Posted by: artandlove | January 29, 2009

The Difficult Man


The scintillating splendour of the decaying imperial Vienna, and the ruinous destiny and tragic end after the First World War of its Mitteleuropa intellectual supremacy, are the main pillars of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s meditations, writings and entire artistic production. Born in Vienna (1874) to a wealthy Jewish family, Hugo von Hofmannsthal was a studious enfant prodige, bright protagonist of the Jung Wien and definitely one of the finest writers of the disappearing “Austria Felix”. Poet, novelist, playwright and even librettist – his name is linked to some of the best Richard Strauss’ operas and Max Reinhardt works – von Hofmannsthal perfectly embodies the decorum, irony and melancholy of the sunset of an era. He is the overwhelmed and impotent witness of the capitulation of a culture – his culture: the Vienna fin siècle. Unfortunately he will have to attend to the miserable closing stages of this splendid, classy, slow paced, intellectual environment: unrepeatable humus for some of the greatest artists and masterpieces of all times.

His play The Difficult Man [Der Schwierige – 1918] nonchalantly and smartly portrays the grand atmosphere, meek expectations and phlegmatic consternation of a superb society that is slowly withering. Nevertheless its apparently frivolous plot, and the author’s chary writing, will intrigue the reader yet without ever dwindling into prosaic descriptions, banal scenes or trite dialogues. The protagonist, Hans Karl Bühl, is a true member of Viennese aristocracy, forty years old, bachelor and a WWI war veteran. Karl incarnates what the author considers the typical Austrian qualities: decorousness, reserve, acumen and a vast consideration for others’ feelings. Karl leads a tranquil life, civilly attending high society clubs and salons, and meticulously avoiding any actual commitment or engagement. He sits as a member of the Upper House (something of course not gained by a painstaking political campaign and election, but simply due to his ancestors’ nobility…) but he never takes the stand, under no circumstances participates to any debate and by no means gives a speech:

“Everything one utters is indecent. Merely to put anything into words is an indecency. And when one looks at it closely, my dear Aldo, except that men never look closely at anything in the world, there is something positively shameless in our daring even to experience some things”

Yet a sensible man, concomitantly he elegantly evades any of his older sister Crescence’s attempts to find him a spouse; he compassionately comforts his love-sick brother-in-arms Hechingen and modestly embodies a role model for his young nephew Stani, who absolutely worships him and especially for his whimsical comportment:

“A gentleman like you makes himself felt by his mere presence… you never go out for anything and never try to talk people into anything, that is just what is so elegant in you”

The Difficult Man is the play of words and talks, of meetings and goodbyes, of dialogues and mottos, but at the same time is the drama of silence, misunderstandings and miscommunication. Hofmannsthal shows again and again the inadequacy of language to represent feelings and emotions and its common overestimation as a mean of expression. As Antenwyl, another nobleman and Karl’s acquaintance will utter during the evening ball: “Nowadays nobody has the intelligence needed to talk, and nobody the intelligence to keep their mouths shut”. The human ineptitude to communicate is represented in many different nuances and examples, some ridiculous (like an absurd phone call between Karl and his friend Hechingen) some more tragic (which is anytime Karl is undecided as to which route he has to choose…). It is worth noticing that one of the previous tentative titles for the play was The aimless man: a man who had no intent whatsoever… However Karl cannot be simply defined as a lazy individual, but more likely an elegantly reasonable fatalist as he somehow claims:

“It became obvious to me: there is the accident of chance which apparently does with us what it will – but whilst being thrown in all directions, confounded and in fear of death, we are also conscious of, and we know, that there is also a Necessity which chooses us from one moment to the next, which comes, so inaudibly, so close to our hearts and yet cuts as sharp as a sword.”

And again Karl somehow implicitly justifies his atavic social slothfulness  and innate vacillations, both in speech and action, by praising the performance of Furlani, an Italian clown highly celebrated in Vienna:

“He plays this role: the man who wants to understand everybody and help everybody and yet brings everything into the utmost confusion. He makes the silliest blunders,… and yet he does it with such elegance, such discretion, that one realises how much he respect himself and everything in the world…he apparently has no purpose of his own at all, he only enters into the purposes of others. He wants to join in everything the others are doing, he is so full of good will…”

Yet the deus ex machina that partly solves this stall of misapprehensions is Helena, one of Kari’s lovers, who, in spite of her high social status and consequent social conventions, finally finds a breakthrough by shaking the columns of this sophisticated embalmed world, and demolishing the indecision walls of antiquate Austrian etiquette. And this even though Hofmannsthal’s Austrianism permeates the entire work: the powerlessness and dismay for Vienna’s unavoidable decadence are palpable in the harsh comment made during the Viennese soiree by the haughty German Baron Neuhoff, who represents the new Prussian ogle pitilessly perusing the vanishing Viennese grandeur:

“All the people you see here have ceased to exist long time ago. The are nothing but shadow now. Nobody who mingles in these rooms belongs to the factual world in which the intellectual crisis of this century are resolved”

Finally this masterpiece is a demure adieu to a society and to those times that will never return and pervaded by a natural and heterogeneous humanity: Austrian sociability, Italian taste, Jewish solidity and Slavic spirit. And in fact the very same rude Baron Neuhoff, suggesting Karl to follow his example and have his picture done by a fashionable portraitist Bohuslawsky, eventually will not be able to refrain from admitting Karl’s superiority, due to his innate decency and connatural politesse showed under any possible circumstance and adversity:

“What is that makes genuine dignity so unique? Because there is a residue of childlike in it. By way of this childlike quality Bohuslawsky would be able to instil your portrait with something which is exceedingly exceptional in our world and differentiates you in the uppermost degree: dignity. Because we live in a world that is extremely short of dignity.”



  1. Hi
    After reading your write up Iam interested to read the play.

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