Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Hillary and the Marschallin

I usually don’t read Maureen Dowd when I click through the Times’s editorial pages; there are enough real news stories to read in the Times and elsewhere, to waste much time with her second-hand musings on whatever she is currently writing about. But today for some reason, I read her column, “The Hillary Waltz.” And I was very interested to see her compare Hillary Clinton to one of the great characters in opera (and one of my favorites), the Field Marshall’s wife, the Marschallin, from Richard Strauss’s opera “Der Rosenkavalier,” with its memorable libretto by the Austrian poet Hugo von Hoffmansthal.

For those not familiar with the opera, let me quote Dowd’s synopsis:
The Marschallin is a princess married to a Viennese field marshal who has a liaison dangereuse with a younger man, Count Octavian. [Although Octavian is played in the opera by a woman, one of opera’s many “pants parts.”] Though she’s worried about her fleeting youth and the fickleness of men, she instructs the young man on the ways of love and then gracefully sets him free, allowing him to find happiness with young Sophie as a soaring waltz plays.

Dowd argues that as the older woman with a young male ingénue, Hillary is teaching Obama valuable lessons in life, how to be rough, how to fight elections to win, with all of the nastiness that Dowd has associated with the Clinton’s for many years now. Obama needs Clinton’s tough love. Let me quote Dowd again: “ Whether or not she wins, Hillary has already given noble service as a sophisticated political tutor for Obama, providing her younger colleague with much-needed seasoning. Who else was going to toughen him up?”

As usual, I don’t quite follow Dowd’s argument (but I certainly appreciated the operatic reference.) Were Hillary and Obama former lovers? Did Obama leave her for another woman? How is a love affair like trying to beat out the brains of your political opponent?

What was interesting about Dowd’s column for me is that for the past few weeks I have been thinking of Hillary and the Marschallin, but it was in connection to a different part of the opera. In the middle of last act, the Marschallin makes a grand entrance, and tells her cousin, the lecherous Baron Ochs, that because his attempt to seduce the maid Mariand’l (who is Octavian, a woman playing a man, disguised as a woman; the gender complexities are thick in this opera) his engagement with Sophie is off, leaving the scene clear for Octavian to take off his dress and many Sophie. Anyway, when Baron Ochs tries to plead his case, she cuts him off with a famous line:
Versteht Er nicht, wenn eine Sach; ein End hat? (Do you not understand when something is at an end?)

This is of course the very line that many Democrats have been asking of Hillary the past several weeks. Doesn’t she realize that her quest to be president is over? Isn’t it time to summon whatever dignity she might have left, pack her belongings, and return home? I have been of two minds about this. Obviously, the Democrats need to pick a candidate as soon as they can. But just as Obama had every right to enter the race, thereby greatly complicating what seemed like it would be an easy road for Hillary for the Democratic nomination, Hillary has every right to stay in the race, and until such time as she decides to withdraw, and while you’re running, all you can do is to go all out and try to defeat your opponent.

There is much more to be said about this, but I have been struck by the extent that so many Obama supporters have come to loathe Hillary. It’s curious. Perhaps, in part, it is because like the Marshcallin (or to give another example, Mrs. Robinson), she is seen as that least likeable of female stereotypes, the older woman as seductress, trying to steal something that really doesn’t belong to her. Strauss and Hofmanstahl knew enough that when you write a comedy it can’t end with the older woman getting her man. The teenagers have to get together, and the Marshallin’s affair with Octavian will end in sadness, knowing that it couldn’t have lasted anyway.

In the other most famous line in the opera, at the very end, when Sophie and Octavian are declaring their love in ecstatic, soaring music, and someone comments that young people are always the same, ardent and amorous, and how nice it is to be a teenager in love, the Marschallin answers with a world weary and wistful, “Ja, Ja,” and leaves the stage to the lovers. In any event, the Democrats will likely, in the near future consummate their love affair with Barak Obama, and Hillary will likely be off stage left (stage right?), keeping a stoic and proud exterior, with her own infinitely regretful version of the Marshallin’s “Ja, Ja.” (And trudge home to her own version of Baron Ochs.)

One last comment, follow my and Maureen Dowd’s advice and give Der Rosenkavalier a try, and make your own far fetched analoigies to the contemporary American political scene.


Deb said...

I am writing a paper for my music history class and i found this artical very useful. Thank You. It is so true that we are a century from the opera's creation and almost 300 more years from it's premise yet "there is (still, sic.) nothing new under the sun."

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I do not like that kind of information but I got something really good, it was one name"Hugo von Hoffmansthal",
he was the best Austrian novelist, librettist, poet, dramatist, narrator, and essayist.

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