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Holderlin: A Play in Two Acts [Hardcover]

Peter Weiss
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Dec 15 2010 SB-The German List

The work of German poet Frederich Hölderlin (1770–1843) has inspired countless poets and philosophers from Paul Celan to Rainer Maria Rilke to Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. Yet, despite the international renown and respect his hymns and elegies have since earned for their lyric style and innovative approach to Greek myth, his work was not widely celebrated during his lifetime. Diagnosed with a severe case of hypochondria at a young age, he was beset by mental illness for much of his life, living the final decades in the care of a carpenter.

      In Hölderlin, distinguished German playwright Peter Weiss brings to the page the life and times of one of Germany’s greatest poets. Like Trotsky in Exile, Hölderlin presents a biography in the form of a two-act drama. Following its opening in 1971 in Stuttgart, the play was staged numerous times in Germany and Switzerland, and as Robert Cohen explains in his introduction, it was “greeted by accolades as well as by intense criticism since Weiss had dared to revise the image of one of the great heroic figures of German Culture.” Weiss explains that he was motivated “to describe something of the conflict that arises in a person who suffers to the point of madness from the injustices, the humiliations in his society, who completely supports the revolutionary upheavals, and yet does not find the praxis with which the misery can be remedied.”

      The resulting dramatic biography is as captivating and divisive today as it was forty years ago, and it has yet to be matched by any other biographic treatment of Hölderlin. Presented here for the first time in English, Weiss’s play is a lyrical investigation of the intense and influential poems of Hölderlin and the turbulent life behind them.


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"One of the most significant works of postwar German literature.... Exhilaratingly strange, compelling, and original. Readers who dare to enter this demanding verbal landscape will not come away empty-handed." - Bookforum, on Weiss's The Aesthetics of Resistance"

About the Author

Peter Weiss (1916–82) was a German playwright, novelist, filmmaker, and painter. His works include the play Marat/Sade and The New Trial and the novels The Shadow of the Body of the Coachman and The Conversation of the Three Walkers. Jon Swan is the author of two collections of poems and a collection of one-act plays. Carl Weber is Professor Emeritus of Directing and Dramaturgy at Stanford University.


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4.0 out of 5 stars Hoelderlin Meets Karl Marx Feb. 2 2011
Format:Hardcover
This is a beautifully produced and designed book and surprisingly affordable even in Canada where books are routinely overpriced. The translators have done a fine job. The introduction by Robert Cohen is very helpful and will enable the reader to assess the nature and significance of the drama by Peter Weiss (1916-1982). An English translation of this item has been long in coming as the original German was published in 1971. The English reader has to thank a publisher in India and a publication grant from the Goethe-Institut India. North American readers are generally reluctant to subscribe to art in the service of a partisan political programme. However the translation of this drama may help introduce the great German poet Friedrich Hölderlin [1770-1843]to a new readership. No one should mistake this drama as a biography of Hölderlin and this is made clear by Robert Cohen in his introduction and admitted by Weiss himself in his afterword. However Weiss had Schiller's Maria Stuart as a predecessor in taking liberties with the biographical and historical facts. Just as Schiller's drama is a major work of drama so is this one by Weiss. However the writer of the dust jacket notes insists on calling it a biography and states that there has been no previous serious biography of Hölderlin. These misleading and inaccurate statements are the only blemish in a finely written and produced translation of a book by the playwright best known to English readers through his play Marat/Sade and its brilliant staging by Peter Brook in his 1967 film.
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Weiss' Holderlin Jan. 3 2011
By Robin Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.

Robin Friedman
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