Arthur Schnitzler Essay - Critical Essays


The assonance between Arthur Schnitzler’s first name and the name of his first major dramatic character, Anatol, points to a certain affinity between author and character, to certain autobiographical traits. The Anatol cycle consists of seven short one-act plays or sketches. The protagonist of each of them is Anatol, a wealthy, well-educated young man of the upper classes. He is usually melancholy, slightly cynical, but capable of recognizing and experiencing subtly differentiated feelings, moods, and pleasures. In each of the seven sketches, he interacts with one woman, and in some of them, also with his friend Max. The latter is a commonsense and practical foil to the high-strung and nervous protagonist. These simple dramatic constructs are full of psychological insights: They are witty and yet imbued with a certain sadness.


After the Anatol sketches, Schnitzler began writing plays whose plots are more complex and whose characters are more variegated. Even in these full-fledged dramas, however, certain stock characters and certain typical dramatic conflicts continually recur. For this reason, Liebelei is representative, at least in part, of several of Schnitzler’s plays of that period.

The main characters in Liebelei are Fritz Lobheimer, the typical young man of the upper classes (very much like Anatol); Christine Weiring, the typical sweet Viennese girl of the lower classes; Theodor’s current girlfriend; and Hans Weiring, Christine’s father. In an expository scene in Fritz’s living room, Fritz tells his friend Theodor about his affair with a married woman of the upper classes. The latter advises him to concentrate his attentions on Christine, who is similar to Theodor’s girlfriend Mizi and who meets Theodor’s primary requirement when it comes to women: “Women are not to be interesting, but pleasant.”

Fritz and Theodor’s conversation is terminated by the arrival of Christine and Mizi, whom Theodor has invited for the purpose of a surprise party. After some time, the party is interrupted by repeated rings of the doorbell. Having answered the bell, Fritz asks his guests to step into the adjoining room, and then admits “a gentleman.” The latter turns out to be the husband of the woman with whom Fritz is having an affair. He returns a packet of letters written by Fritz to her. After reaching an understanding regarding the inevitable duel, the gentleman departs. Shortly afterward, Fritz’s guests leave. Act 2 takes place during the following evening in Christine’s room in a modest house in the suburbs. During a series of brief discussions between Christine, Katharina Binder (a well-meaning neighbor), Christine’s father, and Mizi, Christine finds her situation becoming clearer: Her relationship with Fritz is becoming known in the neighborhood, and she is being pressured by Katharina to remain “decent” and to marry a decent young man of her own class who happens to have a regular job. Mr. Weiring, one of the most remarkable characters in the play, defends his daughter’s right to happiness, or at least to a few happy memories before she settles down to a humdrum life. As a further aspect of Christine’s characterization, her pure love for Fritz is contrasted to the more casual approach taken by Mizi in her relationships with men. The culminating scene of the second act is the encounter between Christine and Fritz, who comes to visit her and who sees her room for the first time. He is genuinely touched by her love and sincerity and by her petit bourgeois furnishings, including the obligatory bust of Franz Schubert and the encyclopedia that, alas, is only complete to the letter “G.” Fritz experiences a few moments of true emotion; he feels sheltered while he is with Christine and in her world. The idyll, however, is soon shattered by Theodor’s arrival. Theodor wants Fritz to get some rest before the duel, which is set for the next morning.

Act 3 takes place in Christine’s room, two days later. Neither Christine nor Mizi has any news from Fritz and Theodor, who have pretended to go to the country for a day or two. Eventually, Theodor arrives and informs them that Fritz has been killed in the duel and that he has already been buried. After a powerful emotional outcry, Christine rushes out of the room, ostensibly to look for Fritz’s grave, but the audience is led to agree with her father’s assessment that she will never return.

Schnitzler himself, as well as contemporary critics, considered Liebelei to be a first-rate play. A century after its premiere, the universal elements of its subject matter remain relevant: unrequited love, a likable but unstable young man between two women, the conflict between private happiness and public morality. The topic of dueling, which assumes such an inordinate importance in some of Schnitzler’s other dramas, is downplayed in Liebelei. In this drama, Schnitzler does not attack the social code that demands that Fritz and the cuckolded husband engage in a duel. Rather, the duel is subsumed in the topic of the unhappy relationship between Christine and Fritz. While she loves him and thinks of him day and night, he gets himself killed for the sake of another woman.

The plot of Liebelei is tautly constructed. Every scene has a strictly defined purpose, either for the characterization of the protagonists, or for the propulsion of the dramatic action. Similarly, Schnitzler’s use of the German language (with the proper Viennese inflection) for purposes of characterization is superb.

The Vast Land

In Liebelei, part of the dramatic conflict arises from the difference in Fritz’s and Christine’s social standing. There is no such class conflict in The Vast Land, whose long list of characters includes more than a dozen protagonists, all of whom belong to the upper bourgeoisie. The main topic of the play is again the relationship between man and woman, but only between members of the upper classes. At the same time, the scope is broadened to a portrayal of the moral disintegration and emotional impoverishment of this social class. The settings of this tragicomedy are a villa in a resort near Vienna and a fashionable hotel in a resort in the Alps. The time of the play is the early twentieth century—the advent of modernity. The exterior dramatic action consists of four adulterous relationships, which are begun with varying degrees of attraction or passion, and which are terminated with varying degrees of nostalgia or resignation. The real dramatic conflict, however, takes place within “the vast land” of the protagonists’ souls, and there the...

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