At least a limited overview of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s dramatic uvre can be obtained from a detailed analysis of three plays. Two of these plays, although chronologically quite far apart, demonstrate the author’s continuous concern with the question of human existence. They are Death and the Fool and The Tower. The third play, The Difficult Man, is a prime example of Hofmannsthal’s genius for comedy.
Death and the Fool
Hofmannsthal called Death and the Fool “a small one-act, very sad play.” The playlet is a work of great beauty, consisting of some six hundred verses in iambic pentameter, abounding in alliteration and in subtle allusions to works of art and to mythology. Death and the Fool is also one of the most important examples of Hofmannsthal’s concern with the concept of preexistence. He viewed human existence on three planes. The first plane is that of preexistence, a state of visionary knowledge and insight into events and actions without their actual occurrence. A person who is in this “glorious, but dangerous state” is granted insight or foresight, but at the same time he or she is deprived of real experiences and is separated from the rest of humanity.
Such is the case with Claudio, the protagonist of Death and the Fool, whose very name suggests that he is shut off from others. During the opening monologue, Claudio is sitting by the window of his ornate study contemplating a vista of the world. The world he sees is populated by active, living people who experience sorrows, joys, fears, ecstasies—in short, the whole range of human emotions. Claudio, on the other hand, has always understood, analyzed, and categorized these emotions; he has even pretended to feel them, but in fact he never has. Works of art (such as the painting of Mona Lisa hanging in his study) have provided surrogate experiences, but he has never had any real ones.
Claudio’s musing is interrupted by a haunting violin solo played by Death. This is not, however, the traditional figure of death found in the medieval dances of death; in Hofmannsthal’s play, Death introduces himself as a relative of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, and of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Nevertheless, the ominous purpose of Death’s visit is clear to Claudio, who protests, ever more passionately, that he has not yet lived, that he has never been really involved with or committed to another human being, that he has not even known the difference between good and evil. As he protests that he is now ready to live, to have experiences, to be faithful to other humans, Death summons the three people who have loved Claudio most during his earthly existence, those who have suffered the most from his lack of feeling: his mother, his sweetheart, and his friend. The increasing intensity of their reproaches, ranging from his mother’s gentleness to his friend’s bitter accusations, produces a strong dramatic tension that culminates in Claudio’s final passionate outburst in which he curses his gift for preexistential insights and vicarious experiences. The play ends with a Dionysian affirmation of life by Claudio, who feels that his entire life has been compressed into the hour of his death.
Claudio’s statement echoes several similar ones in Hofmannsthal’s other writings, particularly in Ad me ipsum. Having realized the dangers of preexistence, Hofmannsthal strove to attain “existence”: He turned toward the active life. In his private sphere, this meant marriage and fatherhood, and in his art it meant writing plays that were more accessible to a large audiences than were his poems and verse plays.
The Difficult Man
The Difficult Man is Hofmannsthal’s only play that takes place in contemporary Vienna. The principal characters are members of the Austrian aristocracy who have survived World War I. The protagonist (the “difficult man” of the title) is Count Hans Karl Bühl, aged thirty-nine, whose essence almost defies description: In some ways, he is simple, like a child, and yet he is highly complex. He is truthful and highly sensitive to the confusions that arise every time he opens his mouth. Because of his profound distrust of language, he prefers to remain silent, but the entire plot of the comedy depends on his having to speak, to convey important messages to other characters.
During the afternoon before a big party in the house of Count Altenwyl, Hans Karl has a series of conversations in his own house. He has declined an invitation to the party but is persuaded by his older sister, Crescence, to attend after all, in order to ask for the hand of Helen Altenwyl on behalf of his nephew Stani (Crescence’s son). From the conversation between Hans Karl and Crescence, the audience learns that Helen has been in love with Hans Karl and probably still is, but he denies that he is in any way attached to her. Hans Karl’s decision to attend the party is also motivated by his wish to speak to Antoinette Hechingen, with whom he had had a brief affair two years earlier. During the war, he had become a friend of Count Hechingen, and he now wishes to reconcile Antoinette to her husband. During the party (act 2), Hans Karl has two important conversations, one with Antoinette and one with Helen. At the conclusion of the party (act 3), there occurs the crucial conversation between Helen and Hans Karl that culminates in their engagement.
Throughout the play, Hans Karl is the pivotal figure around whom everything revolves and with whom most of the play’s other characters interact. Both the comedy and the serious implications of the play arise from the fact that none of the many other characters, except Helen (and Hans Karl’s faithful servant, Lukas), understands Hans Karl’s “difficult” personality, and they invariably draw the wrong conclusions from his words and actions. The dramatic structure of the play is not complex: Serious scenes are invariably followed by comical ones, until the final ritualistic embrace provides comedy’s traditional affirmation of life through marriage and the promise of procreation.
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