Horvath, Ödön von

(1901-1938)
   Playwright. Horvâth was a master of listening to the ways the German-speaking petit bourgeoisie misused language; he had grown up the illegitimate son of a Habsburg diplomat, often in locales where German was not the vernacular idiom. He thus developed an ear finely attuned to the subtleties of language, which he subsequently developed into a remarkable facility for creating dialogue that allowed language to become an instrument of exploitation and abuse. His facility did not highlight mispronunciations, solecisms, or errors in syntax, as Johann Nepo-muk Nestroy and others had done; his was a unique talent unmatched by any other playwright during the Weimar period, endowing characters with the tendency to speak in snippets of advertising slogans, political clichés, and trend-driven phraseology. He was among the first playwrights in German to portray the abominations of mass society and the media, which had so enormous an influence over German usage. Horvâth also realized that the National Socialists and the Communists were highly adept at manipulating both the German language and the media, using both for considerable political benefit to themselves. Horvâth's career reached its high point in 1931 when both Italienische Nacht (Italian Night) and Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald (Tales of the Vienna Woods) premiered; Horvâth received the Kleist Prize the same year. Both plays featured unsympathetic portrayals of individuals at the low end of the social ladder. Rarely in any of his 21 plays were Horvâth's characters admirable, or even pitiable; Horvâth held them firmly responsible for the lamentable conditions in which they found themselves. As a result, his work remained largely ignored in the postwar period until the later 1960s, when a Volksstück revival began to take shape.
   Horvâth had called his plays Volksstücke, but such nomenclature had ironic intentions. Volksstücke were historically associated with young love, musical backgrounds, and robust humor. Horvâth's plays, by contrast, portrayed lovers reduced to speaking platitudes within relationships that were as miserably dangerous as they were inescapable. Glaube Liebe Hoffnung (Faith, Hope, and Charity) became Horvâth's most frequently performed play during the Volksstück revival. It portrays a pair of lovers, but the music Horvâth recommends is Chopin's "Funeral March"; the play's humor is furthermore cadaverous (Horvâth subtitled it "a little dance of death") rather than robust—the play begins in front of a mortuary where a young woman has come, hoping to sell her corpse before she dies. Many Horvâth productions in the mid- to late 20th century attempted to emphasize the plays' social contexts, hoping to deflect the impact of characters who prey on each other and make them appear instead as victims of social forces. Horvâth's underlying contempt for the characters he portrays, however, is difficult to disguise. As in Tales of the Vienna Woods (the original production of which in 1931 starred Peter Lorre and Carola Neher, directed by Heinz Hilpert), the central characters in Faith, Hope, and Charity seem wholly deserving of their fates.
   The renewed interest in Horvâth in the 1960s and 1970s also had a financial basis: many of his plays require enormous scenic investiture, sometimes featuring expensive set pieces like automobiles and Ferris wheels. Only when German theaters began to receive ever larger subsidies were they capable of staging Horvâth's works.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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