Old Wicked Songs

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Old Wicked Songs
Written by Jon Marans
Place premiered Walnut Street Theatre
Original language English

Old Wicked Songs is a two character play written by Jon Marans whose work received a nomination for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Other works by Marans include A Strange and Separate People, Jumping for Joy, Legacy of the Dragonslayers and the musical Irrationals, (music by Edward Thomas).

Old Wicked Songs was first produced by Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. It was later produced in New York city and by Daryl Roth and Jeffrey Ash with The Barrow Group at the Promenade Theatre on August 16, 1996.

Marans' play was later produced in England at the Bristol Old Vic and was later moved to the Gielgud Theatre in London's West End. Between March 31 and May 10, 2008, it was produced at its venue city, in Vienna's English theatre in Austria.


  • 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Drama nominee
  • Winner of the L.A. Drama Logue Award


  • Professor Josef Mashkan, Viennese, late-50s
  • Stephen Hoffman, American, 25 years old


Old Wicked Songs is about the relationship between a Viennese music professor in his late-50s named Professor Josef Mashkan and his newly acquired student Stephen Hoffman. Hoffman is a 25-year-old pianist who at one time was considered to be a prodigy in his field, but suffers from severe burn out and has not been performing for a year.

The play takes place in Vienna, Austria in Professor Mashkan's rehearsal studio. It begins in the spring of 1986 and continues through to summer. The national and international political background is Kurt Waldheim's election to Austrian federal president in the spring of 1986. Because of Waldheim's alleged involvement in war crimes in the Balkans during World War II his nomination was fervently opposed worldwide, e.g. by the World Jewish Congress. The protests, however, resulted in a stubborn reaction of the Austrian electorate and a clear Waldheim victory in a run-off election. During his presidency he was isolated internationally and put on the US Nazi watchlist.

Upon his arrival in Vienna, Hoffman is under the impression that he will be studying accompaniment under the instruction of Professor Schiller. However, much to his surprise, he must first study singing for three months under the tutelage of Professor Mashkan. At the very start of the play, Marans introduces Mashkan's racial slurs towards the Jewish race. It is later discovered that this is a defense mechanism used by Mashkan to cover up his dark secret.

Through his teachings, Mashkan tells Hoffman that there is both "sadness and joy" in music and that he should experience real life examples to better connect him to the message of composer Robert Schumann's song cycle Dichterliebe and the poetry of Heinrich Heine. Hoffman then tells Mashkan his plans to go to the opera to experience joy and to then visit the Dachau concentration camp for sadness.

After a series of lessons, Mashkan’s slandering of the Jewish culture begins to build a strong tension between him and Hoffman, who is Jewish. This is aggravated when Hoffman, fulfilling a promise given to his father, actually visits Dachau. After this experience, he skips Mashkan's lessons for over two weeks, wandering about in Vienna. When he returns, he tells Mashkan the whole story, including the night he spent with Sarah, a young Jew he met at the bus in Dachau. The recollection of this visit to the horrors of a concentration camp and the intense lovemaking afterwards again brings up the theme of "sadness and joy".

After an attempt at suicide, Mashkan is found lying on his couch by Hoffman. During the process of rescuing Mashkan, Hoffman notices a number tattooed on Mashkan's forearm, a clear sign that Mashkan is a Holocaust survivor.

Marans incorporates the poetry of Heinrich Heine and the music of Robert Schumann into this series of events. Through the translation sessions between Mashkan and Hoffman, Marans creates a link between two generations that find they have much more in common than they think.

Marans had previously studied Schumann's Dichterliebe in Vienna. Schumann's song cycle is "infused with a 'young man's anger and passion.'" Marans stated, "Since I was 21 at the time and dealing with my own 'young man's rage', that's what I responded to."

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