Schnitzler, Arthur


Schnitzler, Arthur
(1862-1931)
   Playwright. Schnitzler was a product of fin de siècle Vienna, and his artistic sensibility was in a way similar to Hugo von Hofmannsthal's, though Schnitzler was much less lyrical in his plays and far more interested in the sensual. Schnitzler also had greater interest in writing plays with popular appeal. His working relationship with Otto Brahm was based on their mutual interest in theater production and on the deep personal friendship the two men developed at the beginning of the 20th century.
   Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) recognized in Schnitzler not only a fellow Viennese physician but a man like himself who saw the connection between eroticism and morbidity. He referred to Schnitzler as a scientific colleague whom critics had likewise denounced for his "investigations [into] the underestimated and often traduced erotic" (Kurt Berge, ed., Georg Brandes und Arthur Schnitzler: Ein Briefwechsel [Bern: Francke, 1956], 29). Schnitzler was, like Freud, a licensed physician who cultivated an interest in psychology. By the mid-1890s, however, Schnitzler had devoted himself fully to playwriting.
   His first success came with Liebelei (variously translated as Light o'Love, Love's Adventures, or simply Loving) in 1895 at the Burgtheater. In it, two young gallants (one of whom Schnitzler modeled on himself as a young man) bed down with two süsse Mädel (lower-class girls from the Viennese suburbs). One of the girls, Christine, falls madly in love with Fritz, who is also having an affair with a married woman. The aggrieved husband of the woman challenges Fritz to a duel and kills him. Christine discovers Fritz's death in a haphazard way, days after the duel; she becomes hysterical and departs, presumably to kill herself.
   Schnitzler gave Brahm exclusive rights to the performance of his plays in Berlin at the Deutsches Theater, and Brahm staged 10 Schnitzler plays, both at the Deutsches and later at the Lessing, with varying degrees of popular and critical success. Schnitzler's most successful plays among the public were his comedies, including the short Der grüne Kakadu (The Green Cockatoo, 1899), Zwischenspiel (Interlude, 1905), and Komtesse Mitzi (Countess Mitzi, 1909).
   Among Schnitzler's most controversial plays was Anatol, again based on his own youthful adventures. Schnitzler completed it in 1893 and a Czech-language production was staged in Prague in 1895. Only in 1910, however, did the premiere of the original script take place. Anatol is actually seven one-act playlets, all of them featuring the title character's attempts at seduction, usually accompanied by ennui, frustration, and hypocrisy—or a combination of all three. Der Reigen shared a similar history of controversy with Anatol. Usually translated as La Ronde, Schnitzler completed Der Reigen in 1897 but it did not premiere in German until 1920 (after a 1912 Hungarian production in Budapest). Like Anatol, Der Reigen is a series of short plays, but it features an equal number of male and female characters, each of whom has sex with the other through a round of encounters (hence the title). By the final round, the original couple find themselves again in each other's presence. What made the play so disturbing was its frankness; couples matter-of-factly copulated with each other (though not in view of the audience), giving the impression of unappetizing cynicism. It lacked much of the eroticism found in Schnitzler's other works—perhaps one reason it became Schnitzler's most popular play in English translation.
   Professor Bernhardi has likewise proved to be popular. It is also somewhat autobiographical, in that Schnitzler based some of it on his father. And it too was controversial—though the Berlin police allowed its premiere production for public performance at the Lessing Theater in 1912 under Brahm's direction. Brahm correctly prophesied that a Berlin production would be easier to stage than one in Vienna, largely because "in Berlin, Jewish doctors are not persecuted, in fact they dominate the place. We will thus have fewer hurdles to jump over than in [Austria], the land of the Eucharistic Congress" (Oskar Seidlin, ed., Der Briefwechsel Arthur Schnitzler-Otto Brahm [Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1979], 347). Both Schnitzler and Brahm acknowledged Professor Bernhardi as a comedy, though it dealt with a Jewish doctor's treatment of a Catholic girl's abortion and its deadly aftermath. As she lies dying of septicemia, Bernhardi gives her enough medication to allow her to die in peace. When a Catholic priest arrives to administer last rites to the girl, Bernhardi refuses the priest admission to the girl's room. In the midst of the ensuing argument between Bernhardi and the priest, the girl expires. Bernhardi is then put on trial for "obstructing a priest," while anti-Semitic protests call for a lengthy prison term or even worse punishment. He is convicted, but only for two months. He emerges from prison refreshed and revitalized, prepared to meet his former colleagues and the public with a jovial spirit. Brahm died during the play's premiere, and Schnitzler suffered his loss profoundly.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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