Franz Grillparzer Essay - Grillparzer, Franz (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Grillparzer, Franz (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Franz Grillparzer 1791-1872

Austrian playwright, novella writer, poet, and critic.

The following entry presents criticism on Grillparzer from 1907 through 1999. For further information on Grillparzer's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 1.

Perhaps the most recognizable Austrian literary figure of the nineteenth century, Grillparzer is admired by critics for the intricate character studies found in his dramas, for his psychologically complex novellas, and for the critical and philosophical views he expressed in his essays. His style encompasses the influence of the classicism of ancient Greek tragedy, the neo-classicism of eighteenth-century Enlightenment authors, and the Romanticism of nineteenth-century German writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Grillparzer's works also reflect his interest in the historical dramas and the tragedies of William Shakespeare, of the Spanish dramatists Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón, and of the popular Viennese theater known as Volksstueck. His rich and varied oeuvre is widely studied today and there is new interest on the part of critics in Grillparzer's political and aesthetic ideas.

Biographical Information

Grillparzer was born in Vienna in 1791 to Wenzel Grillparzer, a court lawyer, and Anna Franzisca Sonnleithner. The Grillparzers were involved in the rich musical culture of Vienna, and young Grillparzer shared a lifelong friendship with Ludwig van Beethoven, even writing a libretto for Beethoven's opera Melusine at the composer's request. Following the family tradition, young Grillparzer studied law at the University of Vienna from 1807 to 1811. All the while, he was keenly interested in literature and composed his first drama, Blanka von Kastilien, in 1809. In 1814, after brief assignments as a private tutor for an aristocratic family and as an unpaid probationer in the court library, he became an administrator at the Imperial Archives. He was appointed director in 1832 and worked there until his retirement in 1856. In the meantime, Grillparzer was arrested in 1826 as a member of Ludlamshöhle, a writers' and artists' club whose members were falsely suspected of secretly promoting subversive ideas. Even though the charges were dropped, the incident left a strong impression on Grillparzer. In his later works, he would often incorporate the theme of the rights of the individual versus an arbitrary and repressive government. After this unpleasant event, Grillparzer traveled to Germany, where he visited writers Ludwig Tieck, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Goethe. In 1836 Grillparzer traveled to France and London—meeting Alexandre Dumas, Ludwig Börne, and Heinrich Heine in Paris, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton in London. While he suffered from lack of critical appreciation for his dramas throughout his career, Grillparzer fell into a deep depression and isolation toward the end of his life. His creativity grew dimmer and he never submitted any of his later dramas for theatrical production. He was, however, appointed a member of the newly-founded Austrian Academy of Science in 1847; was named Hofrat (privy councilor) on his retirement from the Imperial Archives; received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Vienna and Leipzig in 1859; and was appointed a member of the Upper House by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1861. He died at the age of eighty-one, in 1872.

Major Works

Grillparzer's first produced play, the popular Die Ahnfrau (1817; The Ancestress), was dismissed by critics as merely a fashionable “fate-tragedy” and Grillparzer, who always aspired to the highest poetic ideals, struggled during his entire career to shake off the label of sensationalism. His second play, Sappho, (1818) exhibits the stylistic traits that would characterize the rest of his works: classical blank verse form, serious subject matter derived from ancient or recent history, attention to the unities of time, place, and action, and emphasis on psychological motivation. Critics reacted more favorably to Sappho and later plays, but none ever equaled the popularity of The Ancestress. In his Greek trilogy, Das goldene Vliess (1821; The Golden Fleece), Grillparzer juxtaposes two cultures, Greek and barbarian. The censorship imposed by Prince Metternich during his rule, which intervened especially in the productions of historical tragedies such as König Ottokars Glück and Ende (1825; King Ottocar: His Rise and Fall) further hindered Grillparzer's career. However, he continued to write about historical themes and the role of the individual in history in such plays as Ein treuer Diener seines Herrn (1828; A Faithful Servant of His Master), Ein Bruderzwist in Habsburg (1872; Family Strife in Habsburg), Die Jüdin von Toledo (1872; The Jewess of Toledo) and Libussa, (1874). In 1838, broken by Vienna's resounding rejection of his one comedy, Weh dem, der lügt! (Thou Shalt Not Lie), Grillparzer retreated from the theater, neither publishing nor producing another drama, though he continued to write for another thirty years.

Critical Reception

The critical recognition Grillparzer craved did not come until after his death. While today he is remembered chiefly for his classical and historical plays, which achieve tragic power through precise definition of character, Grillparzer also made other important contributions to literature, as critics point out. The maligned Thou Shalt Not Lie is now acclaimed as one of the best examples of high comedy in German. Three of the dramas he wrote but originally withheld from the public—Libussa, Family Strife in Habsburg, and The Jewess of Toledo—have received intense critical attention as a result of his treatment of such unusual themes as matriarchy and the role of the outsider in society. The poems collected in Tristia ex ponto (1835) and a series of epigrams discovered posthumously are also admired for the depth of despair they reveal in Grillparzer. And two of his novellas, Der arme Spielmann (1848; The Poor Fiddler) and Der Kloser bei Sendomir (1827; The Monastery in Sendomir) have received increased critical attention over the last twenty years because of Grillparzer's playful use of narration and his philosophic themes.

Principal Works

*Blanka von Kastilien (drama) 1809

Die Ahnfrau [The Ancestress, 1938] (drama) 1817

Sappho [Sappho, 1820] (drama) 1818

Das goldene Vliess [The Golden Fleece, 1942] (drama) 1821

König Ottokars Glück und Ende [King Ottocar: His Rise and Fall, 1938] (drama) 1825

Das Kloster bei Sendomir (novella) 1827

Ein treuer Diener seines Herrn [A Faithful Servant of His Master, 1941] (drama) 1828

Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen [Hero and Leander, 1938] (drama) 1831

Der Traum ein Leben [A Dream Is Life, 1946] (drama) 1834

Tristia ex Ponto (poetry) 1835

Weh dem, der lügt! [Thou Shalt Not Lie, 1939] (drama) 1838

Der arme Spielmann [The Poor Fiddler, 1967] (novella) 1848

Ein Bruderzwist in Habsburg [Family Strife in Habsburg, 1940] (drama) 1872

Die Jüdin von Toledo [The Jewess of Toledo, 1913] (drama) 1872

Libussa [Libussa, 1941] (drama) 1874

Sämtliche Werke. 42 vols. (play, novellas, poetry, essays, and criticism) 1909-48

*This is the date of composition.

†This trilogy includes Das Gastfreund, Die Argonauten, and Medea.


Gustav Pollak (essay date 1907)

SOURCE: “Grillparzer's Early Years,” in Franz Grillparzer and the Austrian Drama, Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1907, pp. 30-40.

[In the following excerpt, Pollak relates relevant facts regarding Grillparzer's early life and first compositions.]

Franz Grillparzer was born in Vienna on the 15th of January, 1791, and died there on the 21st of January, 1872. Fame came to him at the very beginning of his career, yet his long life, consistently devoted to high ideals, brought him disappointments such as have fallen to the lot of few writers of his intellect and character. Prof. August Sauer has prefaced his standard biography of the poet by a telling characterization of the...

(The entire section is 5778 words.)

George A. Wells (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “The Greek Tragedies,” in The Plays of Grillparzer, Pergamon Press, 1969, pp. 33-82.

[In the following excerpt, Wells discusses Grillparzer's three Greek tragedies—Sappho, Das goldene Vliess, and Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen—noting that they all share the theme of love and that in each Grillparzer concentrated on preserving unity of time, place, and action.]

1. SAPPHO (1818)

In the draft of a letter to Müllner of 1818, Grillparzer confessed to being somewhat ashamed of what he called the “tolles Treiben” in Die Ahnfrau, and was anxious to show that he could write a play without bangs and...

(The entire section is 18946 words.)

W. E. Yates (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Ambition,” in Grillparzer: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1972, pp. 84-131.

[In the following excerpt, Yates offers detailed discussions of Grillparzer's Das Goldene Vlies, Köning Ottokar's Glück und Ende, and Der Traum ein Leben, focusing on characterization and pointing out that achievement is often linked with the fulfillment of duty in Grillparzer's plays.]


In the preface to Das Goldene Vlies which Grillparzer composed in November 1821, he wrote that it was impossible for a writer to escape the spirit of his own age; that in his age writers too rapidly lost...

(The entire section is 19884 words.)

Bruce Thompson (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Die Ahnfrau,” in A Sense of Irony: An Examination of the Tragedies of Franz Grillparzer, Herbert Lang, 1976, pp. 19-36.

[In the following essay, Thompson discusses Grillparzer's drama Die Ahnfrau, focusing on his handling of supernatural elements and observing that the actions of Grillparzer's characters stem naturally from their motives, despite the supernatural workings of the plot.]

Since its first performance in 1817 Grillparzer's Die Ahnfrau has frequently been the subject of controversy, much of the argument having centred on the problem of the play's classification.1 Initially it was regarded as a mere...

(The entire section is 8559 words.)

W. N. B. Mullan (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: An introduction to Grillparzer's Aesthetic Theory: A Study with Special Reference to His Conception of the Drama “Eine Gegenrawart,” Akademischer Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1979, pp. 1-23.

[In the following excerpt, Mullan introduces Grillparzer's ideas regarding aesthetic theory, asserting that the dramatist's ideas were based on induction and his study of human psychology, rather than on philosophy.]


Despite his lifelong reflection on aesthetic problems Grillparzer never produced a systematic account of his conclusions. His one and only half-hearted attempt to do so in 1820-211...

(The entire section is 11121 words.)

Renny Keelin Harrigan (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Woman and Artist: Grillparzer's Sappho Revisited,” in German Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 3, 1980, pp. 298-316.

[In the following essay, Harrigan suggests that Sappho appealed to Grillparzer because he viewed her as a figure who was able to integrate her life and art into a complex whole.]


Since it was first performed in 1818, the tragic fate of Grillparzer's Sappho has been interpreted primarily in two ways: either as the result of the artist's betrayal of her calling through descent into life's occasionally murky depths or as the only acceptable exit left for a jealous woman who is incidentally an artist.1 These...

(The entire section is 8034 words.)

Edward McInnes (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Psychological Insight and Moral Awareness in Grillparzer's Das goldene Vliess,Modern Language Review, Vol. 75, No. 3, 1980, pp. 575-82.

[In the following essay, McInnes explores the tension between analytical insight and moral concern in Das goldene Vliess, emphasizing that Grillparzer's imagination operated outside the conscious level of action. McInnes further suggests that Grillparzer anticipated later and more radical developments in nineteenth-century German drama.]

The dramatic work of Grillparzer has proved notoriously difficult to relate to the wider development of German literature in the nineteenth century.1 It is not...

(The entire section is 4946 words.)

Bruce Thompson (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Poetry and Prose,” in Franz Grillparzer, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 80-94.

[In the following excerpt, Thompson presents an overview of Grillparzer's lyrical poetry, written mostly in his youth and influenced by the eighteenth-century neoclassical poets. Thompson also discusses Das Kloster bei Sendomir and Der Arme Spielmann, both of which broach the theme of the role of the artist.]


It is ostensibly one of the more puzzling facts of literary history that whereas Grillparzer enjoys considerable stature as a dramatist, as a lyric poet he ranks only as a minor figure. Not that he is entirely unknown as a poet,...

(The entire section is 6324 words.)

Roger Nicholls (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “The Hero as an Old Man: The Role of Bancabanus in Grillparzer's Ein Treuer Diener Seines Herrn,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 1, 1982, pp. 29-42.

[In the following essay, Nicholls analyses Ein Treuer Diener Seines Herrn as representative of Grillparzer's propensity to portray man in all his limitations, to expose the ambiguity inherent in human life, and to show how human achievement can grow out of conflict.]

Fundamental to the interpretation of Grillparzer's drama is recognition of the contrast between the expectation aroused by the formal language and structure of his plays and the reality of the inner action. Grillparzer's...

(The entire section is 5987 words.)

Ian F. Roe (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Truth and Humanity in Grillparzer's Weh Dem, Der Lügt!,” in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXII, No. 4, October, 1986, pp. 289-307.

[In the following essay, Roe comments on Grillparzer's only comic drama, noting that in it he subjects the search for truth to comic scrutiny and ultimately advocates a balanced life that incorporates contemplation and action, striving for truth and making mistakes.]

In the relative optimism of Grillparzer's one completed comedy, critics have more readily observed the influence of eighteenth-century ideas than in most other plays by Grillparzer. Ernst Alker's assessment in 1930—“von Klassik findet sich...

(The entire section is 9193 words.)

William C. Reeve (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “The Inescapable Paternal Legacy: Act One,” in Grillparzer's “Libussa”: The Tragedy of Separation, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999, pp. 9-57.

[In the following excerpt, Reeve explores the first act of Libussa, focusing on the title character's struggle to define herself in relation to the men in her life, particularly her father, while also distancing herself from the circle of women in the play.]

All of Grillparzer's completed posthumous plays commence with a negation: “primislaus an der Tür der Hütte horchend: Bist du schon fertig? libussa von innen: Nein”; “gerichtsperson Im Namen kaiserlicher Majestät /...

(The entire section is 25025 words.)

Further Reading


Birrell, Gordon. “Time, Timelessness, and Music in Grillparzer's Spielmann.German Quarterly 57, No. 4 (Fall 1984): 558-75.

Discusses the internal logic of the fiddler's music in the context of his inability to experience time.

Burkhard, Arthur. Franz Grillparzer in England and America. Wien, Austria: Bergland Verlag, 1961, 82 p.

Comments on English translations of Grillparzer's works and on the opinions of his works cited by various English and American critics.

Burkhard, Marianne. “Love, Creativity, and Female Role: Grillparzer's Sappho and Staël's...

(The entire section is 681 words.)