Historical Context

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Von Hofmannsthal was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1874. Vienna is the capital of Austria, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty, from the thirteenth into the twentieth centuries. The Hapsburg Empire included areas that are now parts of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. A revolution in 1848 lead to the emancipation of the serfs in Austria. Francis Joseph ruled the empire from 1848 to 1916, when Charles succeeded him. The Hapsburg Empire was formally dissolved in 1918, in the wake of World War I, when Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria each became independent nations.

Seventeenth-Century Poland
Poland in the seventeenth century was much different than it is today. Geographically, the Kingdom of Poland included what are now Lithuania, Belarus, and half of what is now the Ukraine. Also, half of contemporary Poland used to belong to Prussia. This century was a period of great upheaval for the Republic. Poland was trying to expand while defending its borders against other countries, mainly against Russia, which planned on inhabiting all lands of the Orthodox faith. Poland engaged in a war with Russia in 1610 and a war with Turkey in the years 1620–1621. In 1648, the Cossacks, joined by Ukrainian peasants, raised a mutiny against Polish rule. King John Casimir tried to negotiate with the mutinous parties but failed. The Cossacks accepted protection from Moscow, and in 1655, two Russian armies invaded the Republic. The Swedes invaded in 1655, taking Warsaw and Krakow. King John Casimir fled the Republic. The Swedes were eventually driven from Poland, and a peace treaty was signed between the two countries in 1660. The last years of the seventeenth century saw many wars also being fought on Polish territory. They left much of the country in devastation. The wars had left the Republic largely depopulated from over ten million citizens to merely six million. Plague, famine, and economic difficulties also increased during these years.

Despite all these difficulties, the seventeenth century was a great time for artists in Poland. Baroque was in its heyday, and many Baroque art pieces were crafted here. The royal residence at Wilanow and the magnate residences at Lancut, Wisnicz, and Zolkiew are all wonderful examples of the Baroque style. The Vasa’s court in Warsaw was the center of painting, opera, theater, and science. Poetry and literature also bloomed in these years. Unfortunately, the poor economy and the political and social chaos of this century hindered schooling and education, limiting people in reaching their full potential and expression.

Pedro Calderon de la Barca
Von Hofmannsthal’s play, The Tower, is a loose adaptation of the play Life Is a Dream (1635) by Pedro Calderon (1600–1681). Calderon de la Barca was one of the greatest playwrights of the ‘‘Golden Age’’ of seventeenth-century Spain. La hija del aire (1653; The Daughter of the Air) is considered by some to be his masterpiece. In 1651, he was ordained into the priesthood, thereafter writing mostly religious plays. Although he still wrote plays for the court of King Philip IV, he renounced his involvement in public theater. Calderon wrote his first opera in 1660. Calderon succeeded Lope de Vega as Spain’s leading playwright; Calderon, however, remained unchallenged as Spain’s leading playwright for two centuries after his death. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘‘Strained family relations apparently had a profound effect on the youthful Calderon, for several of his plays show a preoccupation with the psychological and moral effects of unnatural family life, presenting anarchical behavior directly traced to the abuse of paternal authority.’’ In regards to the play on which The Tower

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The Tower is based, ‘‘Philosophical problems of determinism and free will are vividly dramatized in [Life Is a Dream], in which the escape route from the confusion of life is shown to lie in an awareness of reality and self-knowledge.’’

Richard Strauss
Von Hofmannsthal is known for his operatic collaborations, for both the German and Austrian stage, with the great German romantic composer Richard Strauss (1864–1949). The two collaborated on a total of six operas, for which Strauss wrote the music and von Hofmannsthal the libretti (which is the text of the opera). Their collaborative works include: Elektra (1903), Der Rosenkavlier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912; Ariadne on Naxos), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919; The Woman Without a Shadow), and Die agyptische Helena (1928; The Egyptian Helen). The two were working on Arabella at the time of von Hofmannsthal’s death in 1929.

Literary Style

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The play, written in twentieth-century Austria, is set in seventeenth-century Poland. The historical setting of the play, as well as the historical and cultural context of its initial production, are signifi- cant in several ways. Von Hofmannsthal wrote The Tower in the aftermath of World War I, as a commentary on political and cultural changes in Europe that resulted from the Great War. Von Hofmannsthal set the play in a distant century and location to remove it from the immediate experiences of his audience. By setting his play in this context, von Hofmannsthal creates a distancing effect on the audience, allowing them to view the political struggles represented in the play from the perspective of an observer. Writers often use such distancing techniques to present strong social and political commentary on current or recent events in a manner that is easier for the reader to accept because it does not immediately strike so close to home.

Choral Music
The play calls for a choir that can be heard singing religious hymns in Latin in the background during several scenes. Act II scene i takes place in the cloisters where the king converses with Brother Ignatius regarding the fate of Sigismund. As soon as a young monk informs the king that Brother Ignatius will be there shortly, ‘‘a muffled sound of singing voices becomes audible.’’ The introduction of religious music at this point indicates the spiritual power of Brother Ignatius, as if the choir were announcing his imminent arrival and spiritual force. Once Brother Ignatius, the ‘‘Grand Almoner,’’ enters the room, the sounds of the choir are amplified, as ‘‘The singing becomes distinctly audible.’’ But, when the king asserts his royal power over the room, the singing of the choir stops, as if the king’s power were in opposition to the religious power of Ignatius.

Act III takes place in the death chamber of the queen. As the scene opens, ‘‘the sound of the organ and the singing voices of nuns become audible.’’ This chamber is presented as a very spiritual place, which none but two nuns have entered in twentyone years, and the sound of nuns singing confirms the holiness of this death chamber. The king enters with his confessor, sprinkles holy water, and both kneel to pray. Once the king rises from prayer, the music stops. This implies once again that, however much he goes through the motions of religious faith, the king’s will is at odds with that of the divine spirit. However, when Sigismund enters to face his father, ‘‘the organ sounds for a moment a little louder.’’ Thus, while the king’s presence seems to cause the religious music to stop, the presence of Sigismund, like that of Brother Ignatius, causes the religious music to increase in volume and force.

In addition to the Latin used in the choral singing at key points during the play, Latin is also occasionally used in the dialogue by certain characters. When the physician is first brought to see Sigismund, Anton assures him that ‘‘He [Sigismund] knows Latin and runs through a stout book as if it were a flitch o’bacon.’’ This statement immediately establishes the fact that, though Sigismund appears to be little more than an animal in his behavior, he has been taught to read the Bible in Latin and is therefore a staunchly religious person. The only other character in the play who speaks Latin is the physician. The physician is one of the few characters who remains faithful to Sigismund, convinced that he is a sort of religious martyr to the cause of the people. The physician’s association with Latin, and therefore with the Bible, confirms the righteousness of his religious conviction and his unfailing faith in Sigismund.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Calderon de la Barca, Pedro, ‘‘Life Is a Dream,’’ in Six Plays, Las Americas Publishing Co., 1961, pp. 13–96.

Eliot, T. S., ‘‘A Note on The Tower,’’ in Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Selected Plays and Libretti, edited by Michael Hamburger, Pantheon Books, 1963, pp. lxxiii–lxxiv.

Hamburger, Michael, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Selected Plays and Libretti, Pantheon Books, 1963, pp. ix–lxxii.

Hofmannsthal, Hugo von, ‘‘The Tower (1927),’’ in Three Plays, Wayne State University Press, 1966, pp. 141–241.

‘‘Hugo von Hofmannsthal,’’ in Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 1999.

Schwarz, Alfred, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Three Plays, Wayne State University Press, 1966, pp. 13–42.

Further Reading
Bangerter, Lowell A., Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Ungar, 1977. Bangerter’s book is a biography of von Hofmannsthal, which discusses his important works in drama and poetry. It includes a chronology of his life.

Bottenberg, Joanna, Shared Creation: Words and Music in the Hofmannsthal-Strauss Operas, P. Lang, 1996. This work is a discussion of the collaborative operatic works of Hofmannsthal and Strauss.

Del Caro, Adrian, Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Poets and the Language of Life, Louisiana State University Press, 1993. This book is a discussion of von Hofmannsthal’s poetic works.

Gray, Ronald, The German Tradition in Literature, 1871– 1945, Cambridge University Press, 1965. Gray’s text is a literary history of German letters that covers the time period of von Hofmannsthal’s life span.


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