Arthur Schnitzler

Arthur SchnitzlerThe Austrian and German drama are often confused. In reality, they have nothing in common but language, and the difference between them may be measured by the difference between the spirit of Berlin and the spirit of Vienna. The German playwrights reflect phases of their national temperment clearly enough. Sudermann, for example, is always heavily Prussian. The stucco palaces of Die Ehre and Sodoms Ende belong essentially to upper middle class Berlin; the farms and country houses of Johannisfeuer and Das Glück im Winkel are as distinctively North German as their pastors are Protestant. Hauptmann's legendary plays are built of German mythology, and even his Silesian peasant dramas gravitate naturally towards the Northern capital. Wedekind's laborious introspection and substantial satire are German to the core.

Schnitzler is just as distinctively Austrian. Dramatically Berlin belongs to the bourgeoisie; Vienna is a city of the aristocrats. Schnitzler, like most ... Viennese playwrights, is content to take as his theme only a few scenes from life, and even in those few scenes he recurs continually to a single passage. No wind instruments for him; he is a master of the strings. To the Northern playwrights he leaves the wild barbaric march, to the Maeterlinckian symbolists the tone-poem. His dramatic method is the intellectualization, the refinement of the Viennese waltz. The most famous of his plays is Liebelei (in the English version Light o' Love, literally Flirtation). But in reality they are all Liebelei, from Anatol to the Komtesse Mizzi. The moralist will find "flirtation" a euphemism, but Schnitzler has nothing to do with moralists or morality. His subject is always the same--the lover and a mistress or two. It is treated gracefully enough, with little passion and much gentle melancholy, little humour and much wit. His power lies chiefly in the creation of an atmosphere--a dim twilight atmosphere as of autumn evenings crowded with reminiscence. It is indescribably charming and completely aimless; a dream world as magical as that of any symbolist, yet unsymbolic. Tragic problems arise from time to time, as in Der einsame Weg or Der Ruf des Lebens, but for the most part Schnitzler moves upon the plane of comedy. The crisis arrives, catastrophe occurs; but it is an intimately personal catastrophe, accepted with ironical resignation by the aristocrat-hero, and added with a sigh to his repertory of experience. That aristocrat-hero is Schnitzler's most characteristic figure. "New mistresses for old" is his eternal problem, and an imp is ever at his elbow, whispering that the old were better. Still he must obey the law of his own nature, and he accepts the necessity of change as he accepts all else in his life, good-naturedly. The women come and go. They arrive timidly, half-conscious only of their power. They yield, and for a while some tiny raftered room with latticed windows, discreetly hidden in a narrow by-way of the city, is made the meeting-place. Freshly gathered flowers are arranged upon the table, set for two. The lamp is lit, the curtains are drawn. The old housekeeper, more discreet even than her dwelling, moves noiselessly to serve the dishes and withdraws. The two are left together; a gentleman of upper-class Vienna, a lady of any class, or none. "We have seen this comedy before," you say at first. "It is sordid, sensuous, contemptible." It is none of these, for Schnitzler is a magician. An honourable magician, moreover. His work is never ugly. He avoids sensuality by his honesty as an artist. There is nothing unnatural, nothing immoral, nothing even furtive for him in the relationship of lover and mistress. A certain discretion is preserved--that is all. He traces the psychology of the intimacy. Within the limits he has chosen for himself, he tells everything that can be told, and much that the lesser artist is afraid to tell. Details of circumstance are nothing to him. Moods everything. His drama depends upon a crisis in the lives of two people; the inevitable passing from old relationships to new. No flash of thought escapes him. He records every motive. In the crisis itself there can be no compromise. The break must come when one of the lovers desires it, however faintly. As long as Romance spreads her wings, the intimacy lasts; the instant they are folded it must come to an end at whatever cost of suffering. That is the first condition of equality between men and women; a brutal condition, but one which must be faced. In the moment of parting pity is a dishonourable emotion, chivalry the grossest form of patronage, sentimentality a nauseous drug. Even the most cynical frankness is fairer, and that is Schnitzler's weapon. He analyzes the transition moment in scenes such as those of Anatol. Outwardly, between the lovers, all is just as it was upon the first evening; inwardly everything is changed. The man must be free. Conversation grows lame. At last the explanation comes, and the woman departs; sometimes with frankly outstretched hand and a glance of understanding, sometimes helplessly in tears or riotously in a storm of indignation. For these latter types the man has only a shrug of the shoulders as he lights a cigarette. They offend his sense of decorum and compel him to regard them as inferiors. For the others he bears a touch of melancholy as a sign of mourning. He will think of them in future twilight moods . . . . But a few weeks later he will hire a new room in another by-way (not the same room, for that would be unbeautiful) for the reception of another mistress, and the old light o' love will pass to a new lover. There are the Schnitzler hero and the Schnitzler heroine. They have most of the vices of their city and the quintessence of its charm; frivolity tinged with regret and intrigue with grace.

I have touched here especially upon the types and the setting of the one-act cycle Anatol because they convey the Schnitzler atmosphere most clearly. The situations are not literally rendered; they change just as moods change, and are woven into different forms. Anatol represents the comedy of the lover-mistress motive, Liebelei the tragedy. In the former the man is the central figure; in the latter the woman. In Liebelei Christine meets her philanderer, and makes a hero of him. She becomes his mistress, and lives on in a dream-world of her own. Her hero is killed in a duel fought on behalf of another woman--and that is all. Of Christine it can only be said that she is as great a woman as is possible in the Schnitzler world: a world devised for men as surely as that of Strindberg, and in effect, although unconsciously, as contemptuous of women. The misogynist, indeed, is a lesser enemy of feminism than the philanderer. He is only the mouthpiece of ideas, not the arbiter of fates.

Liebelei was followed by the longer plays Freiwild and Das Vermächtnis. They represent the nearest approach that Austrian drama has made to the social problem play and the modernity movement of other countries. In social problems, however, Schnitzler is really out of his element. He has satirized the duel a thousand times more subtly than Sudermann in Die Ehre; he has ridiculed militarism, semitism, and anti-semitism, the government and the revolutionary parties. But his interests are not primarily political or social, any more than they are domestic. In Reigen he returns to the drama of personal moods. Anatol consists of seven scenes, Reigen of ten, a complete cycle of duologues, each between a man and a woman. More than duologues, however: scenes from life. They pass consecutively: A prostitute and a soldier. The soldier and a parlourmaid. The parlourmaid and a young gentleman. The young gentleman and a young lady. The young lady and her husband. The husband and a girl. The girl and a poet. The poet and an actress. The actress and a nobleman. The nobleman and the prostitute.

There is the chain, stripped of the romance of Anatol and reduced to a vivisection of sex instinct, a post-mortem examination of passion. It is the work of an artist weary of many adventures, and disposed to regard life as nothing but a round of stupid intrigue and cynical reaction.

For the rest, Schnitzler has gone no further dramatically than Anatol and Liebelei. The one-act cycles Lebendige Stunden and Marionetten are new versions of the old story. Komtesse Mizzi (1909) has all the old charm and nothing more. One can have too much of the twilight mood, the Viennese lover and his mistress, the melancholy and the grace. Everything that Schnitzler has written or imagined is summed up in the six hundred pages of his novel Der Weg ins Freie. There is the search for the "path of freedom" that he has never found. He has never made his way out of the half-world into the real world. But among the dramatists of the half-world he is supreme.

†This article was originally published in Modern Dramatists by Ashley Dukes. New York: Books For Libraries Press, Inc., 1912. pp. 151-59.

  • Search eBay! for Arthur Schnitzler collectibles

Schnitzler's Plays  |  Other Works  |  Biographies


Schnitzler's Plays

Other Works


Related Websites

Schnitzler Monologues

Related Playwrights

August Strindberg

Moonstruck Drama Bookstore  |  Theatre News  |  Theatre Links  |  Email Us