Men On Fire

a play about alma-mahler















The story of ALMA MAHLER…..

An eccentric ravishing beauty; a temperamental tyrant, always demanding art at it’s most perfect, a figure of scandal, controversy and inspiration in the bohemian life of fin-de-siecle Vienna. Despite her inborn anti-sematism she married and inspired two great Jewish artists, Gustav Mahler and Franz Werfel as well as Bauhause architect Walter Gropius. She also had notorious love affairs with many other artists including Gustav Klimt and Oscar Kokoschka.

Men on fire was first performed at the Man In The Moon Theatre, London – 1999 

Here’s the first few pages of Men on Fire. If you would like to read more please send us an email and we will be happy to email back a full rehearsal script.


We are in an apartment in New York.  Alma is reading her correspondence, with some

difficulty.  She is very irritated.





Alma: English!  English!  English!  Why cannot they write to me in German?.
Anton: Perhaps it is because we are in New York.  They do not know German, Frau Mahler.?(Slight pause)
Alma: German is beautiful – English is so cold.  Unmusical.  Is that not correct, Anton?
Anton: The English would tell you it is the language of Shakespeare.
Alma: Poor Shakespeare. (slight pause)  If only they had given him German – what a writer he could have become.
Anton: Did he not achieve some little successes, Frau Mahler?
(slight pause)
Alma: Are you making fun of me Anton?
(slight pause)
Anton: I think we’re making fun of each other, are we not?(slight pause)
Alma: Will there be a place for jokes in your life of Mahler?
Anton: Irony perhaps … life is serious.  Only death is comedy.
Alma: And is that also a joke, Anton?
Anton: More an aphorism, I would say.  An epigram.
Alma: Epigrams – Anton – You are moving from irony to mockery.
Anton: No, no – that was not my intention.  Forgive me.(pause)
Alma: Irony?  Where was irony in the life of Gustav Mahler?
Anton: Not the life – the perception – he became a Christian to be appointed director of Vienna Opera.  Now Austria regards him as its famous Jewish composer!
Alma: Oh, they were all Jewish: the musicians, the bankers, the doctors, the lawyers.  As soon as they rose to the top of their professions they had themselves baptised.(slight pause)
Anton: Frau Mahler – I have read, in your diary, that the Maestro was already a sick man when you first met.
Alma: Sick?  No, not at first.  In fact he was very energetic.  When he wasn’t conducting, he was composing and when he wasn’t composing he was swimming, and when he wasn’t swimming, he was walking.
Anton: And you participated?
Alma: I had to:  I watched him conduct, I watched him compose, I watched him swim, and then went on interminable walks with him; miles and miles and miles of them.(slight pause)Haemorrhoids were his great problem then.
Anton: Haemorrhoids.  Painful.
Alma: Particularly when he was on the rostrum, conducting.
Anton: Was there … no nostrum for the rostrum?
Alma: That was no joke.  I think he walked so much because it was more comfortable than sitting down!  Later came his heart problems for which he spent many hours in bed.  For the other he spent many hours on the lavatory.
Anton: But surely people must have wondered?  You were the most beautiful woman in Vienna, yes?
Alma: (slight pause)  That is what they said.
Anton: All the artists were at your feet – yet you gave yourself …
Alma: To a sick little Jew from Bohemia? Is that what you mean?
Anton: I – I wouldn’t have put it quite like that…
Alma: In fact I was determined to marry him – I gave myself to the artist you understand?  All my husbands, all my lovers – they were artists!  They drew from me creative energy.
Anton: You were their muse, yes?  Their inspiration.(slight pause)
Alma: Unfortunately.  That is how they wanted to think of me.
Anton: You say that … regretfully?
Alma: When I was young I saw myself as one of the first great women composers.  I was sure I had the talent.  But that was a battle yet to be fought … However, I also began to realise the tremendous impression I could make on artists and the role I could play in their lives.
Anton: Your role was the creator of creators.  That is not a matter of regret.(slight pause)
Alma: Sans accolade! … My husbands, my lovers, produced their greatest work after they met me … Mahler himself acknowledged that.  And Kokoscka – his greatest work – was of me, inspired by me – it is well known.
Anton: The Storm Bride – Die Windsbraut – indeed.(pause)
Alma: Ach – these letters:  Tell me if they are important Anton.
Anton: Of course, Frau Mahler.
Alma: I have decided.  In future I will only answer letters in German or French.
Anton: I will ensure they are translated before you see them.
Alma: But tell them.  Tell them.  Madame Mahler wishes to receive correspondence only in German or French.(slight pause)
Anton: Dr. Heilbron is waiting Frau Mahler.(slight pause)
Alma: Dr. Heilbron?  No I will not see Dr. Heilbron.
Anton: He has travelled especially from Los Angeles.  He says it is important.
Alma: They all say it is important?  Doctors!  I have buried three husbands Anton – I know what is important … Dr. Heilbron wants to tell me I am suffering from Diabetes.
Anton: They have the test results.
Alma: Nonsense. I cannot have Diabetes.  Diabetes is a Jewish disease… tell him I will see him tomorrow.(slight pause)
Alma: In Vienna there were thousands of doctors – I think most of them were Jewish.  That is why they were so interested in Diabetes!  Indeed some Catholic doctors liked to be known as converted Jews – it gave their patients more confidence!
Anton: That is most … amusing … Frau Mahler.(slight pause)
Alma: We even saw Dr. Freud in Vienna.  He told me that I had a father fixation and Gustav had a mother fixation.  He found it quite acceptable.  Together we made one normal person.
Anton: Now you sound like a Jewish comedian Frau Mahler.
Alma: Oh, there were plenty of those as well.  Actors, cabaret artistes, singers – Vienna was very cosmopolitan.  During the dual Monarchy, everyone became a little schizophrenic.  Even the Emperor.
Anton: (laughing)  Ha.  Ha.
Alma: I think this is why I always enjoyed the company of artists.  They were striving for genius and all genius is mad.  Mad and untreatable.  Mahler always did his best work when he avoided seeing specialists.
Anton: And no doubt, as they say – some of your best friends… were doctors?
Alma: Certainly.  One, in particular wanted to marry me.  After Gustav died.  He followed me back from New York to Vienna.
Anton: Was he Jewish, Madame.
Alma: Naturally – Dr Fraenkel.  You see!  Some of our best doctors were also friends.(slight pause)
Anton: And Jewish.
Alma: Of course.(slight pause)
Alma: Are you writing some of this down Anton?(slight pause)
Anton: Of course not, Madame – I’m writing all of it down.(pause)
Anton: Mr. Bernstein is still waiting in the lobby.
Alma: Leonard Bernstein?  You say he’s Jewish – but he’s not a doctor! How unusual.
Anton: Perhaps of music?
Alma: That’s an interesting combination.
Anton: He idolises Mahler – He is his greatest proponent in America.
Alma: It means nothing.  (slight pause)  They know so little here …(slight pause)
Anton: Next year he is going to Vienna – To take over the Philharmonic – I think he wants your advice.
Alma: That’s simple – They are an unruly lot – I will tell him not to go.
Anton: And … Dr. Heilbron?
Alma: No, he’s Jewish and he ­is a doctor – But he hasn’t become a Catholic yet so I think we’ll give him a miss – we can’t regard him as being fully qualified., can we?(slight pause)
Anton: I don’t wonder that you’ve lived to so great an age Frau Mahler.  Your views on the medical profession would do credit to George Bernard Shaw.
Alma: Is he a doctor?
Anton: No, a playwright – and an Irishman.
Alma: Naturally – all Irishmen are playwrights.
Anton: Tell me when you are ready Frau Mahler.  For the doctor or the musician.
Alma: Do we have other business?
Anton: A number of requests for authentication.
Alma: Of course.  The usual fee?
Anton: Naturally.
Alma: So!
Anton: Here, for instance is a discarded page from the second symphony.  If you will sign it.  Here (he offers it to her and she signs).  Its value goes up a thousand-fold … And here, the maestro’s notebook from the opera house in Prague.
Alma: Here is irony, Anton (she signs) his early manuscripts, his notebooks, his batons;  even from before I knew him – but only I can say that they are authentic?
Anton: That is correct Frau Mahler.
Alma: Indeed!  Here again is irony Anton – the maestro died half a century ago:  and now three husbands, several lovers, and fifty years later I am returned to being Madame Mahler!
Anton: The world reveres that name, Madame.
Alma: Yes. (slight pause)  But what happened to my life Anton?
Anton: Your life?  Your life has been rich and interesting.  And long.  You’ve lived more than one life Madame.
Alma: But little Alma Schindler – My father’s daughter!  He was a great painter.  All my childhood he promised that he would teach me.  But when I was 13, and ready – he betrayed me.
Anton: Frau Mahler – he died.
Alma: That is what I ­­­ mean..  My life was devastated.  He loved me above everybody – I was the only one who understood his greatness.
Anton: Is that why you chose music?
Alma: It was my gift.  Music hath charms, Anton.  You see Shakespeare again.  Music was my consolation.  After my father died I no longer wanted to paint.  Painters were vulnerable, unreliable.  They died!  So I gave myself to music.
Anton: (coughing) And to artists.
Alma: Of course.  From the beginning I was enthralled by art, and artists – and they were enthralled by me.  Mahler, Gropius, Klimt, Zemlinsky, Kokoschka.  And then Werfel – I was twelve years older than Franz Werfel, but he pursued me until I agreed to marry him!  I rescued him from Nazi Germany – my poor Franz, he loved Europe – if it had not been for me, he would have perished in the camps.  I led him over the mountains into Spain and then America.
Anton: You were magnificent! So brave.
Alma: He was famous in Germany – but the Americans, what did they know?  The only way to be famous in America is to win an Academy award.
Anton: The Oscar of course.
Alma: Which he did.
Anton: Song of Bernadette!  A beautiful story.  Sensitive and beautiful.
Alma: Another irony Anton – It took a Jew to write the great story of a nun.(slight pause)
Anton: None better, Madame.
Alma: I helped him, of course: I inspired him.  Also Walter Gropius – When he first came to me he was a student – after our marriage he became world famous!  I inspired the evolution of Bauhaus!
Anton: Art with architecture – innovative.  A genius.
Alma: Of course.  He had such pretty manners.  (slight pause)  Kokoschka was the opposite – a wild beast!  And he painted like one.  I only gave myself to him after he made a great painting.  Of me!  I made him that promise.  I gave him that reward.
Anton: Indeed, you were their creator – and their well-deserved reward …
Alma: Yes, yes – but what happened to me, Anton; to Alma Schindler?
Anton: That was your role!  To be a medium of great art?  Is that not enough?
Alma: For Alma Schindler, no.  It wasn’t how I’d seen my artistic life.  Mahler knew he was destined for greatness.  For him there was never any doubt.(slight pause)
Alma: As an artist I was never a person.  You understand?  Always an adjunct; an appendage; a marginal note … I always danced to someone else’s drum.-
Anton: Ha – you still have time Frau Mahler?  You are only eighty-four!
Alma: Time:  (slight pause) look – you see the date on this programme Anton? 1900 … A new century!  I was just beginning to think of myself as a woman.  I played piano, I sang – I was pursued by all the artists and writers and composers in Vienna.  They all wanted to marry me!  Oh, how I remember – Gustav Klimt was the first – I met him when I toured Italy with my parents – he accompanied us.(slight pause)Wherever we were I found him touching me.  My hand, my shoulder, my breast, my thigh – always by accident, of course!  And he quickly drew his hand away.  I didn’t mind – I liked it – I just didn’t want my parents to see.(slight pause)- And once he danced with me.  A waltz!  I was so thrilled.  He was evil.  A vain man – he thought only of himself … but beautiful. 

Lighting state changes.

Waltz music starts.  Anton and Alma dance with each other, very slowly and into the next scene.  They pick up different costumes on the way and change into young alma and Klimt.  Alma sits at the piano, playing.  Klimt stands by the door.

If you would like to read more please send us an email and we will be happy to email back a full rehearsal script.