Spring 1987, Volume 4.1
Jan de Hartog
The Writer in Violent Times:The Dutch Underground Theatre*
Jan De Hartog, novelist and playwright, has written in his native Dutch and in English. He is the author of numerous novels and four plays, including his well-known The Fourposter, which was made into the musical I Do, I Do. His latest novel is The Commodore (New York. Harper and Row, 1986).
I want to reminisce about the little known Dutch Underground Theatre during the second World War.
In May 1940, the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium, and France. The Dutch war lasted four days, after which the Queen and the government fled to England. The army surrendered and the Germans occupied Holland. When I say Germans, I really mean the Nazis, because it was a Nazi occupation, which very soon made itself known in its true color. From the start, no Jew was allowed to take any part in the social life of occupied Holland.
The Dutch, who had no experience of foreign "occupation," didn't quite know how to react at first. A series of strange, unexpected regulations were enforced. All the plays in all the theatres had to be either classics or German. The radio played only German music. There was curfew from nine o'clock at night, until five o'clock in the morning. Gatherings of more than five or six people unauthorized by the Germans were forbidden.
The theatre was the place I was really with at that time. I had just written and played the lead, believe it or not, in a movie on the Dutch navy called Somewhere in Holland. It was instantly banned by the Germans, but I can say with pride that for two weeks I was a film star. The movie never came back. The result of the German regulations was that the Dutch film studios were closed, and everybody connected with them was thereby officially unemployed and liable to be deported to Germany as slave labor.
So we actors got together and decided to form a company in which everybody who had anything to do with the studios was gathered together. It was quite a lot of people. We decided that we would call ourselves the "Dutch Film Players," and that I would write, as soon as I could, a play that would employ everybody in some form or another. This meant I would have to write a play which would employ a hundred and twenty people, and that we had to perform that play on the stages of cinemas in Holland which refused to show German movies.
I wrote the play, though it was a tremendous challenge. I had to accommodate a hundred and twenty people on stages that had no depth, because the cinema stages had no depth. The only way to accomplish the feat, it seemed, was by stacking the actors literally on top of one another. So I wrote a play, called The Devil and Miss Honesta, which took place on board a windjammer. A longitudinal section of the windjammer was the stage. It had three decks, which were all crowded. We were thus forced into "simultaneous theatre," which was a concept unknown in Holland at that time. We waded into it with great enthusiasm. We had a ballet, and we had a choir. The play was a mess, but an enthusiastic mess. I acted the part of a mesmerist, a sort of hypnotist. The play took place in the late eighteen hundreds on a ship on its way to the Dutch West Indies. It was becalmed in the Sargasso Sea and that's where the whole drama took place.
The houses were packed, because people instantly saw that the play was a form of protest, which they loved. So they took it as a demonstration rather than a work of art. I was lucky.
The play seemed set for a glorious future when two clowns, who were part of the company, decided that their parts were getting lost in the melee. They wanted to attract attention, so one day they made up as Hitler and Goering. That put a stop to our play within two days. It was the end of the Dutch Film Players. Now what were we going to do?
We decided to go underground and form the 'Underground Theatre," which would travel through the country and perform in barns and haylofts and, in the case of the Zuider Zee, in those large sheds where the fishermen dried and mended their nets.
As we thought it was too dangerous for women, we decided it would have to be a play for men only. Of course that was a silly conclusion, as it turned out, the women were much better at underground activity than the men, but that's another chapter. So I wrote another play called Skipper Next to God, which had only men in the cast, seventeen of them. The protagonist was a reborn Christian freighter captain, who took on in Hamburg, just before the war, a load of emigrants to South America, who turned out to be Jews expelled by the Germans. When he arrived in South America, the government refused to accept them. The ship roamed everywhere hying to find a haven for these Jews; it couldn't find one. The solution was that the captain scuttled his ship during a regatta off Long Island, so that American yachts had to pick up the passengers whereby they finally found themselves on American territory. This play was later performed on Broadway with John Garfield in the lead.
In Holland, we performed the play especially around the Zuider Zee, where I knew the fishermen very well. They were ideal hosts for Jewish children. In those troubled times, there was a great demand for families that would accept Jewish children and hide them. The fishermen were ideal because they were a closed society, but they had a problem because they were against the Jews "who had crucified Christ." They had to be convinced that it was along time ago, and that at this point their Christian duty was to give sanctuary to these persecuted Jews. The play was an instrument to try and bring that about. We were successful; a number of children were placed with the fishermen. After each performance, the audience and players entered into lively discussions which were really the main part of the whole performance. However, we had to stop pretty soon because Germans were after us. Seventeen people were too many.
So I learned the play by heart and reached the ideal of every playwright: I sat down in front of an audience and acted out all the parts myself. I recited the whole play with appropriate facial expressions, looking this way and that, to make sure that everyone understood that it was a different character. I had a whale of a time. I did about three hundred of these performances.
The manuscript had been destroyed because there were house searches, and it was decided that there should be no copy of the play available. So there I was, acting all the parts by myself. At this time, a novel I had written a couple of years earlier, called Holland's Glory, was published.
There is a book by Upton Sinclair called The Jungle, the subject of which is the meat packing industry in Chicago. Sinclair wanted to protest the working conditions in the meat packing industry; however, the book was an enormous success because everybody wanted to know what went into corned beef, like black men's toes, and that kind of stuff. Sinclair moaned that he had aimed at the public's heart and hit the stomach.
I had a similar fate in a more pleasant way. I had written Holland's Glory on the subject of Dutch ocean-going tugboat service because I wanted to protest against a law which said that days of practice made on board ocean-going tugs were not acceptable for Mates and Masters's Certificates of the merchant marine. It was a scandal. I wrote the novel to demonstrate that the law was a political boondoggle. But nobody ever realized that was the subject of the book when it was finally published during the first year of the War. The title, Holland's Glory, alone was enough to set off national reaction.
People put the book in their windows with the title facing outward, with candles by the side; there were stacks of the books in the shop windows of butchers and haberdashers, who had never displayed a book before. The success of the book was immediate, no doubt owing to the German films in the movie houses, the German plays in the theatres, and the German propaganda and music on the radio. Because of the curfew, people were home by nine o'clock at night. What could they do? Make love, or read Holland's Glory, both of which they did. I found myself, suddenly, in the same position as Charles Dickens must have found himself. People judged his characters to be so alive that they corresponded with them. They sent letters to characters like Uriah Heep, care of Charles Dickens. My experience was very similar.
Anyhow, because of the big success of the book, the Germans were very lenient to me; they tried to get me into their camp. When they did not succeed, they became angry and sent an order for my arrest. I had to stop my tour and go into hiding.
To go into hiding in those days was not easy. People, however, came up with intelligent, devious solutions. The best one I knew of, and from which I profited several times, was a hotel in Amsterdam, called Park Hotel, which had been requisitioned by the SS. All entrances to the hotel were guarded by the SS with guns. Across the road stood another SS guard, who watched to see if any officers came by, because the men on guard were not allowed to look sideways. Whenever he saw officers, the man across the road cautioned "Psss-psss" and then the guards started to go through the salute with their guns, which meant that Dutch Amsterdam urchins could set the whole rigmarole in motion with a simple "Pssspsss."
The hotel had only German officers in it and civilian members of the Gestapo and the SD, competitors of the Gestapo. These two bodies did not know each other's members. The Gestapo did not know who were SD and the SD did not know who were Gestapo. The only ones who could ever find out were sergeants with a medal around their necks, who came around every week to ask for everybody's papers; only then did one have to show who he was. Until then, everybody was safe, for in all this strict vigilance the Germans had forgotten or had not noticed that there was one extra entrance to that hotel, which was through the managees apartment. Quite a number of underground characters hid out in the Park Hotel for brief periods of time, guarded by the SS until they left again through the apartment of the manager. The underground characters walked through the hotel and behaved as secret agents would behave. It was perfectly all right until that sergeant came; then one had to get out of the way fast. So one hid in cupboards or crawled under beds; when the sergeant was gone, one came out again.
I did that for a brief period, before I found a permanent hiding place which was marvelous: an old ladies's home. I was smuggled in at night time and was given a room. On the door was the name 'Mrs. Flyingheart." Only the director and one maid knew that Mrs. director's name was Lien Veal. She had the shape of a snow plow.
Flyingheart was not an old lady but a hefty young man. The
An enormous woman. Very intimidating. I felt quite safe.
The maid was a charming old lady, who thought the whole thing was a tremendous joke. She would come in laughing and leave laughing.
So there I was, in a room with nothing but a fourposter, waiting for the word that my turn had come to go to England by the underground route, via Belgium, France, and Spain to Gibraltar.
I was happy in the old folks home, but the portions of food given to me were very small. They were carried in on a large tray, but they were bird feed. I couldn't exist on this, so I asked if I could see the director.
The snow plow came into my room and said, "Yes?"
I said, "I'm very sorry, but I don't think I can live on these rations."
She said, "Mr. de Hartog, now you must listen to me very carefully."
I said, "Yes ma'am."
"These portions are carefully measured so that everybody in this house gets the same amount. When your tray goes up, all the ladies watch it. If I were to put one crumb more on your tray than the others get, I would set this place rioting." It was an interesting concept: a riot in an old ladies's home.
"But let me think about it," she confirmed. "Maybe I can come up with a solution."
I said, "Please, ma'am."
She was back within the hour and asked, "Mr. de Hartog, are you squeamish?"
I said, "Well, 1-1 don't W. ?"
"Well, I can get a hearty soup up to you twice a day, but there's only one way of doing it, and that's in a bedpan."
"Umm, may I think this over?" I mumbled.
I thought the matter over, and we came to the agreement that she would buy a new bedpan, show me the sales slip, I would pay for it, and she would swear to use it only for my soup. She complied.
From that moment on, twice a day, a bedpan covered with a towel went up to poor Mrs. Flyingheart, who was so weak now that she could not reach the ladies's room. It looked quite normal except for the fact that steam rose through the towel on the way up. On the strength of that soup, which was indeed terrific, I suddenly was full of energy. I was cooped up in that room, and there was nothing I could do. I looked at that fourposter, thought of taking it apart and putting it back together again. Then I thought, "I wonder what that fourposter has seen?" and decided to write a play about it.
It was a very innocent play, the story of a marriage with only two characters. I knew that I couldn't really write a play with only two characters, it simply wouldn't work. But I thought, well, it's never going to be performed anyhow. So I wrote about the kind of life I would have loved to have, and which I did not think I was going to have, because the mortality rate on the route that I was about to take was eighty percent.
I wrote the play with great fervor. When it was finished, the director put it in the linen cupboard. Two days later the call came and I left on the underground trail to England. The play was performed, finally, in England ten years later and was a disaster. The Daily Express wrote, "The frail little bark goes down with both hands." After three weeks a gentleman, who invested in failures as a tax deduction, bought the play for three thousand pounds. I thought he was crazy. When he made the offer I said, 'Well, of course," and I sold him the world rights to the play in perpetuity for three thousand glorious English pounds.
A few years later it was performed in New York and ran for three years. Three movies were made of it, one by the Americans, one by the Germans, and one by the Austrians. I was sorry then that I had sold all rights to the play, but with those things, you never know.
When I came to America for the first time to see this play performed, in a place called Skowhegan in Maine, I flew in-it was in 1950-with one of those clippers, which took seventeen hours and made four stops. Two of those stops were among the Eskimos; they sold stained glass mittens, of which I still have a few. I was taken by air taxi to Waterville, Maine, and from there by taxi on wheels to where this play was being performed. As I walked into the playhouse, a performance was in progress. In the lobby was a display of a sumptuous buffet. Not in years had I seen so much delicious food. So, while I heard the distant voices of actors on the stage, I sneaked past all these tables and stuffed myself.
Suddenly, there was a burst of applause as an act ended and the doors opened. Out came into the lobby the first member of the audience, who was as alien to me as a Chinese coolie. I can only describe him as the male half of American Gothic, a picture of a typical farmer. He wore bib overalls and rimmed glasses. The audience obviously knew that the author was going to come by, for as the man came toward me, he said, "Are you the writer of that thing?"
I said, "Yes sir."
And he said, "Boy, you must have had a microphone underneath my bed!"
At that moment I realized, in a flash of revelation, that my play was superficial enough to be an international success. And that's what it became.
*This is a transcript of a talk Mr. de Hartog gave at Weber State College on 17 November 1986.