Chapter VI. "The Great Days"
They were playing "The Categorical Imperative" that evening at the Little Theatre in Unter den Linden. It is an old-fashioned comedy laid in the Vienna of 1815 - two love-stories, lightly and quaintly told, across which, through the chatter of a little Viennese salon, we dimly see Napoleon return from Elba and hear the thunder of Waterloo. A young cub of a Saxon schoolmaster, full of simple-hearted enthusiasm and philosophy, comes down to the Austrian capital, and, taken up by a kindly, coquettish young countess, becomes the tutor of her cousin, a girl as simple as he. The older woman with her knowing charm, the younger with her freshness, present a dualism more bewildering than any he has ever read about in his philosophy books, and part of the fun consists in seeing him fall in love with the younger in terms of pure reason, and finally, when the motherly young countess has quietly got him a professorship at Konigsberg, present to his delighted Elise his "categorical imperative."
You can imagine that thoroughly German mixture of sentiment and philosophy, the quaint references to a Prussia not yet, in its present sense, begun to exist; how to that audience - nearly every one of whom had a son or husband or brother at the front - the century suddenly seemed to close up and the Napoleonic days became part of their own "grosse Zeit." You can imagine the young schoolmaster and the frivolous older man going off to war, and the two women consoling each other, and with what strange eloquence the words of that girl of 1815, watching them from the window, come down across the years:
"Why is it that from time to time men must go and kill each other? There it stands in the paper - two thousand more men - it writes itself so easily! But that every one of them has a wife or mother or sister or a - ... And when they cry their eyes out that means that it is a victory, and when some brave young fellow has fallen, he is only one of the 'forces' - so and so many men - and nobody even knows his name..."
You must imagine them coming back from the war, and pale, benign, leaning on their canes as returning heroes do in plays, talk across the footlights to real young soldiers you have just seen limping in with real wounds - pink-cheeked boys with heads and feet bandaged and Iron Crosses on black-and-white ribbons tucked into their coats, home from East Prussia or the Aisne. Then between the acts you must imagine them pouring out to the refreshment-room for a look at each other and something to eat - will they never stop eating? - fathers and mothers and daughters with their Butterbrod and Schinken and big glasses of beer in the genial German fashion, beaming on the young heroes limping by or, with heads bandaged like schoolboys with mumps, grinning in spite of their scars.
And when they drift out into the street at last, softened and brought together by the play - the street with its lights and flags, officers in long, blue-gray overcoats and soldiers everywhere, and a military automobile shooting by, perhaps, with its gay "Ta-tee! Ta-td!" - the extras are out with another Russian army smashed and two more ships sunk in the Channel. The old newspaper woman at the Friedrichsstrasse corner is chanting it hoarsely, "Zwei englische Dampfer gesunken!" - and they read that "the sands have run, the prologue is spoken, the curtain risen on the tragedy of England's destiny."
Great days, indeed! Days of achievement, of utter sacrifice, and flinging all into the common cause. Round the corner from Unter den Linden, under the dark windows of the Information Bureau, you may see part of the price. It is still and deserted there, except for a lone woman with a shawl over her head, trying to read, by the light of the street-lamp, the casualty lists. You must imagine a building like the Post Office in New York, for instance, or the Auditorium Hotel in Chicago, with a band of white paper, like newspapers, spread out and pasted end to end, running along one side, round the corner, and down the other. Not inches, but yards, rods, two city blocks almost, of microscopic type; columns of names, arranged in the systematic German way - lightly wounded, badly wounded - schwer verwundet - gefallen. Some have died of wounds - tot - some dead in the enemy's country - in Feindesland gefallen. Rank on rank, blurring off into nothingness, endless files of type, pale as if the souls of the dead were crowding here.
One tried to think of the "Categorical Imperative" in a New York playhouse - of the desperate endeavor to make the young schoolmaster really look simple and boyish, and yet as if he might have heard of Kant, and of convincing the two ladies that they lost their sweet comfortableness by dressing like professional manikins; how the piece might succeed with luck, or if it could somehow be made fashionable; and how here, with all the unaffected and affectionate intelligence with which it was played - and watched - it was but part of the week's work.