Arthur Schnitzler: Plays and Stories
La Ronde is a famous film by Max Ophuls. It lives up to its title by having a theme song that has been going round and round in people’s heads for thirty-three years. Outside the German-speaking world, and even in it, Arthur Schnitzler has, for the last fifty years or so, been known chiefly as the author of the play Reigen, on which the film was based. Even the present translation calls it La Ronde, presumably in homage to Ophuls.
Just recently, though, there has been a revival of interest in Schnitzler: his time and place, Vienna at the turn of the century, is becoming a cult period, like Berlin in the Twenties. He was born into the Jewish haute bourgeoisie in 1862. His father was a famous doctor and professor of medicine, and the son followed reluctantly in his footsteps, managing to combine medicine with writing an enormous number of plays, short stories, novels, aphorisms, and an autobiography. As a young doctor he worked under the psychiatrist Theodor Meynert and produced a paper on treatment by hypnosis.
Meynert was Freud’s teacher also, and there is no study of Schnitzler that does not stress his affinities with Freud, or quote from Freud’s letter to him about “the far-reaching agreement…between our understanding of certain psychological and erotic problems.” In another letter Freud confessed to having avoided Schnitzler because he saw him as a “kind of Doppelgänger.” Still, as Martin Swales says in his study of Schnitzler, “It is almost irrelevant whether the writers of the time were directly influenced by Freud or not; his spirit is recognizably part of the spirit of the time…that produced Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Klimt and Schiele.”
Schnitzler never moved either physically or intellectually from Vienna, a city where the fin de siècle was more fin de siècle than anywhere else. “An atmosphere of senility” hung over the stagnating Hapsburg empire: the educated, the rich, the intellectuals took refuge from the frustration and boredom of public life by looking inward in self-analysis, or else explored interesting new psychological experiences, especially of a morbid kind. It was beginning to seem doubtful whether morbid states were not just as normal as normal ones. Schnitzler’s work reflects all this by being full of disease, madness, suicide, and sexual obsession, as well as sexual experimenting.
La Ronde was written in 1896 and never meant to be published, let alone performed: no wonder, for it consists of ten dialogues of which nine culminate in the sexual act—indicated by a row of dots. Twenty-five years later things had changed, and the play had its premiere simultaneously in Vienna and Berlin. The curtain came down on the dots and went up again for the postcoital reprise. Nevertheless an outraged puritan in Berlin brought an obscenity case against the director and cast. They emerged triumphant: the court found the play to be a highly moral condemnation of promiscuity.
Schnitzler was used to trouble: in 1901 he had been …