Becoming Completely Yourself | Elmer on Mother Night

Jonathan Elmer


Howard W. Campbell Jr. is a playwright and a spy. What is the relation between the two? At the level of narrative, the relation is as intimate as can be. When Frank Wirtanen approaches Campbell about spying for the Americans, he indicates that he fixed on Campbell because of the “medieval romances” he writes: “you love pure hearts and heroes,” he said. “You love good and hate evil,” he said, and “you believe in romance” (39). Wirtanen thinks that “The Goblet,” “The Snow Rose” and “Seventy Times Seven,” the plays Campbell considers “about as political as chocolate éclairs,” are in fact deeply political, that they exhibit values that can be projected onto politics in such a way as to produce belief—in heroism, good and evil, and so forth. And Wirtanen is right; Campbell is, when Wirtanen finds him, planning a fourth play: “Das Reich der Zwei”—“Nation of Two” (33). Campbell will live that play rather than write it; he will disappear into his own romance with Helga Noth as an attempted escape from the sordid Nazi world he was acting in, and for which he was broadcasting criminal anti-Semitic diatribes. But such a “romance” of escape is none; as Gertrude Stein might say, a Reich is a Reich is a Reich . . .

Campbell himself says that Wirtanen “didn’t mention the best reason for expecting me to go on and be a spy. The best reason was that I was a ham. As a spy of the sort he described, I would have an opportunity for some pretty grand acting” (39). Here we have the playwright as wannabe actor—a known trope. But there is something wrong here. If you are a ham, you want applause for playing something you are not. But if you are a spy, you do not want to be known to be playing anything at all. It’s as if all the applause comes from the world of make-believe. The real world—the world that can see an actor playing a role—is, and must remain, wholly silent.

Vonnegut—or whatever version of Vonnegut writes the “Editor’s Note”—casts this issue in terms of lying: “To say that he was a writer is to say that the demands of art alone were enough to make him lie, and to lie without seeing any harm in it. To say that he was a playwright is to offer an even harsher warning to the reader, for no one is a better liar than a man who has warped lives and passions onto something as grotesquely artificial as a stage” (ix). Takeaway? Art is morally compromised—fundamentally—and theater most of all. And yet what we have in our hands—Campbell’s confessions—may produce some value out of its compromised position: “lies told for the sake of artistic effect,” continues Vonnegut, “—in the theater, for instance, and in Campbell’s confession, perhaps—can be, in a higher sense, the most beguiling forms of truth” (x).

Like the spy, the artist can tell deeper or “higher” truths but always and inevitably does so from a morally compromised condition.

Having written a dystopia (Player Piano) and then tried on science fiction (Sirens of Titan), Vonnegut turns to a new genre, the spy novel, with Mother Night. But as with his earlier efforts, Mother Night doesn’t sit altogether comfortably in its saddle. There is really nothing in the way of intricate spycraft, or hairbreadth escapes. Howard W. Campbell Jr. never even avows any patriotism, nor does he show himself being clever as a spy. In fact, so unclever is he that the Americans make him transmit news about his own wife without his knowing it. So it’s not the narrative resources of the espionage novel that interest Vonnegut, or the spycraft—it’s the moral ambiguity. And in this regard Mother Night resembles its predecessors.

Spy novels have been around a long time. What makes espionage attractive as a literary theme? The spy novel lives in the moral no-man’s-land that Vonnegut likes to explore. The idea that antagonists in war are, beneath their duty to kill each other, actually alike to the point of being able to pass for each other can be reassuring in some situations. In others, it can produce a queasiness bordering on terror (the case with Mother Night, I think).

One of the great enigmas of the first decades of the new United States was its adoration for a British spy. Most of us learn about the traitorous Benedict Arnold in grade school, but his British handler, John André, is much more interesting. Caught by the Americans in civilian disguise and with intel in his boot, André was hanged by Washington’s order, an event that sent shockwaves of feeling through the colonies and in England, many seeing the decision to hang André rather than afford him the gentleman’s dignity of a firing squad as a needlessly inflexible judgment. Many early Americans—not all, but many—loved André, and could not get enough of his story, which was reworked again and again in drama and poetry, memoirs and histories. André met his death bravely, and people admired that. But he also met his death stylishly, with fine words, pencil sketches from his cell, and so on, and that may have been just as appealing. Like Howard W. Campbell Jr., in fact, André was a bit of a “ham” (39). In the decades after the Revolutionary War—well into the nineteenth century—people remembered André as a spy and as the “creative” who organized the crazy spectacular dubbed the “Meschianza,” basically a huge party that included a mock jousting tournament, specially built structures painted like stage sets, and loyalist ladies dressed in “Turkish” costumes. (All this was going on while Washington’s men starved and froze to death at Valley Forge.) Campbell’s ridiculous dramas, “The Goblet” or “The Snow Rose,” can’t really hold a candle to the “Meschianza” for pomp, but their relative simplicity makes them appeal to a wider audience, especially once they are recycled as the work of Stepan Bodovskov.

I think one reason people loved André was because they wanted to understand their war with Great Britain as basically a kerfuffle between civilized equals, a kind of game. André knew the rules and played with panache. His way of being a spy confirmed Americans’ ludic fantasy, and Washington’s draconian punishment upset so many because it revealed their great general to be a spoilsport.

The links between war and play—and war and theater—are profound. In his great book about the cultural significance of play, Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga makes this point in no uncertain terms. It is a grave error, he insists, to think that play is unserious. On the contrary: it is perfectly possible to play to the death. The theatrical aspect of war in the Middle Ages for example was a given. Jousting tournaments could end in death. At Agincourt, dedicated observers of the battle (“heralds”) were part and parcel of the decisions about who “won.” We still speak today of “theaters” of war—the “Pacific theater” in WWII for example. André was a late exemplar of this military theatricality—on the waning end of it, which is another reason he seemed so appealing to many. It is a theater of honor, of bravery and fine speeches at the scaffold. The famous American spy Nathan Hale is remembered for his final stirring words: “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Howard W. Campbell Jr. is no Nathan Hale. The conditions in which military theatricality made sense are no longer ours. Vonnegut tells us that the moral of his story is “we are what we pretend to be” (v), but such a truth no longer names a resource—act heroically and you will be a hero—but a curse. At one point in Mother Night, Campbell chats with Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi whose trial in Jerusalem serves as a provocation for Vonnegut. Hannah Arendt describes Eichmann’s final minutes:

He was completely in command of himself, nay, he was more: he was completely himself. Nothing could have demonstrated this more than the grotesque silliness of his last words. . . . “After a short while gentlemen, we shall meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.” In the face of death, he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows, his memory played him the last trick; he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral.

It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us—the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.

It is as if Eichmann disappears entirely into the “grotesque silliness” of his words here; that is what it means to become “completely himself”—pure pose, pure role, a nothingness: banal.

Frank Wirtanen sends an exculpatory letter at the end of Mother Night. Campbell could walk free, now that his status as spy is revealed. But “we are what we pretend to be,” and Campbell, like Eichmann, must become “completely himself.” Eichmann spouts nonsense—“we shall meet again”—and disappears into his banality. Campbell mocks such posturing—“Goodbye, cruel world! Auf wiedesehen?” (268)—and hangs himself, the one authentic act of his life.