Strindberg, Peter Szondi, and the Origins of Modern (Tragic) Drama

By Wilkinson, Lynn R. | Scandinavian Studies, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Strindberg, Peter Szondi, and the Origins of Modern (Tragic) Drama


Wilkinson, Lynn R., Scandinavian Studies


Peter Szondi's best known comments on Strindberg occur in the first section of his 1956 dissertation, Theorie des modernen Dramas [Theory of the Modern Drama].(1) In this short and often puzzling work, he portrays Strindberg as the greatest formal innovator in a group of canonical playwrights--Ibsen, Chekhov, Maeterlinck, and Hauptmann--whose work represents "the drama in crisis." To a far greater extent than any other turn-of-the-century works Szondi discusses, Strindberg's plays depart from an earlier tradition the theorist calls somewhat provocatively "absolute drama" and point the way to developments in twentieth-century dramatic literature.

Theorie des modernen Dramas focuses on texts, rather than theater or performance, and its range is international, comprising the work of dramatists from Sweden, Norway, Germany and Austria, Italy, Belgium, and the United States. These two emphases--on literary language and on the work of literature as situated in the perspective of western tradition--would characterize Szondi's scholarly career as a whole. Drama was an enduring interest: he published essays on theories of the tragic and eighteenth-century dramatic theory, as well as individual plays by writers as diverse as Moliere, Kleist, Hofmannsthal, and Brecht. In the 1960s, he gave two series of lectures, the transcripts of which were posthumously published as Das lyrische Drama des Fin de Siecle [The Lyrical Drama of the Fin de Siecle] and Die Theorie des burgerlichen Trauerspiels [Theory of the Bourgeois Tragic Drama].(2) Among his papers at the time of his death in 1971 was a research proposal for a book on eighteenth-century drama. Other major interests were hermeneutics and translation. Much of the critic's work after Theorie des modernen Dramas consisted of close analyses of individual texts in relation to other texts or a larger tradition.(3)

Szondi's comparative and linguistic perspectives reflect his background. In important respects, his work belongs to a tradition of comparative literary studies as a field founded and developed by exiles, presenting striking parallels to the work of Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, and Rene Wellek in the 1950s.(4) The son of the Hungarian psychologist Leopold Szondi, Peter Szondi studied with Emil Staiger before moving to Germany, where he played the role of outsider as insider within the German university system. Szondi's theoretical allegiances also suggest an exile's perspective. The three models he cites in the introduction to Theorie des modernen Dramas--Lukacs, Adorno, and Benjamin--all wrote their major works in German but as outsiders and often outside of Germany. In choosing these three, who exerted a lasting influence on his work, Szondi opted not to fall in with the dominant trend in German literary studies, which was to take the philosophy of Heidegger as a model for the investigation of specifically German resonances in literary language and tradition.(5)

Since his death, Szondi's work has continued to interest students of literary theory, as well as literature and drama. But if one is to judge by recent histories of criticism, such as Peter Hohendahl's A History of German Literary Criticism 1730-1980, which mentions him only in passing, Szondi's work has yet to be accepted as part of the mainstream of German or western literary theory.(6) Literary critics, theorists, and recently historians of literary theory have been mainly interested in his work for the parallels it presents to prominent tendencies in literary theory, above all hermeneutics and French poststructuralism. A colloquium on his work held in 1979, in fact, took up the question of its relevance to both these contexts.(7)

Two essays presented at the colloquium focus on Theorie des modernen Dramas. Gert Mattenklott takes the work to task for its focus on spoken and written language, at the expense of other, theatrical systems of signification which, say, Brecht's theater brings to bear on the oppressive aspects of a linguistic discourse of domination. …

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