Arthur Schnitzler: The Subconcious on Stage

An inside look at the man, his work and his sexual obsessions

On The Town | Alec Kinnear | June 2010

With Stefan Zweig and Franz Kafka, Arthur Schnitzler is the last great writer of the Habsburg Monarchy. Born in Vienna in 1862, Schnitzler graduated from the University of Vienna as a medical doctor in 1885. From that point on, he split himself between his work as physician, literary activities and love affairs. He was a successful dramatist from his first hit play the sensational Anatol (1893) and continued as a successful dramatist up until the Great War.

After the fall of the Habsburg Monarchy and the decline of its bourgeois elite, Schnitzler withdrew into writing prose. At this point, Schnitzler was a commercially successful writer but, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, he relished the high life and spent the money as fast as he made it. And his plays weren’t selling. Of the poor critical reception of Das weite Land in Germany in 1911, Schnitzler wrote, "Hopes for money have sunk into the deep. Frustrating."

Anatol is the story of a young man who doesn’t trust any of his lovers so he must abandon them one by one. The play’s twin themes of sexual mistrust and female promiscuity would dominate Schnitzler’s entire oeuvre. Hypocritically, Anatol cheats on his innocent bride the night before his own wedding.

In the English speaking world, Schnitzler is best known for La Ronde (Reigen, 1900), through Max Ophuls brilliant film from 1950 with Simone Signoret and reprised by Roger Vadim in 1964 with Jane Fonda and Anna Karina. Ironically, Reigen nearly ruined Schnitzler’s career as a playwright, as its overtly sexual scenes exceeded even the moeurs of Vienna. It was to be years befƒore a producer dared put a new Schnitzler play back on stage.

Schnitzler’s private life was not much different from that of his characters. Both unmarried and married, like Anatole, Schnitzler relentlessly sexually pursued the women surrounding him. These are not idle rumours, but affairs detailed in Schnitzler’s own diary, kept from age 17 until his 80s, which for years chronicled every single orgasm.

With so much of his focus on psychological introspection and sexuality, it is no surprise that Schnitzler was a favorite writer of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The two men were contemporaries in Vienna, aware of one another from the 1890’s. In a letter in May 1922, Freud called Schnitzler his literary "Doppelgänger", his alter-ego. Schnitzler himself read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, and many of his later novels, including Frau Berta Garlan (1901), Frau Beate and her Son (1913) and Fraülein Else (1924) use explicit Freudian symbolism and metaphors.

For someone so involved in, privileged by and dependent on Vienna society, Schnitzler was very critical of the Habsburg Monarchy. In his novel Lieutenant Güstl (1900), Schnitzler mocked the imperial army, and subsequently forfeited his own military honors for loyal service.

Unlike Zweig, Schnitzler was no isolated, introspective genius but a society man, taking a leading place in the Jung Wien and Wiener Modern movements. Born into a Bourgeois Jewish family, Schnitzler specifically attacks anti-Semitism in his novel The Road Into the Open (1908) and the play Professor Bernhardi (1912). Schnitzler was a stronger eroticist than propagandist and these plays have never enjoyed the popular success of those treating sexual themes.

Still it would be difficult to overstate Schnitzler’s influence on modern European culture, modern literature and world cinema.

Schnitzler was one of the few German-language writers contributing to The Dial next to writers like D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, John dos Passos and such artists as Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall.

Schnitzler is spiritual forefather of much of the sexually explicit transgressive fiction of the 20th century from authors like Henry Miller and Pauline Reagé (The Story of O). James Joyce adknowledged Lt. Güstl as an inspiration for his use of the stream of consciousness in Ulysses.

Recently, Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut was based on Schnitzler’s short novel, Dream Story (Traumnovelle, 1926) and his play La Ronde is regularly staged all over the world. Das weite Land has been adapted into English by Tom Stoppard as Undiscovered Country.

For Henrich Mann, Schnitzler was "the best soul of the time and our best Vienna. He brought his city into this century." But there is a dark side to the brilliant conversation and delightful romantic interludes.

To the end of his days, Schnitzler was an unrepentant seducer who seemed to enjoy manipulating people and women, often young and virgin. Like his alter ego the fifty-three year old Casanova in his novella Casanova’s Homecoming, 1918, the fifty five year old Schnitzler could never give up his quest to corrupt all that is innocent in others:

"He longed for Marcolina as he had never longed for a woman before. Beneath the shimmering folds of her dress he seemed to see her naked body; her firm young breasts allured him; once when she stooped to pick up her handkerchief, Casanova’s inflamed fancy made him attach so ardent a significance to her movement that he felt near to swooning.... Marcolina might well prove to be that wonder of the world in the existence of which he had hitherto disbelieved - the virtuous woman."

In his fury of the senses, Casanova ravishes a thirteen year old before successfully devoting himself to a scheme to blackmail her young lover and replace him in Marcelino’s bed. In the morning, he is discovered:

"Her expression of horror had gradually been transformed into one of infinite sadness, as if it had been not Marcolina’s womanhood alone which had been desecrated by Casanova, but as if... a nameless and inexpiable offence had been committed by cunning against trust, by lust against love, by age against youth. Beneath this gaze which, to Casanova’s extremest torment, reawakened for a brief space all that was still good in him, he turned away."

In 1930, Schnitzler faced personal tragedy when his daughter Lili killed herself "for fun". His own death followed shortly after in October 1931, saving Schnitzler the pain of seeing the Nazis come to power and the darkening clouds of war overrun Europe – and the interdiction of his own dramatic and prose works in Vienna.

The best chance of seeing Schnitzler’s lesser known plays live is here in Vienna, in German, where they are staged frequently. Schnitzler was very prolific and there are over thirty works of fiction and twenty five plays, many in repertoire.

While most of his work is in print in German, much of his work is difficult to find in English, surprising, considering how influential a writer Schnitzler is. It is also often expensive. However, most is available at university and city libraries. Right now you can also find the novellas Casanova’s Homecoming (1917), Bertha Garlan (1900), The Dead are Silent (1907) as well as the plays The Lonely Way (1904), Intermezzo (1905) and Countess Mizzie (1909) on Project Gutenberg at no cost.

Smith & Kraus offer four plays, Antatol, La Ronde, Flirtation and The Green Cockatoo in one volume, while Ivan R. Dee offers two volumes of stories in Margret Schaefer’s praised new translations.  Dream Story and Frauline Elsa are available from Penguin Books, and Lt. Gustl from Green Integer.

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