Critical Overview

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Writing in 1966, Alfred Schwarz asserts that The Tower is ‘‘one of the masterpieces of contemporary drama.’’ Michael Hamburger refers to it as von Hofmannsthal’s ‘‘most personally committed play.’’ Von Hofmannsthal first began the effort of adapting a play from La vida es sueno (Life Is a Dream; 1635), by the great Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca, in 1902, but he did not produce the first completed version until 1925. According to Schwarz, von Hofmannsthal’s early acquaintance with Calderon’s play ‘‘arrested his attention,’’ and it’s central allegory ‘‘exercised a fascination on him which lasted for the rest of his life.’’ In reconceptualizing and revising his adaptation, von Hofmannsthal ‘‘radically reshaped the play in the course of many years during which he pondered the subject.’’

It was only the debacle of World War I that provided von Hofmannsthal with a meaningful context for his adaptation: ‘‘The experience of the first world war and its aftermath in central Europe, the vision of a world in dissolution, a tradition demolished, at last rendered the full possibilities of the subject conceivable.’’ Michael Hamburger concurs that The Tower ‘‘was his reckoning with the postwar world, a last attempt to embody the substance of his own life in a myth, and a kind of moral and spiritual testament.’’ T. S. Eliot comments that ‘‘Calderon’s play is for Hofmannsthal hardly more than a point of departure; two plays could hardly be more different in spirit and intention than those of the Spaniard and the Austrian.’’ Schwarz elaborates upon von Hofmannsthal’s central ideas in adapting Calderon’s play to express his own thematic concerns:

As the material of The Tower takes shape in his mind, Hofmannsthal sees it as the tragedy of a time-bound world gone astray, a world which needs deliverance in the person of a savior; for it is altogether deprived of the sound of God’s voice and suffers the torments of guilt. But the potential savior of a forsaken humanity is himself human. Drawn into a world which is torn by rebellion and suppression, he suffers the tragic fate of all humanity betrayed in the life-and-death struggle of contending powers. In the figure of Sigismund, Hofmannsthal represents first the allegory of the Fall, man’s tragic attempt to capture the world into which he is thrust, and the individual’s tragic subjection to time, conceived as history.

Von Hofmannsthal’s 1925 version of The Tower was published as a book, but not produced on the stage. At the suggestion of Max Reinhardt, von Hofmannsthal then revised it significantly for a 1927 stage production. Schwarz notes that, after extensive revision, ‘‘A more austere dramatic economy informs the revised version, and the action moves relentlessly to its stark conclusion.’’

Schwarz notes that ‘‘Since its publication, The Tower appears to have become the poetic chronicle of our time. It is that rare instance in our time of a tragedy which touches at so many points the human situation essentially and the politics of human action historically that it belongs with the best traditional examples of great theater.’’ Schwarz concludes that, in The Tower, ‘‘Hofmannsthal succeeded in recreating an ample and representative theater in which to mirror the tragedy of a century of totalitarian ways of life.’’ Describing The Tower as ‘‘diffi- cult,’’ T. S. Eliot observes that, ‘‘I doubt whether this play can be called a ‘success,’ but if not, it is at least a failure grander and more impressive than many successes.’’ Eliot goes on to comment that, ‘‘if The Tower is unplayable, we must attribute this not to failure of skill but to the fact that...

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what the author wished here to express exceeded the limits within which the man of the theater must work.’’ Hamburger observes that ‘‘The distinction ofThe Tower, both in absolute sense and in the context of Hofmannsthal’s work as a whole,’’ is that ‘‘It is the one completed work of Hofmannsthal that fully engaged all his disparate faculties and energies— the mystical and the worldly, the visionary and the analytical, the adventurous and the conservative— and coordinated his many-sided experience within a single imaginative structure.’’

Describing the evolution of von Hofmannsthal’s ‘‘tragic theater,’’ Schwarz explains: ‘‘Chronologically, there are first the lyric playlets of the last decade before the turn of the century; then, in the years preceding the first world war, a period of search and experimentation, a wrestling with larger dramatic structures, the attempt to discover a theater of significant action for the times; and after the major catastrophe of the war until his death in 1929, years of personal restlessness and significant achievement, the poet’s last works which revolve around the idea of universal world theater.’’

Schwarz notes: ‘‘Hofmannsthal’s career as a playwright is the record of his effort to revitalize the great tradition of European drama on the modern stage. He tried in several ways to reestablish the authority of a truly representative theatre.’’ Furthermore, ‘‘He viewed the theater in terms of its intermittent and ideal function in society. Therefore, ignoring the modern renascence of the drama since Hebbel and Ibsen, he turned deliberately to the past for his idea of a theater.’’ Schwarz adds, ‘‘In comparison with the starkly realistic social and psychological dramas of his day, Hofmannsthal’s work appears to have an old-fashioned, strongly literary flavor. He revived the figures of the ancient Greek drama and the Christian allegories, and brought them back on the modern stage. . . . Hofmannsthal re-dramatized ancient subjects and asserted his orthodox Christian reading of the human condition in traditional theatrical forms.’’

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Essays and Criticism