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  • The Nameable and the Unnameable: Hofmannsthal’s “Der Schwierige” Revisited by Martin Liebscher
  • Steven R. Cerf
Martin Liebscher, Christophe Fricker, Robert von Dassanowsky, eds., The Nameable and the Unnameable: Hofmannsthal’s “Der Schwierige” Revisited. Publications of the Institute of Germanic Studies (School of Advanced Study, University of London) 97. Munich: Iudicium, 2011. 220 pp.

This is an indispensable book for Hofmannsthal students that locates Der Schwierige as a central dramatic work in the playwright’s oeuvre. All of its thirteen detailed essays, the editors’ introduction, the volume’s copious footnotes, and the meticulous index (plus pithy biographies of its contributors) stem from the 2008 international conference—of the same name—organized [End Page 142] by Martin Liebscher at the School of Advanced Study of the University of London. Six of the essays and the book’s introduction are written in English, and the remaining seven essays are in German. The three editors are to be congratulated for the scholarly depth and tone of the printed papers and for the far-reaching scope of the conference.

The anthology’s first two essays treat basic thematic concerns from new perspectives. Rüdiger Görner’s “Von Schwierigkeiten und Hofmannsthals lustspielhaftem Umgang damit” traces not only the myriad difficulties set up thematically within the play but also those connected with the play’s first theatrical productions as transitions to finding resolution. His application of George Steiner’s “On Difficulty” (1978) is most helpful (25–26). Stephan Kraft’s essay on irony shifts the attention to post–World War I Austria where the social world and societal forces have undergone a permanent rift; Kraft focuses on Helene’s female agency, which allows her to ignore the risible world around her and find resolution through matrimony. The eighth essay, Hans Hahn’s “Hans Karls Schwierigkeiten—neu überdacht?” answers its title’s question in the affirmative. In dethroning Emil Staiger’s post–World War II essay that had isolated the comedy as Hofmannsthal’s own answer to the language crisis of the “Lord Chandos Brief,” Hahn also focuses on Helene’s specifically hands-on mission, likening her to the eponymous protagonist of Hofmannsthal’s contemporary Die Frau ohne Schatten. As Hahn sums up: “Helene wird der Verführer à retour” (132).

The anthology is framed by four essays dealing with the comedy’s Rezeptionsgeschichte. John Warren’s “Max Reinhardt’s Productions”—the third essay—deals with the negative critical response to the awkward 1921 Berlin world premiere and proceeds to explain how and why Reinhardt’s more refined and critically acclaimed later productions were more successful. Robert Vilain’s “French and English versions of Der Schwierige”—the tenth essay— is an illuminating analysis as to why the French translations and critical acceptance of the comedy were respectively superior to and more favorably received than their English counterparts. Alexander Stillmark’s personal and most illuminating piece on “Translating Der Schwierige” follows and has a vital connection to the 2008 conference as the author read selections from his new translation as part of the proceedings.

Given the rich insights that the author shares, it is a shame that the editors were not able to include portions of the actual translation. The anthology’s penultimate essay is Dassanowsky’s future-oriented piece on the [End Page 143] “Cinematic Influence” on Hofmannsthal. The author concentrates on those tellingly dream-like and interior-directed stage directions revolving around Helene’s and Hans Karl’s facial reactions to each other. Most convincingly, the writer suggests that the deeply personalized internalization of silent film possibly inspired these private stage directions, which would be more visible on the magnified silver screen than from the conventional theatrical stage.

The anthology’s fourth, fifth, and sixth essays, each based on a different critical-theoretical underpinning, provide the reader with the greatest intellectual challenge. Michael Collel’s “Der Schwierige im Kontext des Hysteresis-Effekts” examines Hans Karl’s outdated “knightly” virtues in light of the shifting of sociopolitical values at “the modern court.” Collel effectively transposes the term Hysteresis from physics to history: the fatigue in electricity is likened to the lingering social institutions that were no longer serving their original functions.

Ben Hutchinson’s “The...


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