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The Return of La Ronde

Arthur Schnitzler: Plays and Stories

edited by Egon Schwarz, with a foreword by Stanley Elkin
Continuum (The German Library, no. 55), 279 pp., $17.95; $8.95 (paper)

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.”1

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 deprived of his rank as an officer in the reserve because his story Lieutenant Gustl (translated in Egon Schwarz’s collection) was thought to ridicule the army; and in 1913 permission to perform Professor Bernhardi had been turned down by the Austrian censorship because it might offend Roman Catholics.

Still, the Berlin scandal upset Schnitzler so much that he put an embargo on the performance of La Ronde, which was renewed by his heirs when he died in 1931. It expired fifty years later, and in England at least three companies, including the Royal Shakespeare and BBC Television, were jostling at the starting tape with three different translations. So in January and February 1982 three different productions confronted the British public; and there was no lowering of curtains.

The dialogues of La Ronde overlap to come full circle: the first is between a prostitute and a soldier, the second between the soldier and a chambermaid, the third between the chambermaid and her young master, and so on until the last, where the prostitute reappears with the count from the penultimate episode. Many meanings have been read into this scheme: it has been thought to represent the transmission of syphilis and, more ambitiously, to suggest the dance of death. What is immediately obvious, however, is that it is an exposure of sexual and social hypocrisy.

As a character in another work of Schnitzler’s says: “Austria is the land of social dishonesties. Here as nowhere else you find savage feuds without a trace of hatred, and a kind of fond love without any desire for fidelity.” Promiscuity is the rule in La Ronde, but chastity and purity are perpetually invoked and sentimentalized. The comedy springs from the contradiction: the unsuspecting cuckold, for instance, is full of self-pity for his bachelor days when he was forced to resort to prostitutes. “You don’t know the misery,” he wails to his sexy wife.

YOUNG WIFE: But why should we pity them? Don’t they have rather a nice time of it?

HUSBAND: You have peculiar opinions, my child. Don’t forget that these creatures are destined by nature to sink forever lower and lower….

The wife pleads to be told more about the sinking. The husband refuses indignantly: “No, Emma, it would be profanation…. Remember, my child, you’re a mother—our little girl is sleeping in there.” Unfortunately “profanation” can’t quite capture the glutinous solemnity of Entweihung, nor “little girl” the saccharine coziness—in the context—of the dialect diminutive Mäderl.

The translations in Arthur Schnitzler: Plays and Stories are all by different hands. Some are disastrous, others are as good as can be expected. But not too much can be expected; in his plays, Schnitzler makes every character talk with the voice not merely of his social class, but of his particular niche in it. In Countess Mitzi, for instance, the stage directions say that the Count “speaks in the manner peculiar to the German-Hungarian officer,” whereas the Prince’s speech “suggests the diplomat, who is as much at home in French as in his native tongue.” In fact, directions are hardly necessary: the accent and inflection are already in the text, in the words, expressions, word order. There are simply no English let alone American equivalents for expressing all these vital social nuances.

Another ingredient that gets left out is the proverbial Viennese charm: “Hiya, son” is not at all the same as “Servus, Bubi“: the Latin servus trails all sorts of dilapidated courtly graces, even though it is the most common word for hello and goodbye—even today. A prewar pop song recommends its use:

Sag zum Abschied
Leise Servus;
Nicht Lebwohl
Und nicht Adieu;
Solche Worte
Tun nur weh!

(And when we part, just softly say: Servus. Not “farewell” and not “goodbye”: such words only hurt.) Schnitzler might well have heard the song and appreciated the way the end of the affair is foreseen from the beginning, and the sweet, dishonest poultice applied to the wound.

The cliché problem is easier to solve than the other two linguistic difficulties, but not all the translators spot all the clichés; yet they are deliberate and important for the full comic effect of the dialogue. They are the outward expression of the idée reçue that Schnitzler was dedicated to sniffing out—though perhaps his nose was not so fine as Flaubert’s or that of his own compatriot Karl Kraus. But whereas those two were mainly concerned with the stupidity of idées reçues, Schnitzler was more of a moralist, bent on exposing their underlying hypocrisy.

Schnitzler said of La Ronde, “I felt the melancholy of it much more strongly than the funny side”; and indeed there is something desolate about these couplings. They all fall far short of expectation where there is expectation: but most of the lovers are resigned to disappointment and transience from the start. Life is short. One must get from it what one can, though it probably won’t be much. At the same time they cling sentimentally to the idea that somewhere their true love exists: possibly in their own past, where some lost Karl or Fritz or girl with unforgettable eyes meant infinitely more than their present lay. They are acting a parody of Plato’s divided soul, victims of a pathetic fallacy to ease the sense of isolation, the inability to reach another’s soul.

Flirtations is a much less sophisticated story, the old tale of the poor girl ruined by the rich young man. In shape, atmosphere, and especially in its presentation of characters, it belongs to an earlier demure genre of the German drama, the bürgerliches Trauerspiel (middle-class tragedy). The humble musician and his daughter Christine, in particular, descend from Luise Miller and her father in Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe. On the other hand Christine, her friend Mitzi, Mitzi’s lover Theodore, and Theodore’s friend Fritz whom Christine loves make up a partie carrée like Rodolphe, Mimi, Marcel, and Musette: except that Fritz and Theodore are not penniless artists but well-heeled students.

Mitzi is the true grisette, lighthearted and resigned to the inevitable brevity of her affair with the young gentleman; Theodore is good-natured and cynical; Fritz almost equally cynical but more sentimental. Christine alone puts her whole soul into her love, even though she too accepts that it cannot last. She does not know, however, that Fritz is also involved with a married woman. The husband finds out, challenges Fritz, and kills him in a duel. When Christine discovers his death and the reason for it she rushes off—presumably to kill herself. It is not so much his loss that drives her to suicide as the realization that she has never meant much to him.

Schnitzler himself said that no one could fail to understand this piece. It is almost too easy to see that it is another attack on the hypocrisy of double standards: one for the rich, one for the poor, one for men, another for women. In spite of—perhaps because of—its naiveté it was Schnitzler’s most frequently performed play in his lifetime. It is immediately effective; but the effect is sentimental because Christine is too perfectly loving, generous, and meek. Sentimentality was not at all Schnitzler’s intention: in Fritz and in the seducers of La Ronde he satirized it. “Sentimentality is the direct opposite of feeling,” says a character in one of his novels,” “It soothes the sense we have of our own lack of feeling, of our inner coldness: Sentimentality is feeling at a bargain price.” It was also felt to be a failing typical of Vienna, city of schmaltz and waltz.

Countess Mitzi, on the other hand, is as dry as can be: a small masterpiece. It is a comedy of disclosure in the pattern but not at all in the style of Ibsen, where everyone is gradually revealed to be other than they seem. It is constructed with stunning neatness, provides six juicy parts, and takes place in the hour before lunch on the estate of the Count, Mitzi’s father; all the characters, however despicable they turn out to be, are loaded with Viennese charm.

The Count is melancholy because his mistress of eighteen years’ standing has just been retired from the ballet and is about to marry the proprietor of a coaching establishment. His old friend the Prince arrives to cheer him up: but the real purpose of his call is to introduce his son Philip—to the amazement of the Count who did not even know the Prince had one. Philip is seventeen, illegitimate, and has been brought up in the country incognito, even to himself. Now the Prince is about to acknowledge and adopt him.

At this point a telephone call announces that the Count’s mistress is on her way to pay a farewell call. This upsets him: it would be improper for her to meet the unmarried, supposedly virginal, thirty-seven-year-old Mitzi, not to speak of an innocent lad like Philip (who soon turns out to be perfectly aware all along of what goes on and also of his own identity). During the Count’s absence the scène à faire takes place between the Prince and Mitzi and the audience learns that Philip is her son. She has not seen him since he was a week old when the Prince, unwilling to have a scandal or divorce, persuaded her to give the baby away. Mitzi has got over her pain by painting flowers and having numerous lovers, and over the past seven years she has refused several proposals by the now widowed Prince, because she recognizes him for the moral and social coward that he is. His rejection of her early, wholehearted love has made her cynical; other experiences have made her tolerant.

The audience has to admire the courage with which she has led her life. A completely liberated woman intellectually, she seems all set to be the play’s heroine. But no: it ends cynically with the triumph of convention. Mitzi dismisses her painting teacher, who is also her current lover, and agrees to join her father, the Prince, and Philip at Ostende. The door is wide open for the Prince to make one more proposal, which will presumably be accepted. It is also open for the audience to think that Mitzi acts as she does in order to be reunited with her child. Nothing in the text, however, encourages such a sentimental explanation of her behavior.

Schnitzler was capable of at least two kinds of effective dramatic dialogue: one in the aphoristic, witty style of Countess Mitzi; the other in the ultranaturalistic, almost Pinteresque idiom of La Ronde, where the incoherence, inadequacy, irrelevance, and banality of what is said both hide and reveal the protagonists’ feelings and motives.

In a not particularly illuminating foreword Stanley Elkin declares that Schnitzler’s “strong suit was his fiction.” Luckily the editor does not seem to agree, since he has included only two stories as against three plays. Schnitzler’s narrative prose is prosy. Like Alice, one wishes he’d put in more conversation. There is very little, and far too much indirect speech. A contemporary critic complained that “Casanova’s Homecoming” (one of the two stories in the collection) was circumstantial and long-winded. Schnitzler blew up: “One tells a story and they call it being over-circumstantial. What expressionist ravings!”

He was also inclined to leave the philosophical content of his stories sticking out all over the place in an unlovely manner; this is especially so in the case of Casanova, who is simultaneously writing a diatribe against Voltaire and trying to seduce a beautiful rationalist mathematician, a cardboard young lady who seems a premature representative of the women’s movement. Altogether, it was a pity to choose to include this costume piece instead of a story about Schnitzler’s own fascinating milieu—perhaps one of his steamy novellas set in a summer resort where erotically obsessed Viennese bourgeois brood about sex, age, and decay. In “Frau Beata und ihr Sohn,” a young widow writhes between frustrated desire and sexual disgust and ends up seducing her teen-age son and then drowning herself and him. Fräulein Else is about a young girl urged to expose herself to an old voyeur. She exposes herself instead to the assembled guests in a hotel and then takes an overdose. Not that “Casanova” is short on sex, age, decay, and disgust, being about the humiliations of old age as suffered by the decrepit Italian adventurer. It is also typical of Schnitzler’s fiction in having only one three-dimensional character, who is much given to symbolic dreams and interminable interior monologues.

Lieutenant Gustl, written eighteen years earlier (in 1900), is entirely interior monologue or stream of consciousness, the first thing of its kind in German literature, and even antedating Woolf and Joyce. Schnitzler’s tour de force comes off precisely because this is really a one-character play masquerading as fiction; it even has a dramatic plot with a conventional reversal of fortune, as well as an ironic twist in the tail; and every word is in Gustl’s idiom, a mixture of officers’ slang and ordinary Viennese vernacular.

Gustl is sitting at a concert. He cannot keep his mind on the music because he is afraid of being killed in the duel he is about to fight. At the end of the concert he tangles with a baker as they jostle for their coats. The baker threatens to snatch Gustl’s sword. To Gustl this is an affront to his military status, and since he cannot challenge the baker to a duel because bakers are not satisfaktionsfähig, i.e., they are beneath the dueling classes, Gustl feels that his honor as an officer demands that he shoot himself, even if no one noticed the baker’s insult. Gustl spends the whole night agonizing in a café; in the morning he hears that the baker has died of a heart attack, and all thoughts of suicide and honor are blown away.

The whole monologue—thirty pages—demonstrates Gustl’s ghastliness: he is uneducated, mindless, vain, conceited, snobbish, conventional, unsure of himself, a bully, a coward, and an anti-Semite. And there can be no doubt that he is meant to represent his class—not the aristocracy, incidentally, but the provincial petty bourgeoisie: Gustl’s regiment is not at all a smart one.

In the 1870s and 1880s there was a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Austria, particularly in Gustl’s class, which resented the recent affluence and social acceptability of Jews like the Schnitzlers who had by now been assimilated for several generations. Schnitzler’s non-Jewish friend, the writer Hermann Bahr, said: “The rich take to morphia and hashish. People who can’t afford that become anti-Semites. Anti-Semitism is the morphine addiction of the petty bourgeoisie.” Schnitzler himself was an assimilationist without any thought of denying his Jewishness. He had a fine nose for anti-Semitism, especially among Jews, and yet one feels he sympathizes with a Jewish character in his novel Der Weg ins Freie who is irritated with the way Jews go on about being Jewish: “Wherever he went, all he ever met were Jews who were ashamed of being Jews, or else Jews who were proud of it and afraid people might think they were ashamed.” The novel is, nevertheless, all about Jews grappling with the problem of Jewishness.

Jewish characters abound in Schnitzler’s work, most of them members of his own sophisticated and privileged class, from which perhaps a majority of the Viennese intelligentsia came. They were also a useful model for all the rest, with their sense of alienation and doom, their pretenses, their analytical introspection, and what Schnitzler called “the self-irony peculiar to the race.” They were, in fact, like everybody else at this place and time, only more so.

The German revival of interest in Schnitzler is ascribable to the Germans’ obsession with the Jews who used to live among them. But in England too he has been not so much revived as discovered. Apart from the almost unseemly rush for La Ronde last year, there was, two or three years earlier, a highly successful, long-running production of the play Das Weite Land (The Undiscovered Country) in an adaptation by Tom Stoppard. In 1971 Martin Swales published his study. In the middle Sixties there was another great theatrical success which has just been revived. The play was by John Osborne—though it might well have been by Schnitzler, and would have been the better for it. It was called A Patriot for Me and dealt with the Redl affair, which shook Austria in 1913 as much as Mayerling had shaken it twenty-four years earlier.

Alfred Redl, the deputy director of Imperial and Royal Army Intelligence, was accused of selling military secrets to the Russians in order to finance his homosexual affairs. He committed suicide. Stefan Zweig said that the incident struck terror in his soul because “it illustrated the deceptive aspect of everything in the monarchy.” Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin quote this in their book Wittgenstein’s Vienna2 and go on: “Here was the case of a man who succeeded precisely because he could assume a mask that completely veiled his true personality. In Hapsburg society as a whole, artificiality and pretense were by now the rule rather than the exception…. No one knew this, or portrayed it in his work, better than Arthur Schnitzler.” It seems slightly macabre of the Zeitgeist to be digging him up in Britain just now.

  1. 1

    Arthur Schnitzler: A Critical Study (Oxford University Press, 1971).

  2. 2

    Simon and Schuster, 1973.

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