Arthur Schnitzler: Why the Scandal?
When Arthur Schnitzler was sixteen years old, his physician father discovered the boy had visited a house of ill repute. He did not lecture him, but required him to read through a tome about venereal diseases, filled with grisly illustrations. This lesson did not restrain his amorous pursuits. However, it was not his personal adventures with women that aroused the critical attention of the public, such adventures were countless at the turn of the century in Vienna, but his stage dramas that called attention to that kind of behavior, criticizing it as being heartless, banal. In Vienna, if you did not talk about your affair, you needn’t admit it existed. It was bad taste to mention, let alone criticize, questionable behavior.
His literary reputation began as the author of a cycle of one-act dramas about the adventures of the carefree rake, Anatol. In his next play, LIEBELEI, he went so far as to cause two unmarried women to enter the bedroom of a young man. The director of the Burg Theater, Max Burckhard, told him in the late 1890’s that he had acquired the reputation of being an ‘immoral’ writer and that he should ‘sit down and write something proper, so people won’t be able to say you can’t manage it.’ However, Schnitzler was then at work on a piece that would firmly set the reputation he had already made, the one that would remain attached to his name down to the present day.
This piece was REIGEN (Hands Around in English, in the sense of ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ in which all fall down at the end), a play composed of ten brief scenes, each with two characters presented before and after sex: the first scene between a prostitute and a soldier, the second between the soldier and a chambermaid, the third between the chambermaid and a young gentleman–until the circle closes with a count and again the prostitute. The act itself is never depicted (Schnitzler himself refers to it in the script with ‘xxx’), it is only in a most delicate way referred to by the characters. The power of the viewer’s imagination is all. Yet everything that Schnitzler thought about love-making based only on sexuality he wrote into this play. His message is that all levels of society are the same in their approach to eroticism, all self-centered. Such sex can still one’s need for a short time, but cannot bring contentment. Hands Around is a beautiful work of art, perfect in its economic use of time and language. In his day, the author of it was accused of depicting and arousing immoral behavior. Odd, perhaps, when that kind of behavior was pursued as frequently as TV is turned on today, and only the most labile of persons could be attracted to the casual way the characters relate to one another in Schnitzler’s drama.
In February, 1921, a free-for-all among the members of the audience at a production in Vienna led to the closing down of the play and a year’s ban. That same year in November, in a stormy court case in Berlin, the judge dismissed a charge that the drama was immoral. Schnitzler, who had not anticipated these affairs, himself withdrew the play from public production in the German-speaking countries. In Russia, Czechoslovakia, and France, especially, this work was and remained popular. In 1982, more than 40 years after his death, Schnitzler’s son Heinrich again permitted Reigen to be produced in Germany and Austria.
In 1950, Max Orphuls filmed Reigen in France as la Ronde, in black and white with Simone Signoret as the prostitute. Orphuls added a master of ceremonies to direct the viewer from one couple to the next, and a merry-go-around to strengthen the point. In the 1960’s, Roger Vadim filmed the play with Jane Fonda as the bored wife of the drama. How steamy the latter production was I don’t know, but in France it was taken to court and Schnitzler accused (posthumously, of course) of immoral writing. I can but hope that he was too busy hob-nobbing with the other interesting people he had found in hell to notice the foolishness aboveground.
Nowadays, considering that although one might still be disgusted, there is little on stage or screen to shock anybody (although Schnitzler would probably faint away if he were to watch a modern TV drama), Hands Around (requiring as it does imagination and experience to get the point) could hardly raise and eyebrow in The Bible Belt–or could it?
More distressing for Arthur Schnitzler than the accusations from the right-wing and clerical press that his works were immoral was the more or less explicit anti-Semitism in each article about him. Even his works in which there is no Eros at all, he had a ‘bad press’. In 1900, he wrote his first ‘internal narrative’ monologue, the chain-of-consciousness novella, Lieutenant Gustl. This was long before James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925). The story looks out from the rather dull head of a young lieutenant throughout a night in which he thinks of committing suicide. Earlier on that evening, bored from a rather long concert in the music hall, he is rude to a baker while pushing forward in line at the coat check counter. The baker insults him in return. When he has left the situation behind, Gustl remembers that he is bound to a military code of honor which requires him to challenge those who insult him. Through the night he worries until toward morning he begins to accept the inevitable, that he must challenge the baker to a duel. He will make hamburger of him, he thinks.
Schnitzler’s main theme here is the stupidity of the whole custom of dueling. The criticism of the military code was not lost on his critics, nor on the authorities. In 1901, he was removed from the list of reserve officers of the Austrian-Hungarian military and made a simple soldier in reserve. Fortunately, he was in his fifties in 1914, when World War I began, and was not called into service. He was practically alone among his close literary friends in opposing the war, and for him the world as he understood it ended when it began. Although he wrote up until the time of his death, none of his works is set after 1914.
His late dramatic work, the five-act play Professor Bernhardi, directly addressed the theme of anti-Semitism. In it Schnitzler so exactly caught the Austrian mentality that the work was banned for many years in Vienna, while from 1912 it played in Berlin and he received a standing ovation on its 100th evening there.
In the play, Professor Bernhardi is the head of a clinic. One of his patients, a young girl who is dying from a botched abortion, is in a euphoric state as she nears her end. She imagines that she is well and that her lover is coming to carry her away. The ward nurse calls a priest. When the man arrives to absolve the sinner, Bernhardi turns him away, asking him not to disturb his patient’s dying euphoria. The incident, of a Jewish doctor responsible for Catholic lives but who ‘obviously’ understands nothing of Catholicism, becomes political, discussed in Parliament. Eventually, the matter becomes so complex that Bernhardi is removed from his post and must serve two months in prison. Friends he thought he could count on are able to justify to themselves why they do not assist him. Within the hierarchy of the clinic itself, as within Parliament, people maneuver for advantage.
Today the drama is as apt as ever and a Viennese will understand that it depicts typical Viennese behavior. Today Viennese sit in the audience identifying with the ‘good’ characters and thinking the ‘bad’ are the others, ‘those’ Viennese. This attitude, of feeling oneself better than most other Viennese, most other folk, is so enduringly Viennese! A Viennese will click his tongue and shake his head over some dumb behavior in others. ‘Those Viennese!’ he’ll say, but he is not thinking about himself.
Article Author: Vinal Binner