The Vast Domain
First Slovenian production
28 September 2006
With The Vast Domain we enter the world of industrialists and financiers who spend much of their time at the holiday resort of Baden, near Vienna, or in the Tyrolean Alps. Alongside tennis and mountaineering, their favourite sport is adultery. Friedrich Hofreiter, having ended his affair with Adele Natter, takes up with the young Erna Wahl; his wife Genia, having rejected the pianist Korsakow, starts affair with the naval lieutenant Otto von Aigner; the officer Stanzides takes Friedrich’s place with Adele Natter. Although Genia suggests that mutual indifference might be the best foundation for a marriage, and describes love affairs as an amusing game, this sexual circus is driven by emotions which prove dangerous playthings. The characters repeatedly discourse on how puzzling emotions are. We fail to feel what we officially ought to, and we are assailed by unexpected feelings that initiate fatal actions. Genia’s rejection of Korsakow prompted his suicide. Although Dr Mauer is Friedrich’s closest friend, Friedrich has no compunction about starting an affair with the woman to whom he knows Mauer is attracted. The banker Natter knows about his wife’s infidelities yet is still hopelessly in love with her, and cares enough to avenge himself on Friedrich by planting a story that Friedrich brought about Korsakow’s death by challenging him to an American duel and then cheating. (In an American duel, to remove any advantage araising from superior skill weapons, both parties drew lots and the loser was obliged to commit suicide.) When Friedrich challenges Otto to a duel, he has no strong feelings, simply a desire not to be made a fool of, but when they face each other Friedrich knows that one or the other must die.
Not only the ›vast domain‹ of the soul, but the presence of death, sets the tone of the play. Tom Stoppard did well to entitle his English version Undiscovered Country, after Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide. The play begins just after Korsakow’s funeral. Friedrich has recently had a narrow escape from death in a motor accident. Further back, he was in a mountainering accident in which a friend was killed. In Act Three, set in Dolomites, he and his party turn out to have climbed the Aignerturn, a notoriuosly dangerous pinnacle. Mountaineering is associated with sex, both by the legendary sexual conquests of Aigner, who first climbed the pinnacle, and by the embrace between Friedrich and Erna outside their mountain hut. Against this background, Friedrich seems like a grown-up version of Fritz from Flirtations, compulsively playing with danger.
Ritchie Robertson, from Introduction to Round dance and Other Plays Oxford University Press 2004.