Hermann Hesse was one of the most iconoclastic of European authors

Musical? Crossett Library, CC BY-NC-SA

This year’s Edinburgh fringe has seen the UK premiere of Siddhartha: The Musical. The show is based on the classic novel Siddhartha (1922) by Hermann Hesse, winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature.

And if any production lives up to the “international” billing of Edinburgh’s festival, this one surely does. It’s an Italian-language production, set in ancient India. It was adapted from a work written in German by an author who was born with (inherited) Estonian citizenship, grew up in Germany and became a Swiss citizen. And appropriately, like many of Hesse’s works, Siddhartha has received a particularly international reception.

But despite its popularity it’s an unlikely source of material for a musical. Its continued appeal does not really lie in the drama, romance and spectacle that have allowed other literary texts – Les Miserables, say, or Cabaret – to make the transition. The heart of Siddartha is in the portrayal of an intensely personal “restlessness of the soul”, and in the exploration of difficult questions of meaning, purpose, truth and enlightenment.

Siddhartha follows its eponymous central character (the name plays on the birth name of the Buddha) not only on an “inward” journey, but one through space and time. The young Siddhartha’s quest is prompted by nagging restlessness, typical of almost all Hesse’s characters, and driven by his thirst for understanding. He abandons home and family to become an itinerant monk. He learns from the Buddha but refuses to become a “follower”. He transforms himself into a “worldly” man, guided by a courtesan and a merchant. And most famously he ends his life as a ferryman, achieving an extraordinary harmony with the universe and with time, embodied by the eternally flowing river.

From war to truth

The novel was written at a time of international crisis and transition in the aftermath of World War I. It was also a time of personal and artistic problems for Hesse. Like many of his modernist contemporaries in the aftermath of the war, he was seeking new directions away from the romantically-tinged realism that had characterised his early successes.

Siddartha was inspired in part by his reading of Eastern religions and philosophy, in particular that of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. And so it is perhaps unsurprising that the book displays few of the qualities of popular drama. There’s no development of rounded characters and no dramatic tension in its consciously sparse and focused depiction of a quest for “the essential thing” beyond the the physical world. Siddartha searches for a truth that can only be attained by an “inward journey” of self-discovery, one that can be experienced but not taught.

This rejection of formal modes of instruction and dogma was an important theme for Hesse. It undoubtedly relates to his unhappy experience of a bourgeois education in the formal rigidity of imperial Germany. Yet at the same time the compact, episodic narrative of Siddhartha, in depicting the key “stations” of a life, displays an affinity both with the German tradition of the Bildungsroman, the novel of education, as well as dramatic forms that have an even longer tradition, for example in the Christian passion play.

There are in fact few works of literature from the 20th century that have enjoyed comparable reach and resonance. The first wave of enthusiasm was during the 1920s and 1930s. Then there was a second from the 1960s, when the novel’s themes of spirituality and rebellion found a ready audience among a young generation seeking authenticity and value in an increasingly secular and material world. Siddhartha has been translated into more than 30 languages, including many Indian languages, has sold countless millions of copies and was lavishly adapted into a film, directed by Conrad Rooks in 1972.

The influence of Asian culture on Europe stretches back many centuries, and Hesse’s novel was certainly not unique in attempting to go beyond cliché in its engagement with Asian themes. Yet for today’s multicultural and globalised culture, the synthesis of Eastern and Western perspectives in this unusual novel retains a distinct relevance.

This latest “pop-rock” incarnation of the work has already proven a success in mainland Europe. It provides another indication of the enduring appeal of Siddhartha. The minimalist framework of the novel has given way to eye-popping lightshows, gymnastic dancing and a thumping soundtrack. This might have surprised, but not necessarily disappointed Hesse – he was one of the most open-minded, iconoclastic and perhaps undervalued of European authors.

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