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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


Peter Weiss

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To purchase Hölderlin

Title: Hölderlin
Author: Peter Weiss
Genre: Drama
Written: 1971, rev. 1972 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 219 pages
Original in: German
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  • German title: Hölderlin
  • Translated by Jon Swan, in collaboration with Carl Weber
  • With an Introduction by Robert Cohen
  • First produced at the Württembergisches Staatstheater, Stuttgart, on 18 September 1971, directed by Peter Palitzsch

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an interesting take, and a fine drama

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Der Spiegel . 13/9/1971 .
Die Zeit . 24/9/1971 Hellmuth Karasek

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sie zeigen eine Montage aus politischer Diskussion. Theater auf dem Theater, Volksszenen und Familienidylle. In Knittelversen, in rhythmisierter Rede und im Balladenton präsentiert Weiss wieder jene beim Marat, dem Welttheater im Irrenhaus, so erfolgreiche Vielfalt theatralischer und sprachlicher Formen -- und wie im Marat ist der Titelheld ein gescheiterter Revolutionär." - Der Spiegel

  • "Sieht man nicht auf die Ähnlichkeit der Weissschen Figur zum historischen Vorbild (auch Egmont, Don Carlos, Richard II. sind ja,in dem Sinn nicht „ähnlich“), dann entpuppt sich das Weiss-Drame als das Stück von einem, der nicht mitspielt, weil er es besser weiß und weil er den Idealen seiner Jugend treu bleibt." - Hellmuth Karasek, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Peter Weiss' play, Hölderlin, is closely based on the German poet's life, cleverly also tying in questions of art and politics (and philosophy). It begins, as Robert Cohen notes in his Introduction, where Marat/Sade left off, on 14 July 1793, the day after Marat's murder, and Hölderlin can certainly be seen as a continuation of Weiss' exploration of the revolutionary themes and subjects (and, yes, eventually the action moves to an asylum again).
       Friedrich Hölderlin was a great poet, though under-appreciated in his own time -- his verse, and thought, far ahead of it. He was friends with, among others, G.W.F.Hegel and Friedrich Schelling when they were all students, but he never managed to establish himself as they all did. As Hölderlin announces right at the start of the play:

For years he heard his words called mad by men
because their truth was beyond their ken.
       Most of the play is set in the 1790s, with Hölderlin trying to find some hold in the post-(French-)Revolutionary world whose ripple-effects are still being felt in Germany, leading to continuing debate about government, politics, and philosophy (as well as the occasional anti-authoritarian demonstrations typical of students in every age). The revolutionary is stuck in a world not ready for the vision of his thought or words: Weiss' Afterword offers a gloss on all the characters, and of Hölderlin he writes: "he represents a type of individual who has been cast out and driven into a corner by his epoch".
       Hölderlin tries to earn his keep as a live-in tutor ("unable as a poet to keep alive/he's forced to play the tutor to survive"), but has limited success: his experiences in the repressive households -- most obviously manifesting themselves in his young ward Fritz von Kalb's relentless masturbatory excesses (no matter what they try, Hölderlin reports: "still I find him in convulsions/at his vice") -- slowly crushing his rather delicate soul and his ambitions. As Hegel diagnoses:
no other
is so vulnerable
to crushing pressures
A single word
uttered at random
or in passing
wounds him to the heart
The world
will utterly
destroy him
       The self-abusive Fritz certainly doesn't get much out of the lessons or the example Hölderlin might set, complaining:
Your blather makes me fart
I shit on all your art
Give me a woman's slit
I would rather stare at it
than hear you rant and watch you drool
Beat me now you stupid fool
       (Fritz actually goes in for all forms of self-abuse: when Hölderlin won't slap him around at the end of this little speech he simply does it himself.)
       Hölderlin withstands the forces and words and temptations (sex doesn't come easy either, even when the married women lust after him) for a while, but continued failure weighs ever more heavily on him. With neither his odes nor his Hyperion the great hoped for break-through that might allow him to live as a writer he continues to be frustrated at every turn, "oppressed by cares and by critics ill-used"; his Empedocles remains unfinished. He descended into madness but lived decades longer, most of them in what amounts to an ivory tower (an actual tower) :
The Revolution as an ideal was so real to me
that I was shattered by what happened in reality
       Weiss uses other significant thinkers of the age as a contrast to Hölderlin's position, from Hegel and Schelling to Schiller and Goethe (whom Hölderlin fails to recognize in one scene that perfectly captures Hölderlin's blinding dedication and obsession to his own ideas and words); inevitably, Weiss sends (in one of the few scenes that are not historically based) Karl Marx to visit the tower-dweller, the one man who would eventually be able to advance the Revolution (but, tellingly, only after having abandoned poetry) .
       The ultra-idealist -- the true poet -- Hölderlin was undone by the sheer grandiosity of his aspirations and beliefs:
All forms and ways of thinking
must be shaken up and
overthrown totally
We are taking part
in the last and greatest
work of man
       But while he could conceive of: " the dawn/of a new age", it proved illusory and unattainable. The (real) world did, as Hegel predicted, utterly destroy him. Hegel, Schelling, even rabble-rouser Sinclair (another longtime friend) all adapted and worked within the system, in one way or another; Hölderlin, always pure, never could -- and lost his mind.
       Weiss' play is a creative take on idealism -- poetic and political -- that's firmly grounded in history. Overtly but not overly political, Weiss' play can seem, like his Hölderlin, naïve, but in its personal focus avoids becoming programmatic. The free verse does not translate entirely smoothly, but Weiss relatively simple language at least avoids the pitfalls that any Hölderlin-imitation would have brought with it. (Hölderlin's poetry (and even his prose is poetic) is notoriously 'difficult'; like Rilke's -- the only comparably sublime German poet -- it presents enormous translation challenges (though, as Hölderlin demonstrates, even what seems like relatively simple verse can pose considerable challenges).)
       An impressive and also entertaining drama.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 October 2010

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Hölderlin: Reviews: Friedrich Hölderlin: Peter Weiss: Other works by Peter Weiss under Review: Works about Peter Weiss under Review:
  • Werner Schmidt's biography, Peter Weiss: Leben eines kritischen Intellektuellen
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Peter Weiss (1916-82) was born in Germany. A remarkable artist, he was a talented painter who then turned to writing. Only slow to achieve recognition with his fiction he burst onto the international scene with the stunning success of his play, Marat/Sade. Winner of many West and East German literary prizes, he was also the author of Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, the most important German novel since The Tin Drum.

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