Best-known for his plays, "Marat/Sade" and "The Investigation", the playwright and novelist Peter Weiss (1916 -- 1982), wrote a two-act play in 1971-1972 based upon the life of the German romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin (1770 -- 1843). The play was produced in both East and West Germany and in Switzerland and sparked a great deal of controversy regarding the accuracy of Weiss' understanding of Holderlin. Holderlin was a poet and playright who went insane in the last half of his life. He spent 35 years living in the home of a carpenter and admirer of his poetry in a small tower with a view of the Nekar River. Holderlin's life is the stuff of tragedy and romance.
When I learned of the play, I wanted to read it due to my interest in German idealistic philosophy and in Martin Heidegger, one of many readers who have been deeply influenced by the poet. The play has been translated from the German by Jon Swan in collaboration with Carl Weber and published in 2010. As far as I am aware, this is the first English translation of Weiss' play. The volume includes as well a good introductory essay to the play by Robert Cohen, adjunct Professor of German at New York University and the author of several studies of Weiss, and Weiss' own Afterword to the play in which he offers comments on each of the characters and how they are to be performed.
I am not sure how "Holderlin" would fare on the stage, but the play is thoughtful, disturbing and provocative to read. The translation is into intense English poetry, sometimes rhymed, which itself captures something of Holderlin's restless spirit. The incidents on the play are factually based on Holderlin's life. In addition to the poet, the primary characters include the philosophers Hegel and Schelling, who were close to the poet and to each other during their student years at the seminary. The characters also include the poets Goethe and Schiller who also knew Holderlin and the philosopher Fichte, with whom Holderlin studied for a time. Other characters important to Holderlin presented in the play include Susette Gotard, whose family had hired Holderlin as a tutor and with whom he carried on what appears to be an affair, Professor Ferdinand Autenriech, a psychiatrist and the inventor of a restraining device for mental patients, who deemed Holderlin insane, and Friedrich Sinclair, another school friend who was tried for treason and who found Holderlin a position as a court librarian during the years of his insanity. Karl Marx makes an appearance late in the play, but this is an invention of the author. The historical characters, particularly Hegel and Goethe, are well portrayed in a short space and make an effective foil to the portrayal of Holderlin.
The play is full of scenes of violence and repressed sexuality. Many moments have a dream-like or hallucinatory quality especially during the years that Holderlin is confined to the tower. The climax of Weiss' drama is a play-within-a-play as Holderlin and a mysterious chorus offer his old school friends, including Hegel, Schelling, Sinclair, and others, a rendition and explanation of Holderlin's difficult drama, "Empedocles".
The play is presented against the background of the French Revolution, which is the source of the controversy that it has engendered. Many interpretations of Holderlin view him as a prototypical German nationalist, or as a solitary, or as a theological poet who attempts to bring new gods to life in a world in which the old gods have lost their meaning. Heidegger's hermeneutics, idiosyncratic as they may be, set out this approach. Weiss, following his own interpretation and some then-recent scholarly writing on the poet, sees Holderlin differently. Weiss sees Holderlin throughout his life as deeply enamored with the French Revolution and its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. More, Weiss offers an almost Marxist reading of Holderlin. His character wants to rouse the common people from their centuries of stupor and exploitation so that they can free themselves and live nobly. Simple workers make frequent appearances in Weiss' play together with a proletarian character called "the Singer" who comments upon and presents the action. Holderlin's long imprisonment in the tower is political in character, Weiss suggests. And Holderlin's poetry was designed towards the liberation of all, rather than for the musings of elites.
As Robert Cohen points out in his introduction, it is difficult in this play to determine where the thought of Holderlin ends and the thought of Weiss begins. Weiss' play would not be a source to rely on with confidence for an understanding of Holderlin's poetics or thinking. But for all the provocations of interpretation, Weiss' play works as a drama. It is thoughtful and erie. It shows a good deal about the man and the era in which he lived. I struggled with the play and with its ideas. It made me want to explore Holderlin for myself.