To many, Hofmannsthal is best known as a dramatist. Hermann Broch wrote about Hofmannsthal that "seine frühe Wendung zur Kunst und zur Dichtung entpuppt sich von Anfang an schier eindeutig als Wendung zum Theater." (Broch, 127) In fact, the drama is the genre to which he always returned throughout his life. His earliest drama, Gestern appeared in 1891, the same year as his first essay. Der Turm, on the other hand, was his last great work of tragedy, and premiered, in two versions simultaneously in Hamburg and Dresden, in 1928.
As with his essays, Hofmannsthal's dramas cover a wide range of materials. There is Der Tor und der Tod, perhaps his most important early drama, which deals with the fool Claudio, whose life is coming to an end, and who finds himself unprepared for death because he has not properly lived life.. There is also Jedermann, which is essentially a reworking of the medievel English morality play. In 1903 he wrote Elektra, which later became a highly successful opera with music by Richard Strauss. However, as a drama, Elektra was highly successful.
For Hofmannsthal, the theater and drama provided a strong metaphor for life, and in many of his dramatic works one notices that characters are often playing parts. The theater metaphor for life is reminiscent of Shakespeare, and indeed, Hofmannsthal read Shakespeare and used plays such as The Tempest as sources for some of his own works (such as several poems). There are two plays in particular which address this point that I would like to draw attention to in this section.
The first is Der Schwierige (1920), considered by some to be the "most perfect comedy of the century." It is the story of one Hans Karl Bühl, a middle-aged bachelor, whom his sister would like to see married. He has, however, evaded all her attempts at marrying him off. His nephew, Stani, has taken on his role as Antoinette's lover, but he instead is interested in Helene. Hans Karl is asked to put in a good word for Stani, but unintentionally expresses his own love for Helene, and flees - only to have her propose to him when he returns!. The comedy finds its humor in misunderstanding, itself caused by the roles people play.
Hans Karl despises the superficial nature of his society, and he avoids the limelight. The other characters are all players: Antoinette plays with men, many of the characters play games such as bridge. Bangerter argues, Hans Karl's problem (or at least the problem he causes for others) is that he refuses to play along, and that he sees through other peoples' illusions. He is a spoil-sport. There is an inherent criticism of society in Der Schwierige, but beyond that it is a very human drama. Hans Karl is, for example, one of Hofmannsthal's most human characters, a man who is both exceptionally "real" and tremendously complex - a true challenge for any actor. Der Schwierige is a subdued comedy, its humor coming from tragicomic irony.
As a contrast to Der Schwierige let us consider Lucidor, an never-written comedy for which there only exists a short sketch of the characters and plot. It is the story of Frau von Murska and her two daughters, Arabella and Lucile. From a young age, Lucile (the younger of the two) was dressed as a boy, and hence became known as Lucidor. In time, Frau von Murska came to believe that she had only one daughter - Arabella - and a song - Lucidor. Lucidor had short hair, rode a horse like a young man, and wore men's clothing The setting is turn of the century Vienna, and the family in question is a part of that nobility that had title, but little property. It was difficult enough to marry off one daughter, let alone two, and so it became convenient to think of Lucile as Lucidor. The plot begins when a young man, Wladimir, expresses interest in Arabelle, who - perhaps unfortunately - shows little interest in him. However, Frau von Murska sees him as the perfect match for her daughter; Wladimir does, after all, come from a wealthy family. In the course of events, Lucidor begins to write love letters to Wladimir, addressing them from Arabella. This only encourages Wladimir, who does not understand Arabells' double nature - by day she treats him with cold disdain, but her letters express love. Never does he suspect that the one truly in love with him is Lucidor, who can only observe, and not participate. Hofmannsthal leaves open the question of whether, after all questions of masked identity are solved, Lucile will actually marry Wladimir. The framework of this unwritten drama reminds one of both Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (or what you will) and Hofmannsthal's own Der Rosenkavalier.
It is clear that Hofmannsthal's drama's achieve several goals. First, they are works of literature. They are full of wonderfully composed verse and prose, and they often draw upon historical works for the theater. Secondly, they reflect the time at which they were written. Hofmannsthal often parodies aspects of his own society, as we see in such plays as Der Schwierige. Finally, they express a metaphor for life that was dear to Hofmannsthal. The question: what type of being is man? Hofmannsthal answered: an actor, a player of games, and a dreamer.
This site © copyright 2001, Steve Krause, all rights reserved.