- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
HUGO VON HOFMANNSTHAL 1925
Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s five-act play Der turm (The Tower) was first published in book form in 1925. A revised version of The Tower was first performed on stage in 1927. Von Hofmannsthal adapted the story, set in seventeenth century Poland, from the play La vida es sueno (Life Is a Dream; 1635), by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, the great playwright of the Golden Age in Spanish literature.
The Tower concerns the fate of Sigismund, a young prince whose father, King Basilius, has kept him locked in the tower because of a prophecy that claimed he would rise up against his father in rebellion. As the play opens, Sigismund, now twenty-one years of age, has been locked in a cage like an animal, unaware of his royal heritage. A physician who has examined Sigismund convinces Julian, the tower governor, to persuade the king to restore his son as heir to the throne. But, as soon as the king grants Sigismund this power, the son rises up and attacks his father. After the king’s attendants overpower him, Sigismund is sentenced to death. On the day of his execution, however, a planned rebellion among the noblemen dethrones the king and Sigismund ascends the throne as the new king. A peasant rebellion, however, lead by Oliver, results in the assassination of Sigismund.
As stated in Contemporary Authors, “The Tower expresses the hopeless fate of human existence ravaged by the brutal forces of a modern world devoid of a Christian mission.”
Hugo Laurenz August von Hofmannsthal was born on February 1, 1874, in Vienna, Austria, the only child of Ann Maria Josefa Fohleutner and Hugo August Peter, the director of an investment bank. Von Hofmannsthal was raised in a prominent bourgeois family, which enjoyed both inherited wealth and professional success. His mother’s father, originally Jewish, converted to Roman Catholicism to marry the daughter of an Austrian court official, and von Hofmannsthal’s parents considered themselves fully assimilated into Austrian culture. Although they lost considerable assets in the stock market crash of 1873, his parents maintained a high standard of living, and von Hofmannsthal grew up with all the privileges of an elite education, cultural experiences such as regular opera and theater attendance, leisure activities such as fencing and riding lessons, and international travel.
Von Hofmannsthal attended Akademisches Gymnasium from 1884 to 1892. From 1892 to 1894, he attended law schools at the University of Vienna, but he left before earning a degree. From 1894 to 1895, he served in the Austrian army. In 1899, Von Hofmannsthal received a Ph.D. in philology, with a specialization in French literature, from the University of Vienna. However, he turned down the opportunity to pursue an academic career in favor of devoting himself to writing essays and plays. In 1901, he married Gertrud Schlesinger, with whom he had three children. During World War I, von Hofmannsthal served as a courier and translator. He died of a stroke on July 15, 1929, just before he was to attend the funeral of his eldest son.
Von Hofmannsthal was a noteworthy figure in the world of Viennese theater and letters. His first publication, a lyric drama, came when he was only seventeen, earning him the attention of such notable literary figures as the German Stefan George and the Austrian Arthur Schnitzler. After a period of mentorship under George, during which he published works in George’s literary journal, von Hofmannsthal broke away from what he felt was an elitist literary philosophy. He formed the Jung Wien (“Young Vienna”), a literary circle concerned with the aesthetic principles of the French Symbolist Movement. Von Hofmannsthal became known internationally for his collaboration with the famous opera composer Richard Strauss. He was also one of
the founders of the Salzburg theater festival, which continues to perform some of his works.
Act 1, scene 1, of The Tower takes place in front of the tower. The son of King Basilius, Sigismund, who was condemned to be locked in the tower for life because of a prophesy warning the king that his son would one day rise up against him in rebellion, is now twenty-one-years old. Sigismund, unaware of his royal heritage, lives and acts like an animal, locked in a cage and taunted by his keepers. Julian, the tower governor, has called in a physician to examine Sigismund; the physician makes note of his royal bearing. Act 1, scene 2, takes place in a room in the tower. Julian explains to the physician that Sigismund had been accused of murder and without a trial was condemned to death at the age of twelve. Julian had put him in the care of a peasant family until age sixteen, when he locked him in the tower to protect him from being murdered. Julian conspires with the physician to obtain a potion that they can give Sigismund, which will put him to sleep so they can transport him to a monastery for Page 342 | Top of Articlehis own safety. Julian pays the physician with a purse of money and a valuable ring for this service.
Act 2, scene 1, takes place in the cloisters of a monastery. King Basilius arrives with his attendants, and speaks with Brother Ignatius, the grand almoner, a very old and wise priest. The king explains to Brother Ignatius the prophecy that his son would one day rise against him in rebellion. Brother Ignatius chides the king for his behavior, and the king, in anger, has him taken away. Julian arrives and convinces the king to allow Sigismund a retrial to determine if he is fit to be restored to his proper place as heir to the throne. The king agrees and praises Julian for twenty-two years of loyal service. Act 2, scene 2, takes place in a room in the Tower. The peasant woman who raised Sigismund as a child is brought in, informs him that his stepfather has died, and prays with him. Julian then administers the potion that renders Sigismund unconscious.
Act 3 takes place inside the queen’s death chamber. Sigismund, restored to his humanity, rides up on a horse. The king grants him the power to succeed as the royal heir to the throne. But Sigismund immediately attacks the king and continues until attendants stop him. The king states that the prophesy has come true, as his son has risen up against him in rebellion. The king then sentences Sigismund and Julian to death for treason.
Act 4 takes place in a hall in the castle. It is the day scheduled for the execution of Sigismund and Julian. On the way to his death, Sigismund is paraded through the streets. A planned rebellion breaks out, the king is ousted, and Sigismund ascends the throne in his place. He is informed, however, that the peasants have not accepted his rule, and, under the leadership of a man named Oliver, are in revolt.
Act 5 takes place in an antechamber of the castle. Julian, who has been attacked by the rebels, is brought in to Sigismund, before dying. Oliver, who has taken control of the rebels, enters and challenges Sigismund’s authority. Several of Oliver’s attendants confirm that they have assassinated King Basilius. Oliver announces to Sigismund that he has taken control of the people. Sigismund is shot by Oliver’s men and dies in the arms of Anton and the physician.
King Basilius is the father of Sigismund. Because he heard a prophesy that predicted his son would rise up against him in rebellion, the king had Sigismund locked away in a tower until he was twenty-one years old. After Julian, the governor of the tower, convinces him to take Sigismund back into his good graces, the king arranges for his son to become his successor. However, as soon as he does, Sigismund attacks his father—but he is overpowered by the king’s attendants before he injures the king. The king then sentences his son to death, but, on the day of the execution, a rebellion breaks out. The king is dethroned, and Sigismund is made the new king. Sigismund then sentences the king to be locked up in the tower. The king is later assassinated by the rebels who follow Oliver.
Julian is the governor of the tower in which Sigismund has been locked until the age of twenty-one. Julian is influenced by the physician to convince the king that Sigismund be restored to his rightful place as heir to the throne. When the king sentences Sigismund to death for attempting to rise up against him, Julian plots a rebellion on Sigismund’s behalf. The rebellion succeeds, and Sigismund replaces his father as king. But Julian is killed by the rebels who have risen against Sigismund under the leadership of Oliver.
Oliver takes command of the peasant rebellion that rises up after King Basilius is ousted by supporters of Sigismund. Oliver has King Basilius killed and then has Sigismund killed.
The physician is first brought to the tower to examine Sigismund, the prince who has been locked up like an animal until the age of twenty-one. The physician immediately perceives that Sigismund is of royal descent. He provides Julian, the governor of the tower, with a potion to put Sigismund to sleep while he is transported to a monastery for protection. Page 343 | Top of ArticleAfter Sigismund is brought to the castle and sentenced to death for attempting to rise up against his father, the physician aids Julian in planning a rebellion. With the help of the physician, the rebellion succeeds, and Sigismund replaces his father as king. The physician remains loyal to Sigismund, even after Oliver has taken command of the rebellion. After Sigismund is assassinated by Oliver’s men, he dies in the arms of the physician.
Sigismund is the son of King Basilius. King Basilius was warned by a prophecy that one day his son would rise up against him in rebellion, and so he had the child locked up in a tower. At the age of twelve, Sigismund was accused of murder, and without a trial he was sentenced to death. Julian, the governor of the tower, however, placed him in the care of a peasant family until the age of sixteen, when he brought him to the tower to protect him from attempts on his life. As the play opens, Sigismund is twenty-one years old, and has been kept in a cage like an animal throughout his life. Julian convinces the king to take Sigismund back as his successor. As soon as the king grants Sigismund royal power, Sigismund attacks him—but is soon overpowered by the king’s attendants. The king then sentences Sigismund to death. On the day of the execution, a planned rebellion succeeds in dethroning the king, and placing Sigismund in power. Sigismund gains the loyalty of the peasants, as well as the nobility, but he is assassinated by Oliver, who has taken control of the rebellion.
Critics agree that the character of Sigismund in von Hofmannsthal’s play represents the figure of a Christian martyr. Various characters, particularly the physician, directly refer to him in such terms. Upon his initial examination of Sigismund, the physician declares that he is the essence of “the highest earthly virtues.” When he is asked to look upon an image of Christ on the cross, Sigismund “looks at it for a long time, mimics the posture, with spread-out arms.” When Julian is attempting to convince Sigismund to take the elixir that will make him sleep so that he may awaken to a new life, Julian tells him, “the chosen one is born twice,” thus comparing Sigismund to “the chosen one,” Jesus Christ. Once Sigismund has taken the elixir, Anton cries out,“he has a halo above his face!” and he refers to him as “my saintly blessed martyrized—” before he is interrupted by Julian. When the impoverished rebels face Sigismund, declaring their loyalty to him, a man “almost naked,” calls him a “Lamb of God.” Aron claims that images of Sigismund have been spread throughout the country, “and they light candles before it as before an ikon.” In other words, Sigismund’s image is worshipped as an icon, an image of God.
The physician further describes Sigismund as a Christian martyr, demanding, “Look over the whole world: it has nothing nobler than what confronts us in this human being.” Alfred Schwarz explains that the character of Sigismund “imposes the role of savior on a time-bound creature”; furthermore, “his name and figure have stirred messianic hopes in the hearts of the poor and the oppressed. He is the nameless beggar king who comes in chains to deliver them.” According to Schwarz, von Hofmannsthal’s characterization of Sigismund provides a vision of “the salvation of humanity.”
Politics and Power
A central theme of this play is the nature of power in the role of world politics. The struggles between the various key characters are essentially political struggles over who has the power to rule over the people of a nation. The king has imprisoned his son for fear that Sigismund will rise up and usurp him in a rebellion. As the play opens, rebellion is growing throughout the land, despite the fact that Sigismund is locked away in the tower and unaware of his royal heritage. The named successor to the king has died in a hunting accident, thus leaving the throne in question. Julian hopes to seat the twenty-one-year-old Sigismund as the rightful heir. Julian sends out other men to stir up rebellion in support of Sigismund. However, Oliver, one of Julian’s men, takes charge of the rebellion, ultimately killing both Julian and Sigismund.
Critics have referred to Oliver as a “demagogue,” a false leader of the people because he usurps Sigismund’s power while maintaining the loyalty of the rebels who support Sigismund. Toward the end of the play, Oliver plans to find a man who looks like Sigismund and parade him through the streets so no one will know that he has actually killed the young prince.
Although Sigismund has been raised in imprisonment, without knowledge of his royal heritage, he both fears and strives to obtain power. Sigismund’s
urge to exert his power over others is expressed even within his cage as he strives to overcome and dominate the beasts and insects that plague him: “Beasts are of many kinds, all rushing at me. I cry: Not too close! Wood lice, worms, toads, goblins, vipers! All want to fall upon me. I beat them to death.” When he is brought before the king for the first time, Sigismund is overwhelmed by the great power he represents. In wonder, Sigismund asks the king, “From where—so much power?” The king replies, “Only the fullness of power profit. . . .Such is the power of the king.” The king perceives that Sigismund strives for power and tells him, “The desire for power consumes you. I can read it in your features.” And, indeed, Sigismund soon seizes the opportunity to rise up against his father, declaring his own claim to power in the statement, “My power will reach as far as my will.” Von Hofmannsthal’s play explores the morality of absolute political power.
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 significant in several ways. Von Hofmannsthal wrote The Page 345 | Top of ArticleTower 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.
The play calls for a choir that can be heard singing religious hymns in Latin in the background during several scenes. Act 2, scene 1, 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 3 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 twenty-one 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.
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.
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 Page 346 | Top of ArticlePolish 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 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.”
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 aufNaxos (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.
Writing in 1966, Alfred Schwarz asserts that The Tower is “one of the masterpieces of contemporary drama.” Michael Hamburger refers to it as von Hofmannsthal’s “most personally committed play.” Von Hofmannsthal first began the effort of adapting a play from La vida es sueno (Life Is a Dream; 1635), by the great Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca, in 1902, but he did not produce the first completed version until 1925. According to Schwarz, von Hofmannsthal’s early acquaintance with Calderon’s play “arrested his attention,” and it’s central allegory “exercised a fascination on him which lasted for the rest of his life.” In reconceptualizing and revising his adaptation, von Hofmannsthal “radically reshaped the play in the course of many years during which he pondered the subject.”
It was only the debacle of World War I that provided von Hofmannsthal with a meaningful context for his adaptation: “The experience of the first world war and its aftermath in central Europe, the vision of a world in dissolution, a tradition demolished, at last rendered the full possibilities of the subject conceivable.” Michael Hamburger concurs that The Tower “was his reckoning with the postwar world, a last attempt to embody the substance of his own life in a myth, and a kind of moral and spiritual testament.” T. S. Eliot comments that “Calderon’s play is for Hofmannsthal hardly more Page 347 | Top of Articlethan a point of departure; two plays could hardly be more different in spirit and intention than those of the Spaniard and the Austrian.” Schwarz elaborates upon von Hofmannsthal’s central ideas in adapting Calderon’s play to express his own thematic concerns:
As the material of The Tower takes shape in his mind, Hofmannsthal sees it as the tragedy of a time-bound world gone astray, a world which needs deliverance in the person of a savior; for it is altogether deprived of the sound of God’s voice and suffers the torments of guilt. But the potential savior of a forsaken humanity is himself human. Drawn into a world which is torn by rebellion and suppression, he suffers the tragic fate of all humanity betrayed in the life-and-death struggle of contending powers. In the figure of Sigismund, Hofmannsthal represents first the allegory of the Fall, man’s tragic attempt to capture the world into which he is thrust, and the individual’s tragic subjection to time, conceived as history.
Von Hofmannsthal’s 1925 version of The Tower was published as a book, but not produced on the stage. At the suggestion of Max Reinhardt, von Hofmannsthal then revised it significantly for a 1927 stage production. Schwarz notes that, after extensive revision, “A more austere dramatic economy informs the revised version, and the action moves relentlessly to its stark conclusion.”
Schwarz notes that “Since its publication, The Tower appears to have become the poetic chronicle of our time. It is that rare instance in our time of a tragedy which touches at so many points the human situation essentially and the politics of human action historically that it belongs with the best traditional examples of great theater.” Schwarz concludes that, in The Tower,“Hofmannsthal succeeded in recreating an ample and representative theater in which to mirror the tragedy of a century of totalitarian ways of life.” Describing The Tower as “difficult,” T. S. Eliot observes that, “I doubt whether this play can be called a ‘success,’ but if not, it is at least a failure grander and more impressive than many successes.” Eliot goes on to comment that, “if The Tower is unplayable, we must attribute this not to failure of skill but to the fact that what the author wished here to express exceeded the limits within which the man of the theater must work.” Hamburger observes that “The distinction of The Tower, both in absolute sense and in the context of Hofmannsthal’s work as a whole,” is that “It is the one completed work of Hofmannsthal that fully engaged all his disparate faculties and energies—the mystical and the worldly, the visionary and the analytical, the adventurous and the conservative—and coordinated his many-sided experience within a single imaginative structure.”
Describing the evolution of von Hofmannsthal’s “tragic theater,” Schwarz explains: “Chronologically, there are first the lyric playlets of the last decade before the turn of the century; then, in the years preceding the first world war, a period of search and experimentation, a wrestling with larger dramatic structures, the attempt to discover a theater of significant action for the times; and after the major catastrophe of the war until his death in 1929, years of personal restlessness and significant achievement, the poet’s last works which revolve around the idea of universal world theater.”
Schwarz notes: “Hofmannsthal’s career as a playwright is the record of his effort to revitalize the great tradition of European drama on the modern stage. He tried in several ways to reestablish the authority of a truly representative theatre.” Furthermore, “He viewed the theater in terms of its intermittent and ideal function in society. Therefore, ignoring the modern renascence of the drama since Hebbel and Ibsen, he turned deliberately to the past for his idea of a theater.” Schwarz adds, “In comparison with the starkly realistic social and psychological dramas of his day, Hofmannsthal’s work appears to have an old-fashioned, strongly literary flavor. He revived the figures of the ancient Greek drama and the Christian allegories, and brought them back on the modern stage. . . . Hofmannsthal re-dramatized ancient subjects and asserted his orthodox Christian reading of the human condition in traditional theatrical forms.”
Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema. In the following essay, Brent discusses the father-son relationship in von Hofmannsthal’s play.
The Tower explores the theme of fathers and sons in terms of Sigismund’s relationship to two central father figures: King Basilius, his biological father, and Julian, his lifelong jailer and caretaker.
The relationship of King Basilius to his only son, the Prince Sigismund, fluctuates dramatically several times throughout the play. The king is torn between his fear of being usurped by his son, as stated in a prophesy and the natural love of a father
for his offspring. Throughout the play, the king alternates between these two impulses. The desire to maintain his sovereign power, however, always wins out over his paternal affections for Sigismund.
Because of a prophesy that stated that the king’s son would one day rise up against him in rebellion, King Basilius sentenced his only son, Sigismund, to be imprisoned for life in the tower. The king justified this act by accusing his son, at the age of twelve, of “high treason.” Julian, the governor of the tower, however, had pity on the young prince and placed him in the care of a peasant family for four years. At this point, Julian reasoned that Sigismund, now sixteen, was too vulnerable to assassination and thereafter kept him locked in a cage in the tower like an animal.
With the encouragement of the physician, Julian decides to make a plea to the king to retry Sigismund, now twenty-one, thus giving the young prince a second chance to demonstrate his innocence. In making his decision, the king seeks council with Brother Ignatius, the grand almoner of the monastery. He asks Brother Ignatius if the prophesy is in fact true, to which the grand almoner responds ambiguously. He chides the king, however, for mistreating his own son, “your child, got in holy matrimony!” The king nonetheless declares that, if Sigismund is found to be “a demon and a rebel,” then “his head shall fall and roll before your feet,” but if he is found to be innocent, “I shall take my child into my arms, and the crown, a triple crown wrought into one, will not be without an heir.” Brother Ignatius replies that, in effect, the king has already been condemned for his sins against his son, telling him that God “knows you and means to punish you.” Upon hearing this, the king becomes angry, and has the grand almoner carried out. The king is, in effect, pronounced guilty for mistreating his own son but refuses to accept responsibility for his guilt, justifying it by his own fear of rebellion.
Yet, while he fears his own son, whom he has imprisoned for life and has never seen, the king also expresses deep sentiments in regard to Sigismund. When he meets with Julian at the monastery, the king states that he is “moved . . . deeply,” by Julian’s loyalty to him as the guardian of Sigismund, sentimentally embracing him with the words, “It is your arms that shield our kin.”
Fearing his first meeting with Sigismund, the king turns to prayer and religious council in the hopes that his son will remain loyal to him. The king consoles himself regarding his mistreatment of his child by asking his confessor if he may be absolved, should he once again condemn “my own son” to life imprisonment in the tower. Under this current of morbid fear of his own son, the king is deeply Page 349 | Top of Articlemoved by the thought of restoring Sigismund to his rightful role as heir to the throne. The king even muses that, were he to allow Sigismund to succeed him, he might retire peacefully. He imagines that “Perhaps I too will retire into a monastery for the remainder of my days,” and that his son will regard him with “gratitude.” The king nonetheless asks his confessor if he may be justified in inflicting “the extremest harshness” upon the prince, “if he were to raise his hand against me.” The confessor has clearly been appointed for the purpose of justifying any action, no matter how immoral, the king undertakes and relieves the king’s every fear of being accused of wrongdoing against his son.
Before the king lays eyes upon his son for the first time, Julian attempts to impress upon Sigismund the importance of obeying his father, without questioning his ill treatment up to this point. Julian equates Sigismund’s conception of a Christian God as the Father with the figure of his biological father, the king. He tells Sigismund, “You have said to yourself that it is your father who thus governs over you. You comprehend that your father’s ways had to be inscrutable to you. . . . You would not wish to live unless someone higher were above you, that is the sense of your thinking—You do not ask: What has happened to me?”
Upon seeing Sigismund for the first time, the king, impressed by his son’s instinctively regal manner, is so moved that he must support himself on Julian’s arm, as if he were weak in the knees with emotion. His impulse to fatherly affection toward his son is expressed when he sees in Sigismund, “The very image of my wife!” The king is literally moved to tears as he gazes upon his son and rightful successor. The king’s feeling for the son, whom he has feared and imprisoned for twenty-one years, is sincere and heartfelt. He tells Sigismund, “You have returned home. Our arms are open.” The king continues this emotional plea, “will you come to our heart, into its undivided warmth?”
Yet, while this “warmth” on the part of the king for his son may be heartfelt, the king maintains a sly, manipulative, and distrustful stance toward Sigismund, whom he will tolerate only if he can maintain his position of power over his son. He tells the young prince, ’ I look for child-like devotion in your eyes, and I do not find it.” The king then tries to convince Sigismund that it was Julian who had deceived him, the king, into believing that his son was wild and harbored rebellious intentions against his father.
Despite the king’s mighty efforts, however, Sigismund does, the minute he gets the chance, rise up against his father in rebellion. The king, dropping all notions of paternal affection, immediately sentences both Sigismund and his keeper, Julian, to execution for treason. The king declares Sigismund a “parricide”—a would-be murderer of his own father—thereby justifying his sentence of death upon his own son. The king’s fear of being usurped outweighs any natural fatherly love or affection for his offspring. The king thus proves himself to be a sinner by valuing power over love.
Julian, the governor of the tower, serves as a second father figure to Prince Sigismund. The king has entrusted Julian for almost twenty-two years with watching over Sigismund. Julian at first appears to be an ambivalent figure in Sigismund’s life, but he soon proves himself to be the young prince’s most faithful caretaker. As Sigismund’s guardian and jailer throughout the prince’s life, Julian’s relationship to him is fraught with ambiguity.
The physician, upon examining the imprisoned prince, quickly perceives the warring sympathies within Julian’s heart over the proper action to take in regards to Sigismund. The physician tells Julian, “Your lordship is created of heroic stuff,” but qualifies the statement by elaborating that “the source itself is troubled, the deepest root is cankered. In this your imperious countenance Good and Evil wage a fearful coiling battle like serpents.” In other words, Julian has the potential to do heroic deeds in regard to Sigismund, but he is “troubled” at heart, hesitating between taking action against Sigismund, which the physician regards as Evil, and taking action to empower Sigismund, which the physician regards as Good. The physician goes on to describe the nature of Julian’s troubles, stating that “you deny your heart—Heart and head must be one. But you have consented to the satanic split; you have suppressed the noble inner organ.” The physician tells Julian, “I see heroic ambition in your carriage Page 350 | Top of Articleand gait, checked in the hips by an impotent will, gigantically warring with itself.” The physician accurately perceives the desire within Julian to do right by Sigismund, also perceiving the extent to which his “will” is “warring with itself” over what to do. The physician concludes that Julian’s “soul’s wings” are “shackled in chains.” Thus, the physician, regarding the cause of Sigismund as a higher moral Good, sees Julian’s “soul” as a slave to the Evil impulse that causes him to keep Sigismund imprisoned like an animal. The physician tells Julian that his conscience in the matter is troubled: “The wrong done to this youth, the enormity of the crime, the complicity, the partial consent: all this stands written on your face.”
Julian, however, protests that he has “saved his life, more than once,” and that “Without me he would have been murdered.” He explains that he has placed Sigismund under such base conditions, locked in the tower, to hide him from the world and protect him from assassins. But the physician’s words inspire Julian to conceive of a plan whereby the prince may be restored to the good favor of his father, King Basilius. The conviction with which Julian undertakes this effort is indicated when he tells the physician, ’ I am risking my head” to do right by Sigismund. When he pleads directly to the king to give Sigismund a retrial, an opportunity to prove his innocence, Julian offers the king his own head in execution if Sigismund proves disloyal to his father. At this point, the king acknowledges Julian’s role as Sigismund’s caretaker, telling him, “It is your arms that shield our kin.”
At this point, however, Sigismund both fears Julian as his jailer and reveres him as the life giver and father figure who has taught him everything he knows—in particular, Julian has taught him the Christian Bible. Sigismund cowers in fear when Julian enters the room, telling him, “You have supreme power over me. I tremble before you. I know that I cannot escape you.” But Julian reminds him that “I was your rescuer. Secretly, I poured oil into the lamp of your life; because of me alone there is still light in you. Remember that. . . . Did I not let you sit next to me at a wooden table and open before you the great book and pointed in it figure after figure to the things of the world and called them by name for you?”
When Sigismund does indeed rise up against his father, the king, he sentences Julian to death with the young prince. After the prince and Julian are both saved from execution by the rebellion, which deposes the king and places Sigismund on the throne, Sigismund directly acknowledges Julian’s role as his father and teacher. He addresses Julian as “my teacher,” and appoints him his “minister,” his closest confident. Julian likewise passionately declares himself to be Sigismund’s father in spirit, although the king and queen are his biological parents: “O my king! My son!—for you come from me who molded you, not from him who furnished merely the clump of earth, nor from her who gave birth to you.”
When the rebellion, taken over by Oliver, turns against Sigismund, Julian is fatally wounded. In the moments before Julian dies, Sigismund directly acknowledges his importance as father, teacher, and caretaker. He tells Julian, “You have put the right word under my tongue, the word of comfort in the desert of this life.” After Julian dies, Oliver, who has entered, notices Julian’s dead body and tells Sigismund, “I know him. He was your jailer. He kept you worse than a dog.” But Sigismund defends Julian as the man whose actions were always in the service of Sigismund’s own good, asserting that “You are mistaken. He did not keep me as he was commanded to, but he kept me as he had planned in the fulfillment of his mind’s work.”
Thus, the true nature of Julian’s relationship to Sigismund becomes increasingly apparent over the course of the play. Outwardly his jailer, Julian emerges as the one truly nurturing father figure in the prince’s life. By the time of Julian’s death, Sigismund has acknowledged him as a teacher, father, caretaker, and guide.
Sigismund’s two father figures throughout the play, the king and Julian, ultimately show their true moral colors in terms of their relationship to the young prince. Julian at first appears to be the prince’s oppressor and jailer, but he shows himself to be his most ardent caretaker and supporter. The king waivers between fear of the son who is destined to rise up against him and a natural fatherly love for his offspring. In the figure of the king, however, the love of his power ultimately overrides the love of his child.
Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Kelly is an instructor of Creative Writing and Literature at Oakton Community College and College Page 351 | Top of Articleof Lake County. In this essay, he examines the ways in which Hofmannstha’s version of this story differs from the play that it was based upon.
There is only a tenuous relationship between Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s 1925 play The Tower and its inspiration, the 1635 romantic comedy Life Is a Dream by the Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca y Henao. Both plays concern a king, Basilius of Poland, who has determined that his son is destined to one day overthrow him and take his place, and who has, therefore, taken the measure of having the child raised in captivity. Both plays follow the prince, Sigismund, as he gains his freedom, misuses it, and is sent back into captivity, only to be rescued later when a political uprising unseats Basilius and requires a royal heir to take his place. Beyond these similarities in their plots, though, there is a world of difference in the way the two authors develop the basic idea. For Calderon, the true story is a metaphysical one about the nature of human knowledge, which, as he presents it, is as “real” for one whose life is confined to a tower as it is for a monarch who reigns supreme. Hofmannsthal’s take on the material stresses the opposite effect, presenting the king, in the end, as a convict in his own right. That the same story can bend to accommodate two such different viewpoints is a tribute to romanticism, to fatalism, and ultimately to every unified world view that helps humans interpret the world surrounding them.
In Calderon’s version of the story, life really is a dream, just as the title says: a lively jumble of coincidence, intuition, and masquerade. The basic story that both plays follow, about a prince locked up in a tower, has been handed down through the ages, like many of the most potent fairy tales. As Calderon envisions it, the king’s fear of his son began when the boy’s mother died during childbirth and then continues with his own scholarly work. King Basilius explains that, in his extensive reading, he found it fore-written “that Sigismund would be the most cruel of all princes, the most audacious of all humans, the most wicked of all monarchs;” that he would split up the kingdom; and that he would take physical action against his own father. The play gives a vivid, lasting image of the cruelty he anticipates from Sigismund: ’I saw myself down-stricken, lying on the ground before him (What deep shame this utterance gives me!) while his feet on my white hairs were imprinted as a carpet.” Readers can notice a similarity between the way that Calderon
lets a premonition drive the plot and some of the later romantic tragicomedies of Shakespeare, particularly between this version of Basilius and Shakespeare’s Prospero, the wizard king of The Tempest. The two plays were, after all, written a mere twenty-five years apart.
After establishing that Basilius’ motivation for imprisoning the infant boy was rooted in his own predictions, Life Is a Dream goes on to raise questions about the source of that prediction. Sigismund does, in fact, proceed once he is free to strike out violently, killing a guard and threatening Basilius in a manner that seems to be a fulfillment of the prophecy. As this scene unfolds, though, questions arise about whether his long imprisonment held back his naturally violent impulses or if it might have actually caused them. Sigismund’s bitterness and horror boil over once he is told that he is actually a prince and that he was locked up by his own father before growing old enough to do anything to actually deserve it. Audiences are led to wonder whether Basilius might have created what we recognize today as a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Much is made in Calderon’s version of the method of Sigismund’s temporary release from custody. Unsure of how the prisoner will react to finding out that he is actually the royal heir, Basilius arranges for him to take a sleeping potion in his cell, so that, if his introduction to his rightful place in court goes as badly as predicted, he can be put back in his cell, with the whole incident explained away as a dream. While Hofmannsthal’s version of the story does make use of the “sleeping powder” twist, it is not the king who devises this scheme, but rather Julian, who is sympathetic to Sigismund. Page 352 | Top of ArticleJulian uses the idea of knocking Sigismund out to help him retain some innocence and vulnerability, so that he would not have to automatically be put to death if the experiment of telling the truth should fail. Sigismund in The Tower does not confuse levels of reality, the way that his counterpart from Life Is a Dream does—he does not think that dream life is real life and vice versa; he merely notes the similarity between the two.
As if this blurring of the line between life and dream did not give his play enough lighthearted fantasy, Calderon includes a romantic twist of mistaken identity that is only glancingly related to the play’s main idea. The following section is very confusing. None of the readers will be familiar with these characters, nor do they need to be. The point can be made quite well without naming them all. [Rosaura has come to Poland disguised as a man, to avenge being dishonored earlier by Astolfo; she is aided by Clotaldo, the jailer who has been sympathetic to the prince, although she does not realize that Clotaldo is really her father; and Astolfo intends to be named Basilius’ heir to the throne because his mother was Basilius’ sister and he is poised to strengthen that birthright by marrying Estrella, the daughter of Basilius’ other sister.] Little about these complications involves Sigismund finding himself a prisoner one day, a prince the next, and then a prisoner again, other than pointing out the uncertainty of the political system, a point that Hofmannsthal would later make much of. These subplots do, however, establish a lighthearted tone, where chance and fate bounce off each other in no controllable pattern. In the end of Life Is a Dream, when Sigismund is given his true place on the throne (affirming the Elizabethan faith in the natural rightness of succession), he shows royal wisdom by telling Astolfo to make good on his broken promise and marry Rosaura, and he shows compassion for Estrella, who has just lost her fiancee, by offering to marry her himself. Basilius, whose studious nature led to his reading false prophesies in the first place, is left to spend his retirement reading.
Sigismund thus ends up a hero in Calderon’s version of this story, a man who overcomes social disadvantage and a natural propensity toward resentment, showing that royal blood does (or at least can) overcome adversity. He takes to heart the lesson he learned when his first release ends in failure, always questioning whether what he believes to be real is in fact reality or a dream. Modern audiences might summarize his lesson as, “Don’t take everything so seriously.” This version of the story shows, in a fashion as central to romantic comedy four hundred years ago as it is today, that anger and adversity are just the unfortunate byproducts of misunderstanding. It is Basilius’ misunderstanding of the prophesy that makes him lock his child away, and it is Sigismund’s misunderstanding of power that makes him abuse it when he awakens one day to find himself a prince. Peace takes a bighearted gesture, such as Sigismund’s willingness to end the cycle of revenge by conceding that the indignities that he suffered are no more important than a dream.
Hofmannsthal does not find humor or forgiveness in this situation, but instead he uses it to illuminate an entirely different view of the human condition. In his version of the story, King Basilius is not the primary mover who takes Sigismund’s freedom, gives it back, takes it again, and eventually loses it to him. He is a loud, egotistical, obnoxious fool, whose people are tired of his unfair rules and his socially destructive proclamations. When Sigismund is brought from his jail in the tower, Basilius tries to use him as a tool to stop the popular revolution that he senses around him, but Sigismund rejects him and tries to steal the royal power for himself; when his power is restored, Basilius behaves all the worse, demanding for himself the virgin nieces of an innocent courtier and increasing taxes throughout the kingdom as a sort of victory celebration. If he understood the nature of his own power, Basilius would not be as likely to flaunt it in the faces of his subordinates, practically driving them to rebel against his rule.
The nature of political power in The Tower is such that it does not stem from the wisdom or intuition of those who have it, as it does in Life Is a Dream, but that it is a balance between opposing forces that will often settle upon one person to rule. Hofmannsthal’s Basilius is as clueless about the source of his power as Sigismund is, when he finds himself suddenly wearing the royal seal on his finger. They both fail to acknowledge the fact that their power depends on the consent of the common people. The practical reason why Sigismund is brought out of his cell to take the throne is not because he has royal blood or natural intelligence, but because the rebel forces feel that it is necessary to have some justification that could support the legitimacy of their rule. They want him to stay quiet, to be seen but not heard. In act 5, Oliver, a rebel leader, explains that Sigismund is to be driven Page 353 | Top of Articlethrough the streets on a cart, to show that it is Basilius’s son who has overthrown him. “In this way, the ignorant, tongue-tied people will be taught by us to read emblems with their eyes, and the lords will plunge head over heels into the earth.” When Sigismund turns out to have ideas of his own, Oliver sends him back to prison and orders an aid to bring him another man who looks like Sigismund, who the crowds will think is him when he rides through the streets. Basilius is executed offstage, a deed mentioned in passing, and Sigismund is assassinated; neither member of the royal lineage is really necessary for running the kingdom in Hofmannsthal’s view.
While the secondary characters in Life Is a Dream serve to loosen up viewers’ expectations, the characters who surround the royal family in The Tower are there to inhibit any romantic hopes about the people who make governments run. For the most part, they are more craven, manipulative, and ruthless than is generally expected even if their goal to overthrow an unjust tyrant is noble. A notable exception is the character identified as “the Physician,” a name clearly intended to put him outside of the circle of political machinations that decides many people’s fates throughout the work. Because his job is to care for the flesh, the physician is outraged at the way he sees Sigismund treated, and he is willing to provide sleeping powders to control the wild Sigismund, supporting a dangerous scheme to present him before his father. Aside from the physician’s natural concern for human suffering, the key motivation for human behavior in The Tower is power. There is no draw of love, as in the subplots of the Calderon version, nor a drive to avenge the honor of a woman scorned. Hofmannsthal’s view is completely modern, a twentieth century tale of political expediency, with no need for traditional dramatic concerns to be added to fulfill a dramatic code.
Students comparing the two plays would be right to wonder what was gained over the course of the three centuries that separated them. The Calderon version seems more lighthearted, and more imaginative; by comparison, Hofmannsthal’s play is leaden, and thumps along the ground with a sense of pervading doom that seems more concerned with the harshness of political life than with shedding intellectual light on the dynamics of power. It is true that Hofmannsthal is something of a political insider, fascinated with the subtleties of politics, often at the expense of his play’s dramatic interest. He does, however, avoid the trap of presenting his string of events entirely raw, too much like life to be of interest to viewers watching them on the stage.
The most interesting thing about Hofmannsthal’s casting of these characters is the layer of symbolism that he gives to the story. While, in the Calderon version, the significance of all that happens to Sigismund has to do with how much life and the dream world sometimes seem similar—an interesting but somewhat lightweight observation—Hofmannsthal’s play is built around beliefs about sin and rebirth that are at the root of the Christian tradition. It is, without a doubt, interesting to hear about a prince who is locked away so that he cannot overthrow his father, and in the post-Freudian era, the story has taken on an even more significant air, but neither its interest value nor its psychological value is worth much after audiences leave the theater. Hofmannsthal’s approach, on the other hand, gives the story a deeper meaning. Sigismund may have thought that he was awakened, and then awakened again from that awakening, in Life Is a Dream, but in The Tower he is born anew, and he has to experience life with a new awareness of the guilt that has been hung upon him since childhood. Viewers who can forget about the scheming of Julian, Oliver, and Basilius himself, and who can put the excitement of Sigismund’s assault against Basilius into perspective can understand the prince to be a man who received a second chance, had it taken from him, and learned to live a noble life even when nobility did him no good. He could have riches and comfort, and had every reason to believe that the world owed him them, but he decided, after being mistreated, to become less, not more, cynical. That is the value of The Tower, and it is more significant than the sense of contentment that Calderon made sure to leave at his play’s end.
Neither version of the story of Prince Sigismund is better, but they both certainly reflect the literary tastes of their times. Calderon’s is a complex tale of interwoven coincidences and brushes with fate. Hofmannsthal gives his viewers a darker piece, but one focused more closely on how we understand what it is to be human and live with the guilt of those who came before. The same incident—Sigismund’s return to captivity—is seen as the driving force in a comic mix-up and a catalyst that starts an inquiry into humanity’s most pressing concerns. The differences in these two versions only serves to prove that genius will always see old stories anew.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
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.
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.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693700026