Franz Grillparzer Essay - Critical Essays


Several specific features of his uvre determine the nature of Franz Grillparzer’s legacy as a dramatist. Among the most important are a strong confessional tone, intense psychological development of characters, a focus on human destiny as a product of individual personality, and a clear striving toward the creation of myth. In conscious emulation of Goethe, the Austrian author conceived plays that directly reflected his innermost concerns. As parts of a grand statement about Grillparzer’s life, they are notable for their expression of resignation, weariness, lack of faith in self, and tragic sensitivity. Far removed from Schiller’s heroic idealism, they dwell on the perception that earthly fulfillment is a shadow. The result is a combination of baroque sensibility and the brooding Weltschmerz that spread through Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Particularly remarkable is the diversity of substance in which Grillparzer encased the exposition of his central themes and problems. Legend and mythology, Greek and Slavic sagas, European history, and models from other literatures all yielded material that he processed into drama that testifies to his unique theatrical awareness and attention to detail. From the perspective of richly varied backgrounds, he explored the human condition in all its private tensions, contradictions, burdens, and inevitabilities. His primary interest was the spectrum of circumstances that arise from and contribute to the individual’s inadequacy in the social context. It is in that light that his creations emerge as documents of self-observation and self-interpretation.

Blanca von Kastilien

An almost natural mastery of theatrical technique, careful integration of impulses from a broad variety of sources, and the search for a viable personal style are the most visible characteristics of Grillparzer’s early dramaturgical endeavors. Although it was rejected by the Burgtheater because of its broken form, Blanca von Kastilien documents the young university student’s talented application of stagecraft to literary substance even before his successful public debut with The Ancestress. Reminiscent of Schiller’s Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien (pr., pb. 1787; Don Carlos, Infante of Spain, 1798) in tone and approach, Grillparzer’s first play combines Spanish subject matter with romantic constructs, presenting a wealth of dramatic motifs in artful iambic verse. His rapid mastery of technical matters in the works that followed allowed him to bring to Viennese theater a new richness of conception.

The Ancestress

The Ancestress is especially interesting for the harmonious interweaving of elements from many different origins. Among the models that influenced the mood and direction of this play were Ludwig Tieck’s horror drama, the focus on the classical concept of fate as employed by Goethe and Schiller, William Shakespeare’s device of the effective curse, Zacharias Werner’s fatal determinism, and Adolf Müllner’s adaptation of the incest theme within the context of popular fate tragedy. Grillparzer’s own contribution of realistic immediacy based on internal illumination of key figures set his creation apart from those of his predecessors, anticipating trends that would become widespread in German stage productions only after his death.

The critics who dismissed The Ancestress as fate tragedy in the popular manner of the time failed to recognize that Grillparzer’s approach to his subject matter was fundamentally new, replacing external motivation with psychological impulses shaped by the imperatives of individual character. Outwardly, it is true, the exposition of The Ancestress contains all the elements of a romantic horror story, including a prophetic curse, robbers, a ghost, a dagger, and the classic gothic setting of a Moravian castle. Internally, however, the calamitous course of events is determined by the specific psychological responses of three central characters to situations with which they are confronted. Ultimately, the figures themselves must bear full responsibility for their own destruction.

For each of the principal characters, perception of basic conflicts and the resulting destructive reactions are different. The premise of the story is that the ghost of an adulterous ancestress appears in times of crisis to warn later generations of impending doom. Her last known descendant, Count Borotin, accepts the woman’s legendary curse at face value. Because he believes that fate is determined to destroy his line, he cannot act effectively to avert the coming catastrophe. The robber Jaromir, Borotin’s missing son, who is patterned somewhat after Schiller’s character Karl Moor from his play Die Räuber (pb. 1781; The Robbers, 1792), unwittingly slays his father when the latter joins in a foray against the outlaws. Jaromir’s own death occurs in the arms of his ghostly forebear. His heart fails him when he must face up to the fact of his patricide and acknowledge that Bertha, with whom he is in love, is his sister. Bertha, on the other hand, whose resemblance to the ancestress intensifies the incest theme of the play, commits suicide in the face of the events that reveal her lover first as a robber, then as her brother, and finally as the murderer of her father.

The effectiveness of The Ancestress on the stage is a reflection of Grillparzer’s certain instinct for successful theater. More substantial than the fate motif in the drama’s structure, for example, is the mythical opposition of father and son, which creates the real inner tension of the work. The rapid, sometimes dreamlike action is enhanced by the quick flow of the four-foot Spanish trochaic verse pattern. Pathos saturates the substance and gives it nobility, while the directness and clarity of the lines provide an appropriate vehicle for the revelation of the agitated spiritual lives of the characters in powerful illumination of the psychology of evil.


In an effort to draw closer to the dramatic ideals fostered by Weimar classicism, Grillparzer turned to material from ancient Greek tradition for the plays that immediately succeeded The Ancestress. Of special importance for his presentation of archetypal human problems in Sappho and The Golden Fleece is the combination of objective revelation of individual motives for action with the processing of myth as symbolic representation of mortal reality. The tragedy of the aging priestess-poetess Sappho’s unrequited love for the young Phaon provides a vehicle for a theme that was of great personal significance to Grillparzer: the inability to reconcile life and art. In softly subtle, gracefully dignified lines that tenderly expose the entire spectrum of mature feminine feeling, the dramatic poet sought to blend the noble moderation of Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris (pr. 1779; Iphigenie in Tauris, 1793) with the unhappy artistic dilemma of Torquato Tasso (pb. 1790; English translation, 1827). The result was a distinctive work that underlines Grillparzer’s ability to create and magnify effects that lay bare subconscious drives through peculiarly unsettling natural utterance, sound, gesture, and reflex motion, all of which communicate poetically the essence of the nature of humankind.

The Golden Fleece

With The Golden Fleece, Grillparzer gave voice to a new type of tragic sensitivity in the renewal of material that had been dramatized earlier by Euripides, Seneca, Pierre Corneille, and...

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