“Wien, Wien, nur Du allein sollst stets die Stadt meiner Träume sein!” – Vienna, you alone will always be the city of my dreams! (Song by Rudolf Sieczynski)
Dreams, yes, but not literary ones, unless one is well-versed in “Wienerisch” – the local dialect. Vienna’s greatest literary figures have used a language that defies translation despite its brilliance, indeed, one might say because of its brilliance. Viennese theatre and journalism use the local dialect with such flair that the only way to appreciate the great local literary works is to learn the local language.
Johann Nestroy was a brilliant playwright, actor, singer, and theatre manager, deeply venerated by the Viennese but almost unknown outside the German-speaking world. Early in his career he worked at the Theater an der Wien (“The Theatre on the [nonexistent] Vienna River”) founded by Mozart’s erstwhile buddy and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, then an operetta and comedy venue, now an innovative opera company specializing in Baroque and contemporary works. Later in his career, he succeeded Ferdinand Raimund as manager, resident playwright, and actor/singer at the Volkstheater, now an operetta venue, but then equally amenable to satirical comedy. Finally, he favored comic acting over singing, and his satire was topical and quite piquant. Word play was a specialty, which of course contributes to translation difficulties. His greatest advocate outside the German-speaking world was the American playwright Thornton Wilder, who based a play “The Merchant of Yonkers” on Nestroy’s “Einen Jux will er sich machen”, (‘He’s making a fool of himself’), unsuccessful until revised as “The Matchmaker”, which of course became “Hello, Dolly!”. The same play was also later adapted as a non-musical by Tom Stoppard.
The other truly great light of Viennese literature was the satirical essayist Karl Kraus, whose journal “The Torch” was very much a personal vehicle, targeting current politics and journalism during the first third of the 20th century. Topical and cranky, its pages took almost obsessive delight in the peculiarities of the German language, attributing all kinds of grand meanings to seemingly minor stylistic details. Of course this made its diatribes into hot topics of the day, but also contributed to their quick decline, and once again to great difficulties of translation. Still, the cafe culture of the interwar years in Vienna, where Kraus was also a performer (of songs, dramatic readings, poetry recitations, and lectures) are unthinkable without Karl Kraus.
Come to Vienna for opera and operetta, for the palaces, even for the art. But unless you study ‘Wienerisch’ first, its literature will very likely remain a mystery.