Duke University Alumni Magazine

Sweet Words and Melancholy Melodies
Jon Marans
by Robert J. Bliwise

In the playwright's Old Wicked Songs, a teacher and his student discover surprising truths about themselves-- and enduring truths about music.
ust a few steps into Washington, D.C.'s Holocaust Memorial Museum, the visitor confronts Heinrich Heine. The words of Heine, identified as a "German-Jewish poet," accompany the exhibit on the Nazi-organized burning of books: "Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned." The bonfires came a hundred days after Hitler's rise to power. What followed for the Jews in Germany's sphere of influence--social isolation, the loss of legal rights, officially sanctioned violence, and the campaign of extermination--makes those words seem powerfully prescient.

     Heine is one of two behind-the-scenes characters in a play by Jon Marans '79, Old Wicked Songs; the other is Robert Schumann, a composer who set Heine's poems to music in his The Dichterliebe. Old Wicked Songs sketches the relationship between a young music student and his teacher, a relationship whose points of harmony and discord are marked by their music-making. A finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in drama (the winner was Jonathan Larson's rock-musical Rent), Old Wicked Songs opened in the spring of 1995 at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. It moved to New York's Jewish Repertory Theater, and found a home last summer at the Promenade Theater Off-Broadway.

     From the beginning, not much is as it seems in the play. The student, piano prodigy Stephen Hoffmann, is trying to reclaim his artistic identity and, as it develops, his Jewish identity. He comes to Vienna expecting a renowned piano teacher to coach him to be an accompanist. Instead, he is assigned to Professor Josef Mashkan, a voice teacher who is supposed to impress on him sympathy for singers. "You're not Jewish...are you?" Mashkan asks in an early encounter. "No. Protestant," is the answer he gets.

     Mashkan refers to going home to an "adoring wife," who turns out to have died ten years ago, or perhaps never to have existed. He brags about bringing on Korean students as his next charges after Stephen, but they're never seen. He presents himself as casually, if not fervidly, anti-Semitic ("Why does everyone always harp on the Jews?! They are not the only ones who suffered!")--but only as part of the dance of deception between the two. Later, he rolls up his sleeve and reveals a tattoo on his arm, a gesture that marks him a survivor of a concentration camp, and--like Stephen earlier--a self-denying Jew.


     The relationship develops against a backdrop of cover-ups, particularly the presidential campaign of Kurt Waldheim; Waldheim had tried to obscure the details of his service in Hitler's army. Stephen says to Mashkan, "Your history books say you were forcibly invaded by the Germans, but in 1938 there were about half a million Austrian Nazis--proportionally more Nazis than in Germany." In the course of a train ride to Dachau, just in the outskirts of Munich, he is told by an older woman, "I knew nothing that went on there!" When he gets to Dachau, he finds it has been "fixed up" and "covered over." "Most of the buildings--gone. Those that were left--whitewashed."

     For that matter, he observes derisively, Vienna is built on a series of lies. "The Blue Danube isn't blue, it's brown!... The Ringstrasse running around the center of Vienna isn't a ring, but three quarters of a circle at most. St. Mary's on the Banks doesn't even lie on a bank!"

     Over a pasta lunch in midtown Manhattan's Restaurant Row, playwright Marans shows himself fascinated by deception. The waiter, he concludes, is affecting a French accent. And the chips off the cups and saucers--are they purposeful chips, meant to balance the expensive menu with a homespun image? At one point, he says, his family thought they were related to the marranos Jews in Spain. In the fourteenth century, the marranos reacted to waves of pogroms and expulsions by pretending to have converted to Christianity.

     Old Wicked Songs' dance of deception is deepened by Heine's own curious quest for identity. Born in Dusseldorf in 1797, the poet lived through a time when Jews were confined to ghettos, not allowed to own property, and barred from most trades and professions. As a university student, he aligned himself with a Jewish-rights organization. But four weeks before he was to receive his law degree, he arranged to be baptized. The baptismal certificate was needed, as he put it, as his "entry ticket to European culture."

     To call the events a "conversion" would be an overstatement, says Heine biographer Ulrich Weisstein. "No change of view or commitment was involved and he regretted the step almost at once. In time, he came to feel the sting of humiliation all the more when he realized that baptism had been of no avail, either in helping him to attain a position or in 'washing off' his Jewishness."

     Heine's Book of Songs was published in 1827. At the time of his death in 1856, it was in its thirteenth edition. With the simple forms and metric lines of the conventional four-line stanza, the 240 poems have the qualities of folk songs, most of them dwelling on unrequited love. For The Dichterliebe, Schumann drew on a section called "Lyrical Intermezzo," romantic poems that Heine wrote when he was between twenty-four and twenty-seven.

     Many of those poems seek out analogies between natural events and human experiences. The opening poem in the "Intermezzo," for example, parallels human love and the universal rite of spring: "In May, the magic month of May,/When all the buds were springing,/Into my heart the burning/Bright arrow of love came winging." But love, even love in the midst of a blossoming world, produces loss, loneliness, and isolation: "Since my lost love said adieu,/I have done with weeping too./My heart breaks, and pain lies deep,/But I can no longer weep." These are laments of the aching heart--a theme bitterly brought to the surface in the last of the poems, which Marans employs for his play's title: "The old songs filled with anger,/The bad dreams filled with woe,/Let's bury them now--get hold of/A mighty coffin, ho!... Do you know why it's so heavy,/So great and long and wide?/ I put my love and sorrow/And all my pain inside."

     Stephen Hoffmann, the twenty-five-year-old student in Old Wicked Songs, is filled with anger at his inability to be more than a "superb technician." He tells his voice teacher, Mashkan, "I want to feel something for once." Mashkan is himself a damaged and diminished human being, a Holocaust victim who chooses to live in a place that could not abide his living. He compares himself, oddly, to coffee that's brewing and that is slowly evaporating. "In other words, its strength comes from part of it disappearing."

     "The boy is the words and the professor is the music and they start to blend, and one becomes more like the other until eventually they become a united piece," says Marans. "A piano prodigy leads basically a very lonely life. So here's this boy who is completely isolated, and here's this man who is also completely isolated." In his script's first stage direction, Marans defines Mashkan's studio as a musty cave that's been sealed for years. "Basically, it's a tomb; we're in a tomb that, hopefully by the end of the play, has opened up. And these two ghosts are allowed to travel out of the world." As Heine's poem has it, they bury their sorrows, and their love--including their love for each other.

     A close relationship between teacher and student is invariably a love affair, Marans says. "On some level, each has to adore the other person." His story is a memory play--a student's homage to a great teacher whom he has come to love and whom he is about to lose. And it's a lesson in coming to terms with joy and sadness, opposing qualities projected in the words and the melody of The Dichterliebe. As Maskhkan tells Stephen in an early scene: "This combination of joy and sadness--this is the core of truly beautiful music. Just as it is the core of drama. Or life."

     At the beginning of the play, Mashkan "is emotionally shut down," says actor Hal Robinson, who plays the role. "The only area of his life that he still has passion about is music. And the rest of it he is very cynical about. He doesn't trust, he doesn't give anything of himself except in music. And by the end of the play, he not only has shared his deepest secrets with Stephen, but he has done so in a way that redeems Stephen, that gives Stephen back his ability to feel and care, to show emotions."

Genius at the keyboard: In the New York production, Hal Robinson, left, plays the enigmatic music teacher and Justin Kirk the frustrated prodigy

     When Mashkan finally tells Stephen about his experiences in the concentration camp, he speaks out of the hearing of the audience. As the characters' words recede into the background, The Dichterliebe assumes center-stage. Marans says the effect makes the point that the barrier between teacher and student finally has been broken, and that Mashkan is ready to take Stephen into his confidence. "So many times their feelings are expressed through the music. And this was the moment where I wanted the song cycle and the play to basically ally, to literally intertwine and become one." So, too, does harmony reign on different levels: Schumann's sometimes bitter and melancholy melody finds common ground with Heine's sweet words; and the resistance to emotional expression on the part of teacher and student alike melts away.

     Robert Schumann was among the many composers who set Heine's poems to music; The Dichterliebe, or "A Poet's Love," employs sixteen from the cycle. Schumann was born in a small provincial town in eastern Germany in 1810. In his late twenties, he fell in love with sixteen-year-old Clara Wieck, herself a brilliant pianist. The two were married after an agonizing period of separation; The Dichterliebe was his wedding present of sorts. (According to biographer Peter Ostwald, Schumann wasn't immune to the currents of anti-Semitism; in fact, the term was coined in 1829, during his lifetime. The composer had an ambivalent association with a convert from Judaism, Felix Mendelssohn. To one correspondent, he advertised Mendelssohn as "really a god." But reflecting on his fellow musician in his marriage diary, he concluded, "Jews remain Jews.")

     The Dichterliebe is the product of both romantic genius and emotional disturbance, Ostwald notes. Since adolescence, Schumann had been troubled by extreme sadness and preoccupations with death. He had his first nervous breakdown at age twenty-three; he continued to be plagued (and perhaps stirred into creative effort) by hallucinations and mysterious inner voices. A suicidal depression would lead him to leap off a bridge into the Rhine River. He died in an asylum. (In the play, Mashkan attempts suicide through a drug overdose.)

     Long before Old Wicked Songs, actor Hal Robinson had a track record with The Dichterliebe (a fact that emerged only later for Marans and the production team). As a young professional soloist, he performed it with the Chicago Symphony, and again at Wilson College in Pennsylvania. After military service, he returned to finish his music degree at Indiana University; he sang the song cycle again to complete his requirements. From the time he learned it, The Dichterliebe became a work into which he could blend his own joys and sorrows, he says. "Normally, when I'm learning a new piece of music, I would listen to other performances of it--not to imitate them in any way, but just to see how they do it and familiarize myself with the music. I couldn't do that with this piece. I just could not listen to another interpretation, because it seemed wrong to me. That sounds very youthfully proud, but it has nothing to do with that; it was just intensely personal."

     Robinson says that Marans, in Old Wicked Songs, shows an "uncanny" feel for the song cycle. "The arc of the play, the emotional arc, fellows the emotional development of The Dichterliebe. I doubt that could have been conscious on Jon's part; I think the music is so inside him that it came out of his subconscious, in a way. I know he made decisions, of course, about which song to use in which scene and certainly which songs to use to tell the story. But I think the process that he went through was a totally integrated one that came out of his experience and his love for the music."

     Justin Kirk, who played in Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! on Broadway, has the role of Stephen. "In terms of classical music knowledge, I have zero, except--now--for Schumann," he says. (He is, though, a singer and guitarist in a rock group, the Dimestore Darlings.) "You don't need to know anything about music to be completely engaged and involved in the play. But if you do, I'm sure it's an extra bonus."

     By play's end, Kirk says, his character has solidified his musical identity, his religious identity, and his overall sense of self. "He's been on a journey, and I think he's found his center. I don't think the ending of the play is about finding security; I don't think there's anything necessarily good in security. I think it's about reaching a higher plane of being, and learning how to live with yourself."

     Long drawn to the idea of becoming a lyricist and a playwright, Marans studied the cello while growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland. At Duke, he majored in mathematics and minored in music. He was introduced to The Dichterliebe by Wayne Lail, a voice teacher in the music department. Marans says he realizes--now--that he identified with the "young man's anger and passion" that runs through the poems; years later, he connected more with the music, with the perspective of "a more mature man who was looking at life with more of a bitter-sweetness."

     Over the past twenty years, Lail has taught The Dichterliebe frequently--not only because of the beauty of the music and the text, but also because the piece operates in a vocal context that suits student baritones and tenors. "Jon was one of those kids whose enthusiasm just makes him stand out," Lail says. "He had a special talent for being able to find some kernel in a song, some underlying idea, and to bring it to life. Maybe that's something a playwright does, to make even the trivial and the everyday seem important and universal."

     During his junior year, Marans went to Vienna with the Duke Wind Symphony, officially signing on as a music librarian. But his avocation in Vienna was to take voice lessons --hoping, like Stephen in his play, to understand the sensibilities of the singer. Lail says that "Students always come back from Vienna with a sort of bright light shining in their eyes, and that light never seems to be diminished after the experience. It was true for Jon; he became quite a different musician, and quite a different person."

     One aspect of life in Vienna that made Marans a different person was his encounter with anti-Semitism. "It was so blatant," he says. "The comment that is made in the play--'Dachau is just a bunch of dead Jews'--is something I heard there. Someone said it to me, and they weren't joking." Like Stephen in Old Wicked Songs, he made a visit to the death camp. "It was a pivotal event for me as far as being Jewish, suddenly realizing that it wasn't over, the anti-Semitism. The whole point is you go to Dachau and it's all covered up. I mean, there's nothing there; they've hidden it all."


     Buoyed by the Pulitzer nomination, Marans is working on three projects, all of which use music to advance and comment on the action. One is a movie script set in a place resembling the Steinway & Sons factory. But apart from the rare joy of Old Wicked Songs, the arc of his own professional life traces some plunges into disappointment.

     After Duke, he was admitted to the BMI/ Lehman Engel workshop, a laboratory for new musical-theater writers. His play Child Child was produced in Houston, winning Marans his first recognition, the Preston Jones New Play Award. Success didn't follow success in playwriting, and he joined Michael Douglas' production company as a reader. "I didn't like anything I read, which is why, I think, they kept kicking me upstairs. I became a script doctor and editor, which means fixing other people's scripts. And what I noticed is that nobody understood structure; and I didn't understand it either. So I started studying it. And it was then that I started being able to say, 'Oh, the first act ends on page 59, it should really be ending on page 34.' Understanding that changed a lot for me."

     Then he was approached by Mark Bramble, who had co-written Barnum and 42nd Street. The two were to collaborate on a show called Gold Diggers, which had attracted David Merrick as producer and had secured a site on Broadway. But Bramble and Merrick quarreled about preview arrangements; Bramble pulled the show from New York and moved it to London, where it was cast with Chita Rivera in the lead. Four days before rehearsals were to start, the London producer pulled the plug: Confronting the financial disaster of another of his shows, A Clockwork Orange, the producer left Gold Diggers in the dust.

     At that rather low point, in 1990, Marans retreated to the Dorset Writers Colony in Vermont and began writing Old Wicked Songs. He had come to conclude that he needed to follow his own muse as a writer, regardless of prospects for commercial success. While the script was making the rejection rounds, he was lured to Los Angeles by a show-business friend who promised to find him a job. "He picked me up and he said, 'I've got an interview for you tomorrow.' And I said, 'Great, who's it with?' He said, 'Carol Burnett.' I said, 'Well, what are they looking for?' He said, 'They don't know.' I said, 'Perfect.' "

     Today, he says his comedy-sketch work for The New Carol Burnett Show was far from perfect. But the television money and some rewrite jobs, plus another unproduced collaboration with Bramble, kept him going.

     It took two years to get Old Wicked Songs produced, a time frame that, says Marans, isn't bad for an unknown playwright. Despite rave reviews in Philadelphia, it wasn't until the Pulitzer nomination that the play found its way to New York's Promenade Theater. Another company, starring Bob Hoskins, opened in November for a limited run at the Gielgud Theater in London's West End. The play has been translated into a dozen languages, and international productions beyond London are in the works; the first such production is set for Munich.

     Playgoers in New York have been moved in different ways. People with difficult father-son relationships saw another dimension in the teacher-student relationship. A gay priest found the theme of deception almost too much to bear. And the son of survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp told him that his mother, an amateur singer, died listening to The Dichterliebe and anticipating flower plantings mirrored in the cycle. On her birthday, her family plays the recording in remembrance--reminding themselves of the joy and the sadness that resides at the core of life, and that energized the imaginations of Heinrich Heine, Robert Schumann, and now Jon Marans.                                                                 

If you read and enjoyed the article above click the button below

[Back to Top]

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor