The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, adapted by Lavinia Greenlaw

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BBC Radio 4, 24-31 July 2010
Set in a utopian society, The Glass Bead Game was a test of logic by which individuals could be judged according to their worth. Josef (Tom Ferguson)was a master at it, which is why he was asked to represent the state of Castalia at a very young age. He proves himself adept at the role, being a good debater as well as diplomat, yet resolutely convinced about the rightness of his intellectual position. As the action unfolds, however, so Josef becomes more and more affected by doubt - something totally alien to the Enlightenment rationalism of the Castalian people. The only reliable source of information in the story was the Biographer (Derek Jacobi), who also functioned as the all-seeing narrator, aware of what had happened and what would happen in the future.
In Susan Roberts' production, Hesse's novel was treted as an allegory of the kind of totalitarianism that promotes certainities - and hence upholds the power of reason - yet refuses to acknowledge doubts or dissent. Josef found himself in a particularly invidious position; as the supreme representative of Castalian society, he was expected to set an example to his people, yet found himself increasingly unable to do so.
The second episode of this two-part drama saw Josef abdicating from his position, although expressly forbidden to do so. Consequently the glass bead game lost its significance as an index of the health of society. However Josef himself found a new life of peace and stability with his wife Helena (Olwen May), and pursue a new life as the teacher of the rich young boy Tito (Oliver Gomm). This move not only unnerved his peers, it also affected the Biographer; until now he had been certain of his intellectual position. While Josef's move turned out to be fatal, as he plunged to his death while taking an early-morning swim, we had to admire his presence of mind, as he rejected his destiny and - perhaps for the first time - faced the consequences of his actions.
The story ended with the biographer reporting how Josef's death changed Tito for life; whereas he had been brought up to believe in the power of reason, now he understood the power of the emotions. Indeed, such knowledge served to enforce, rather than undermine Tito's belief in logic; if it were tempered with emotion, it could be far more effective as a modus operandi in society. Tito himself was transformed from a rebellious teenager into a potentially ideal candidate to sustain the glass bead game in the future. Although we felt sorry that Josef had to die - just at the point of self-discovery - we understood how he had helped to instigate some kind of societal reform. At least, this was what the Biographer believed. Whether we believed him was another issue entirely.

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