as Morris Carnovsky, Cheryl Crawford, Dudley Digges and Sanford Meisner. Langner’s translation of Juarez and Maximilian was published in 1926 by Simon and Schuster for the Theatre Guild.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) created his opera titled Maximilian in 1930. The story is based on Werfel’s Juarez and Maximilian. It was announced in the New York Times on August 16, 1931 that Milhaud’s opera was scheduled to be performed at Vienna Staatsoper.

The film rights for Werfel’s play were purchased in 1938 by Warner Brothers. The script was reworked and the film titled Juarez was premiered in New York City on June 10, 1939. Bette Davis played Carlota of Mexico, Brian Aherne was Maximilian, Paul Muni starred as Benito Juarez and Claude Raines was Napoleon III.  The roles begin to give clues to how extensively the script was altered.

Werfel’s historic play was applauded both in Europe and in North America. It retold the story of Maximilian’s reign in Mexico that appeared to have been forgotten in the intervening sixty-eight years. During the Epilogue, Werfel used this piece of history to remind his audience that “the only legitimate thing on earth is bestial obscene ambition” or “implacable power.”

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