Friedrich Hebbel 1813-1863
(Full name Christian Friedrich Hebbel) German playwright and poet.
The following entry presents criticism on Hebbel's life and works from 1927 through 1987.
Hebbel is considered an important transitional figure in European drama. Scholars maintain that his works reflect both the Romantic idealism of Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller and the psychological realism of Carl Hauptmann and Henrik Ibsen. Hebbel viewed the dramatic process as a conflict between the individual searching for identity and meaning and the seemingly intransigent world-historical Idea propounded by philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who believed that an omnipresent, unstoppable moral force determines the course of history.
Hebbel was born in the small town of Wesselburen in the Holstein district of what is now Germany. His father was an impoverished mason who died when Hebbel was fourteen, leaving him and his brother to be raised by their mother, who was employed as a domestic. In order to continue his education, Hebbel worked as an errand boy and clerk for the local magistrate, studying during his free time. In 1932 he sent some poetry and short stories to the popular novelist Amalie Schoppe, who published several of the pieces in two Hamburg periodicals she edited. Schoppe invited Hebbel to Hamburg to prepare for admission to the university; however, he failed to pass the necessary entrance examinations. He left Hamburg in 1836 to attend jurisprudence lectures at the University of Heidelberg, and eventually traveled to Munich where he worked as a reporter. Unable to support himself, however, Hebbel returned to Hamburg early in 1839, accepting a position as a correspondent for the Telegraph für Deutschland. Later that year he began writing his first drama, Judith: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten (Judith: A Tragedy in Five Acts) which was completed in January 1840 and first produced in 1841. A stipend from the king of Denmark allowed Hebbel to complete his second drama, Genoveva: Tragödie in fünf Acten (1843). In 1863 Hebbel won the first Schiller Prize in German literature for his trilogy, Die Nibelungen: Ein deutsches Trauerspiel in drei Abtheilungen (1862; The Nibelungs: A Tragedy in Three Acts). He died after contracting pneumonia that same year.
Nearly all of Hebbel's plays are tragedies, the notable exceptions being the comedies Der Diamant: Eine Komödie in fünf Acten (1847) and Der Rubin: Ein Märchen-Lustspiel in drei Acten (1851), which critics have described as black comedies. His best-known works are distinguished by the presence of a remarkable individual who struggles against the world-historical Idea. To heighten the drama of this struggle and highlight the problems that have historically fostered such encounters, Hebbel set his plays during turning points of world history. For example, Judith relates the attempted extermination of Jews by the Assyrians; Herodes und Mariamne: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten (1850; Herod and Mariamne), events immediately preceding the birth of Jesus; Agnes Bernauer: Ein deutsches Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen (1852; Agnes Bernauer: A German Tragedy in Five Acts), the beginnings of the breakdown of fifteenth-century feudalism; and The Nibelungs, the twilight of German paganism. In another drama, Maria Magdalen: Ein bürgerliches Trauerspiel in drei Acten, nebst einem Vorwort (1844; Maria Magdalena), Hebbel emphasizes more personal aspects of tragedy, using non-historical characters to depict the universality of an individual's plight. Critics have also noted the important role that women play in Hebbel's work. With the exception of his autobiographical drama Michel Angelo: Ein Drama in zwei Akten (1851) and his unfinished Demetrius: Eine Tragödie (1864), women are central to the dramatic conflict in each of his tragedies.
Although reception of his work was initially lukewarm, Hebbel eventually became recognized as a leading dramatist in his time. His plays were staged throughout Europe, and he was invited to conduct performances at the courts of both Weimar and Munich. Critical interest in Hebbel dissipated shortly after his death; however, a state-sponsored Hebbel resurgence was initiated during the German National Socialist movement. While such attention restored the dramatist to the forefront of German literature, the misguided “Nazification” of Hebbel's work stigmatized him in the post-war world. However, new interpretations of his dramas have emerged and newer productions have been staged. Judith, Maria Magdalena, and Gyges und sein Ring: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten (1856; Gyges and His Ring) have remained fixtures in the repertoire of many German theatres.
Judith: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten [Judith: A Tragedy in Five Acts] 1841
Genoveva: Tragödie in fünf Acten 1843
Maria Magdalen: Ein bürgerliches Trauerspiel in drei Acten, nebst einem Vorwort [Maria Magdalena] (essay and drama) 1844
Der Diamant: Eine Komödie in fünf Acten 1847
Ein Trauerspiel in Sizilien: Tragicomödie in einem Act, nebst einem Sendschreiben an H. T. Rötscher (drama and letter) 1847
Herodes und Mariamne: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten [Herod and Mariamne] 1850
Der Rubin: Ein Märchen-Lustspiel in drei Acten 1851
Michel Angelo: Ein Drama in zwei Akten 1851
Agnes Bernauer: Ein deutsches Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen [Agnes Bernauer: A German Tragedy in Five Acts] 1852
Gyges und sein Ring: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten [Gyges and His Ring] 1856
Die Nibelungen: Ein deutsches Trauerspiel in drei Abtheilungen [The Nibelungs: A Tragedy in Three Acts] 2 vols. 1862
Demetrius: Eine Tragödie (unfinished drama) 1864
Gedichte (poetry) 1842
Neue Gedichte (poetry) 1848
Erzählungen und Novellen (novellas) 1855
Mutter und Kind: Ein...
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Criticism: General Commentary
SOURCE: Purdie, Edna. “Dramatic Technique” and “Conception of Tragedy.” In Friedrich Hebbel: A Study of His Life and Work, pp. 235-69. London: Oxford University Press, 1932.
[In the following essay, Purdie discusses Hebbel's dramatic theory and technique.]
Any detailed analysis of Hebbel's plays must in great measure demonstrate the poet's sense of dramatic effect and his mastery of dramatic means. Moreover, it is impossible to draw a rigid line of demarcation between dramatic technique and the substance of a drama, since the very substance is to some extent the outcome of the form. But Hebbel's actual methods are worthy of some general consideration. They illuminate his individual aims, and in certain ways their influence may be traced in subsequent dramatic history.
Dramatic technique must comprehend all the means used by the dramatic artist to attain his ends—the sum of the practical methods by which he expresses his meaning in dramatic form. With Hebbel, who was before all else a tragic dramatist, the chief end to be attained is a revelation of the underlying necessity for tragic development. Thus his methods of showing the interaction of character and circumstance must be stressed in any study of his technical achievement as a dramatist; the revelation of character is the key to his whole dramatic technique, from the structure...
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SOURCE: Isaacs, Edith J. R. “Concerning the Author of Herod and Mariamne.” Theatre Arts Monthly (December 1938): 886-90.
[In the following essay, Isaacs considers the appeal of Hebbel's drama.]
Twenty-five years ago every important theatre in Germany included some of Friedrich Hebbel's tragedies in its repertory, with Herod and Mariamne a prime favorite wherever there was an actress beautiful, majestic and magnetic enough to master the leading part. There were fine roles for actors in Hebbel's plays, but as material for the art of the actress such characters as Mariamne, Agnes Bernauer, Judith, and the noble Rhodope in Gyges and His Ring were unsurpassed. The plays themselves, whether in prose or verse, were mighty works.
Hebbel enjoyed conspicuous success during his lifetime; then for more than a generation his plays were neglected. There seemed to be little reason for the change and as little for Hebbel's sudden return to popularity early this century. Yet today again the tides have turned, and as Katharine Cornell brings back the drama of which Hebbel wrote, ‘I shall write a play that will be played everywhere,’ the author is hardly more than a name.
A closer study brings some logic into these shifts of fortune. During his lifetime Hebbel's plays were enjoyed for their powerful situations and melodramatic action, and he himself was admired as a...
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SOURCE: Graham, Paul G. “The Principle of Necessity in Hebbel's Theory of Tragedy.” Germanic Review 15, no. 4 (December 1940): 258-62.
[In the following essay, Graham regards the principle of necessity as an integral aspect of Hebbel's dramatic theory.]
In Hebel's theory of tragedy no single aspect is of greater fundamental significance than the principle of necessity. Hebbel scholars such as Scheunert, Walzel, Schnyder, Frenkel, Seidmann, Purdie, and Rees refer to the importance of the principle of necessity without giving a clear and satisfying account of it. Hebbel employs the terms “notwending” and “Notwendigkeit” for at least three kinds of necessity. First: necessity in the popular sense of compulsion as applied to those acts, conditions and relations of everyday life which are unavoidable. Second, and of greater importance than the first, although also not of immediate concern here, is the application of the term to logical motivation, as illustrated by his statement that dramatic action and the interrelations of characters and situations must arise with necessity from the nature of the characters and circumstances. Likewise, he describes Herodes und Mariamne as a tragedy of unqualified necessity, believing that he had, after exerting great effort, succeeded in the flawless motivation of Joseph's disclosure to Mariamne of the secret order to kill her. Third: necessity as...
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SOURCE: Purdie, Edna. “Hebbel: Some Aspects of Research and Criticism in the Decade, 1953-1963.” Euphorion (1966): 110-24.
[In the following essay, Purdie surveys the major trends in the critical analysis of Hebbel's work from 1953-1963.]
In any survey, however incomplete, of scholarly work concerning Hebbel during the decade preceding the centenary of 1963, at least two trends can be discerned. On the one hand, a new impulse to investigation of his relations with predecessors and contemporaries, greatly stimulated by Wolfgang Liepe's researches into further sources of Hebbel's thought and imagery, and powerfully supported by publications sponsored by the Hebbel-Gesellschaft and the University of Kiel; on the other, a healthy revival of activity in the critical editing of Hebbel's writings, whether in collected form or as individual works. These trends, as will at once be seen, are not mutually exclusive; Liepe has suggested enlargement of the corpus of Hebbel's work, and many editors have made notable contributions to its evaluation. If in the attempt to give some account of what has been achieved I turn first to the very substantial evidence of the editorial approach, this is because I believe that Hebbel as an artist has suffered in the past from the emphasis laid by his critics on abstract notions, and therefore fresh consideration of what he actually wrote is the more welcome. There is no lack...
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SOURCE: Salter, Von Günter E. “Friedrich Hebbel's Conception of God.” Hebbel-Jahrbuch 1969 (1969): 122-43.
[In the following essay, Salter elucidates Hebbel's conception of God as evinced in his work.]
The main difficulty in developing an understanding of Friedrich Hebbel's conception of God is not a lack of pertinent remarks by the poet, but it rather lies in the apparent inconsistency and contradiction of the many aphorisms and thoughts relative to the subject matter which abound in his diary and letters. A rather cursory examination of these writings would tend to lend credence to the verdict of some critics who in searching for a philosophical system expounded in the diary find the aphorisms to be without coherence, indicative of a thought process whose momentary effusions coexist in desultory isolation. Peter Michelsen who embraces this for the poet somewhat less than flattering view attempts to substantiate his judgement with the following anecdote in which he simultaneously takes issue with the naive interpretation of the incident by its narrator, Erich Kulke. In his “Erinnerungen an Friedrich Hebbel” Kulke reports on what seemed to him the poet's loss of memory:
Thus he wanted to cite to me once a passage from his poem ‘Auf dem Meer’ and quoted: ‘There is no universal dying’ (es gibt kein allgemeines Sterben), while the passage in...
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SOURCE: Löb, Ladislaus. “Hebbel.” In From Lessing to Hauptmann: Studies in German Drama, pp. 239-87. London: University Tutorial Press, 1974.
[In the following essay, Löb provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Hebbel's dramatic theory and his major dramatic works.]
LIFE AND SIGNIFICANCE
Among Germany's outstanding dramatists Hebbel is one of the most debatable claimants to greatness. At their worst his plays abound in hysterical atmospheres, extravagant characters, hair-splitting arguments and contrived situations. At their best they rise to powerful tragic conflicts reflecting the perplexities of an unusual individual living at a time of social and intellectual upheaval. Even more than Büchner, Hebbel is caught between a new Realistic outlook and a longing for the lost idealistic age. He is a Realist in his presentation of the deterministic interaction of psychological and environmental forces within a framework of historical change, and in his frequent use of colloquial language. He is a would-be idealist in his dramatisation of metaphysical concepts through plots which proceed in a near-Classical manner from exposition through climax to catastrophe, involving momentous events and larger-than-life protagonists given to grand rhetoric often in blank verse. Aspiring to transcendental absolutes he is troubled by the relativity of human experience, and it has been...
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SOURCE: Tunstall, George C. “Hebbel and Georg Kaiser: Reflections of Judith in Die Bürger von Calais.” Colloquia Germanica 14, no. 2 (1981): 130-41.
[In the following essay, Tunstall determines Hebbel's influence on the playwright Georg Kaiser.]
Der Weg zu meiner That geht durch die Sünde! …
Ist nicht meine That so viel werth, als sie mich kostet?
Although the critical literature on the Expressionist playwright Georg Kaiser contains occasional mention of the possibility that he was influenced by Friedrich Hebbel, very little cogent or concrete evidence has been offered to substantiate such a claim.2 Wilhelm Steffens was the most recent critic to stress Hebbel's significance for Kaiser, but his statements are based almost exclusively on Wolfgang Paulsen's comments in his monograph on the dramatist from 1960.3 There Paulsen had maintained: “Kaisers eigenthche dramatische Ansätze aber liegen doch, nach Überwindung der ersten Anregungen aus der Welt Hofmannsthals und Georges, … in der Nähe Hebbels und nicht Schillers, wie überhaupt wohl die Auseinandersetzung mit Hebbel für die junge Dramatiker-Generation, die durch den Expressionismus hindurchzugehen hatte, fruchtbarer gewesen ist, als unsere...
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SOURCE: Wells, G. A. “Ethical Absolutism, Hebbel and Judith.” New German Studies 12, no. 2 (summer 1984): 95-106.
[In the following essay, Wells discusses ethical issues in Judith.]
What is meant by saying that moral rules are either absolute or relative? An illustration will help. Suppose that a man has sought refuge in my house knowing that the police are seeking to arrest him on a capital charge. Suppose further that I know he is innocent, yet that circumstantial evidence is likely to lead to his conviction and execution if he is arrested. If a policeman then calls, and asks me whether I know where the man is, my reply may depend on the relative weighting I give to three obvious moral rules, the first two of which conflict with the third:
1) That maximum cooperation must be given to the authorities who enforce the law.
2) That the truth must be told.
3) That a fellow human being in danger must be assisted.
When one or other of these rules is said to be absolute, what is meant is that it must always, in these or any other circumstances, be given priority over others which conflict with it. On the other hand, when all ethical rules are said to be relative, the meaning is that there is no moral rule which can invariably be given this priority.
Insistence on absolute standards is often defended by appeal...
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Criticism: Maria Magdalen (Maria Magdalena)
SOURCE: Högel, Rolf K. “‘Ort: Eine Mittlere Stadt’: The Setting of Hebbel's Maria Magdalene.” MLN 87, no. 5 (October 1972): 763-68.
[In the following essay, Högel discusses the ambiguity of the setting of Maria Magdalena.]
Below the list of the dramatis personae of his Maria Magdalene (1844) Hebbel briefly states the setting of this bourgeois tragedy: “eine mittlere Stadt.” The geographical location of this town is not indicated.
In relating these facts to the text of the drama itself two questions may occur to the attentive reader and spectator as well as to the stage director engaged in performing this play: (1) Does Meister Anton's family really live in a town fitting into the category of what could be termed a German “mittlere Stadt’ at the time Hebbel was working on Maria Magdalene? (2) In what geographical area of Germany is Meister Anton's home town to be localized?
Pertinent contributions of literary criticism reflect diverse views held on either question. E. Kuh, for example, takes a “small North German town” to be the setting of Maria Magdalene,1 and he believes that Hebbel incorporated into his drama the spirit of the people living between the Eider river and the North Sea.2 F. Mehring, on the other hand, seems to consider as the scene of action the München of Hebbel's youth which he...
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SOURCE: McInnes, Edward. “Maria Magdalena and the Bürgerliches Trauerspiel.” Orbis Litterarum 28 (1973): 46-67.
[In the following essay, McInnes examines the place of Maria Magdalena within the development of German drama.]
Despite the sustained critical attention which Hebbel's Maria Magdalena has received over the years, its place in the development of German drama remains strangely ill-defined. Literary histories have certainly not been slow to claim that the play marks a turning-point in the growth of domestic tragedy, and several attempts have been made to define its specific historical position.1 Yet such assessments have seldom ventured beyond the confines of received assumption. Perhaps here alone in the whole field of Hebbel criticism are the claims of the dramatist himself still allowed an unavowed authority over basic critical presuppositions. Even to this day the understanding of the historical significance of this work, of its relation to earlier conceptions of the bürgerliches Trauerspiel, and of its possible links with later developments in drama, is still generally governed by Hebbel's own explicit theoretical statements. We can go no further till we qualify the dramatist's estimate of the comprehensive originality of Maria Magdalena, of its essential independence of earlier preoccupations in the field of social drama. Our first task must be to...
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Criticism: Herodes Und Mariamne (Herod And Mariamne)
SOURCE: Abraham, Claude. “Tristan and Hebbel: Mariane and Mariamne.” South Atlantic Bulletin 33, no. 3 (May 1968): 1-4.
[In the following essay, Abraham finds parallels between Hebbel's Herod and Mariamne and Tristan L'Hermite's La Mariane.]
The story of Herod and Mariamne has been dramatized again and again. Marcus Landau counted some thirty versions,1 and Maurice Valency added, “without any difficulty, thirteen others.”2 Yet, only two versions—one by a Frenchman of the Baroque period, the other by a German realist—have survived. While these plays seem to have little but the topic in common, it is our purpose here to show that underneath the obvious differences lurk basic similarities, and that it is undoubtedly because of these similarities that the works of Tristan L'Hermite and of Hebbel have survived.
Tristan's La Mariane was first performed early in 1636 and published in 1637. Its immediate success rivaled that of Corneille's Le Cid. It appeared in ten different editions during the author's lifetime and in no less than twenty-three before the end of the following century. Neglected during the nineteenth century, it is currently enjoying a modest cult not only among scholars but also in print and on the stage. In 1660, Corneille, who was always jealous of his rivals, praised Tristan's “grand effort d'esprit,” and modern...
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Criticism: Michel Angelo
SOURCE: Harris, Brian. “The Michelangelo Dramas of Friedrich Hebbel and Hugo Ball: From Historicism toward Expressionism.” In From the Bard to Broadway: The University of Florida Department of Classics Comparative Drama Conference Papers, Vol. VII, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan, pp. 96-106. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987.
[In the following essay, Harris asserts that Ball wrote his tragicomic Michelangelo's Nose in “direct critical response” to Hebbel's Michel Angelo and “to the nineteenth-century traditions from which it emerges.”]
Hugo Ball (1886-1927) had left student life at the university in Munich in 1910 to pursue a career in the theatre. Back in Munich in 1912, after a year at the Reinhardt theatre school in Berlin, then a year as stage manager and sometime director with the municipal theatre in Plauen, Ball was drawn into orbit around Vassily Kandinsky and other members of the Blaue Reiter group. But Ball's emergence after late 1913 as an Expressionist in Munich theatrical circles was cut short by the outbreak of World War I. Instead, his artistic and theatrical career reached its climax in 1916 in his Dada magic bishop sound poems and in his emergence as a cofounder and the theoretician of Zurich Dada (1916-17). For, following his brief immersion into the “lavish ambiguities” of the “creative anarchy” and “destructive nihilism” of Dada, Ball...
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Criticism: Agnes Bernauer
SOURCE: Hewett-Thayer, Harvey W. “Ludwig Tieck and Hebbel's Tragedy of Beauty.” Germanic Review 2I (1927): 16-25.
[In the following essay, Hewett-Thayer investigates the origins of Hebbel's play Agnes Bernauer, contending that it can be traced back to Ludwig Tieck's novel Vittoria Accorombona.]
The genesis of Hebbel's Agnes Bernauer and his treatment of its underlying themes have been the subject of considerable discussion. Hebbel began his Agnes in late September 1851 and finished it in the last days of December. In her essay on “The Sources of Hebbel's Agnes Bernauer,”1 Agnes Löwenstein suggests that Hebbel may have become acquainted with the Agnes Bernauer story during his residence in Munich (September 1836-March 1839), a conjecture based on the historical relationship of the subject to that locality. After his own play was finished, Hebbel stated that he was already acquainted with Törring's Agnes Bernauer (1780) and thought well of it.2 It is not apparent when he read this early play on the story of the Augsburg heroine. Karl Schultze-Jahde remarks,3 without giving evidence however, “vermutlich erst 1851.” Törring's play was a fairly conspicuous example of the Ritterdrama, in the following of Goethe's Götz, and it is possible that Hebbel had long been acquainted with it.
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Criticism: Gyges Und Sein Ring (Gyges And His Ring)
SOURCE: Hodge, James L. “Rhodope: By Any Other Name.” MLN 79, no. 4 (October 1964): 435-39.
[In the following essay, Hodge provides an interpretation of Gyges and His Ring based on the name of the protagonist of the drama, Rhodope.]
The question, “What's in a name?” may offer a new insight into the heroine of Friedrich Hebbel's drama, Gyges und sein Ring. Numerous interpretations of Rhodope—psychological, symbolic and other—have been advanced. Rhodope has been analyzed individually and as an integral part of the drama. She has been said to express the central message of the drama: the modesty of woman. She has been described as passionless and indestructibly virginal. She has been seen as representing the past and tradition, and she has also been seen as timeless, representing neither past, present nor future. Her death has been explained psychologically as a reaction to the dehumanizing execution of Kandaules, and symbolically as a religious and “heavenly” act.
It may be said that Rhodope is, and means, all these things. Textual citations from various parts of the play seem to prove a variety of interpretations. Hebbel himself may have realized, as he wrote the play, that Rhodope was growing into an extremely complex, symbolic figure. However, there is reason to believe that he did not originally consider the queen to be so multi-sided a personality. In...
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Criticism: Die Nibelungen (The Nibelungs)
SOURCE: Boswell, Von Patricia. “The Hunt as a Literary Image in Hebbel's Die Nibelungen.” Hebbel-Jahrbuch 1977 (1977): 163-94.
[In the following essay, Boswell finds Hebbel's linguistic abilities unsuitable for adapting the medieval epic The Nibelungs, focusing on the hunting scene as evidence of her theory.]
So viel ist gewiß, ich habe nie so viel Arbeit auf ein Werk verwendet, wie auf dieß: ich kann noch nicht fertig werden … ich bin ängstlich, wie je in meinem Leben, und prüfe jeden Vers genauer, wie der Geldwechsler einen Ducaten.1
These words, written by Hebbel to his publisher as he was engaged in correcting the proofs of Die Nibelungen, bear witness to the particular care and attention to detail he expended on the trilogy. Always a very conscious artist in all aspects of his work, it is the language of his plays especially which has drawn much critical interest, and the infinite complexity of their verbal composition is becoming increasingly clear through the smaller and major studies—some of them very recent—which have opened up new insights into the derivation and manipulation of his linguistic material2. There has been found plenty to criticize in Hebbel's poetic language, but also much to stimulate and fascinate; its individual quality despite certain derivative elements has not been in...
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