Weekly blog 18 May — Vienna

“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) 

St. Stephen's, Vienna

St. Stephen’s, Vienna

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.

Frescoes inside the rotunda, Karl's Church, Vienna

Frescoes inside the rotunda, Karl’s Church, Vienna

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.






3 responses to “Weekly blog 18 May — Vienna

  1. Elizabeth Davis

    Really? No River in Vienna? what a disappointment!

    • No “Vienna River” (Wienfluss) in Vienna, at least no longer in front of the Theater an der Wien (“Theater on the Vienna River”), where that little arroyo has dried up and been covered over with the wonderful restaurants and greenmarkets of the “Naschmarkt” (‘the market where you can nosh’). Further to the southwest, toward Schönbrunn, the original riverbed is now the Green Line (U4) of the Unterbahn, or subway. Even further west, in the hills of the Wienerwald, there are a few streams feeding into this dead river, and further east, over by Beethovenplatz and the Stadtpark, there is still a cistern designed to contain the raging waves of the river, and occasionally it has half a meter or so of water in it. Of course, there are four Danubes in Vienna, none of them, alas, blue. Centuries ago, the Danube from west of Vienna to east of Beograd, was a deltified swamp, and it could not be used for commerce or tourism until it was channelized, straightened, and deepened by engineers. This involved building many locks from Regensburg, Bavaria, to Dzherdap, Serbia, and in Vienna, it meant making four Danubes: the Danube proper is the totally artificial, straight, deep, river between the modern skyscrapers of UNO City (with all the United Nations related organizations) and the island that is home to the famous Prater, and the “New Danube” is the straight, deep, river, equally artificial, separated from it by the artificial “Danube Island” (Donauinsel). To the northeast of both of them is the “Old Danube”, a cul-de-sac made from one of the deltas, now used for recreation. The Danube that runs through, or at least near, the city, is the Danube Canal (or “Channel”, as ‘kanal’ may be translated either way). It is smaller, and was of course one of the original streams of the delta. Whatever is left, at any given time of year, of the of the arroyo called the Wienfluss (Vienna River) flows into the Danube Channel right near the Olympia Theatre (originally a planetarium).

      • Correct. The remainder of the ‘arroyo’ flows (occasonally) in a culvert on the east side, through the Stadtpark, and into the Danube Channel at the popular Urania Film Theatre (in an old planetarium). I don’t believe I said anything to imply that the Wienfluss currently runs in front of the Theater an der Wien. It used to when Mozart and Schikaneder were alive, hence the theatre’s name.

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