A View From Death: Ariadne auf Naxos as Failed Totality

Jenkins, Chadwick

Originating as a divertissement in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's adaptation of
Moliere's Ie Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Ariadne aufNaxos stemmed from the
poet's attempt to create a work wherein "the buffo element ... is throughout
interwoven with the heroic." As he explained it to his collaborator Richard
Strauss, the poet saw in this synthesis of opera seria and commedia dell' arte
elements a "new genre which to all appearances reaches back to a much
earlier one, just as all development goes in cycles" (Strauss and Hofmannsthal
1961:76). Embedded in Gentilhomme, the work reached back towards the
divertissements familiar in the comedie-ballets of Moliere's time while simultaneously
looking forward to a proto-postmodern aesthetic.
The question that has bedeviled numerous commentators has been
whether or not this synthesis is successful (and concomitantly, what constitutes
a success in this case). The opera's conclusion has given rise to the
most serious contentions (Forsyth 1982:194-203). On the one hand, those
who identify the opera with the postmodern tend to see the synthesis as
successful-a success predicated upon its perceived lack of cohesion, its tendency
towards the fragmentary, the incommensurable. On the other hand,
critics such as Karen Forsyth, concentrating on the historicism of the work,
condemn it as a failure. Forsyth, in particular, feels that the opera fails owing
to Hofmannsthal's inability to reconcile his reversion to lyric drama
with the divertissement structure of the original conception (1982:56-61).
However, such condemnation fails to consider the opera within the larger
context of Hofmannsthal's increasing concern with the ethicality of his aesthetic



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Columbia University
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November 5, 2014