I am reading The Radeztky March by Joseph Roth, one of those large sweep novels, set in Austria at the decline of the Habsburg empire. Vienna has always interested me. At the start of the last century it produced Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt, Carl Schnitzler, Egon Schiele and Stefan Zweig. Later on three of Hollywood’s greatest directors – Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann – all came from that city.
It set me wondering why certain places at certain moments in time suddenly produce a flourishing of artistic talent. One such period was The Regency where, in a period of 50 years, England produced three of its greatest painters (Gainsborough, Constable and Reynolds), Jane Austen and the romantic poets Coleridge and Shelley. Another was Paris in the twenties, where Picasso, Scott Fitzgerald, Diaghilev, Braque, Sartre and Hemingway all gathered.
It’s not easy to give any explanation. The last such flourishing we had here was in the sixties with pop music, pop art and working class actors like Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney upstaging the great theatrical dynasties. This period did have something in common with Vienna as the old Empire was decomposing and it was a time of upheaval. I once heard the theory uttered by David Lodge that one reason why Britain did not produce any magic reality fiction is that there was no terrible political climate from which to hide in fantasy, as in South America.
Although we live in interesting times, I have yet to see the one film or play, or read the novel, to depict them. Indeed, we seem rather to live in the past and leave it to Scandinavia to produce contemporary cutting-edge drama.