Richard Beer-Hofmann's Die Historie Von König David: Jewish Biblical Drama and the Limits of Epic Theater

By Kita, Caroline | German Quarterly, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Richard Beer-Hofmann's Die Historie Von König David: Jewish Biblical Drama and the Limits of Epic Theater


Kita, Caroline, German Quarterly


in august 1906, the austrian-Jewish poet richard Beer-Hofmann (1866-1945) wrote to his wife Paula of his visit to the Bayreuth festival theater founded by composer richard Wagner: "Bayreuth war kein Vergnügen, bin aber froh es gesehen zu haben, es ist lehrreich für künstlerische Gefahren. soviel kunstheuchelei sieht man wohl sonst nirgends auf einem fleck zusammen. aber respekt liegt ja auch in der Heuchelei" (Werke 8: 90). Despite the author's disparaging comments regarding the artistic dangers and hypocrisy of the Bayreuth stage productions, one can also detect admiration for the theatrical vision of their creator. this letter contains one of the few direct references to Wagner to be found in Beer-Hofmann's correspondence and vast literary estate, which is curious given the significance of Wagner's theatrical and artistic legacy for Beer-Hofmann's close friends, who included fellow Jung Wien members Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Hermann Bahr, as well as later artistic collaborators such as director Max reinhardt and stage designer and secessionist painter alfred roller.

Moreover, critical reception of Beer-Hofmann's masterwork, a cycle of biblical dramas entitled Die Historie von König David (1898-1943), which the poet never completed, suggests that for viewers this work was both formally and thematically evocative of Wagner's music dramas. reviewers of Jaákobs Traum, the first drama in his cycle, described it as "ein jüdischer Nibelungen-ring" (eke 140) and "das große nationaljüdische Weihefestspiel" ("Der junge David von Beer-Hofmann" 151), referring respectively to Wagner's four-part operatic spectacle Der Ring des Nibelungen and his sacred festival play Parsifal. in a certain sense, it may seem unconventional to compare Beer-Hofmann's dramas, which are steeped in the history of the Jewish people and drawn from the verses of the Hebrew Bible, to the works of a composer known for his virulently anti-semitic essay Das Judentum in der Musik (1850/1869) and flagrant use of negative Jewish stereotypes in his operas.1However, such responses to Beer-Hofmann's biblical cycle indicate the extent to which Wagner's music dramas and vision for the theater had permeated the German cultural consciousness at the turn of the century. Wagner's concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk and the popularity of his merging of art and religion in Parsifal coincided with a widespread revival in biblical drama at this time. Beer-Hofmann's David cycle can therefore be read as a response to a growing trend in austrian theater that merged Baroque theatricality with a neo-romantic fascination for myths, legends, and folk-epics.

in this article, i claim that while Die Historie von König David was initially envisioned as a cycle of religious festival plays, the project evolved into an experimental work where the poet confronted issues of form and genre facing the modern theater. thus, the three published sections of the Biblical cycle each reflect radically different approaches to drama. in the prelude, Jaákobs Traum (1918), the poet attempts to create a Wagnerian theater of illusion through the integration of stage lighting and design with symbolic gesture and music. Der junge David (1933), however, vacillates between Schauspiel and Lesedrama, as Beer-Hofmann places greater emphasis on the role of performed and written diegesis to engage the critical faculties of the audience. finally, in Vorspiel auf dem Theater zu König David (1935), he fully dismantles the boundaries of the stage, presenting an open commentary on the artwork and the role of the poet in its creation. in tracing this work's development, i reveal the evolution of Beer-Hofmann's vision for the modern Jewish biblical drama from a festival play spectacle to a critique of the theater.

Biblical Drama in f in-de-siècle Vienna

turn-of-the-century Vienna was a city of theater and theatricality. from the baroque pageantry and ceremony of the Habsburg Court to the celebration of popular culture in the cabarets and Volkstheater of the city's peripheral districts, the theater was an inextricable part of everyday life. …

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