Reigen and The Blue Room: Different Cultural Climates

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2064

Dr. Arthur Schnitzler began writing Reigen , a ‘‘round dance’’ of sexual escapades among a variety of characters in turn-of-the-century Vienna, during the winter of 1896-97. He initially considered his collection of ‘‘dialogues,’’ as he called them, too scandalous to ever be staged, and preferred to simply have them printed,...

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Dr. Arthur Schnitzler began writing Reigen, a ‘‘round dance’’ of sexual escapades among a variety of characters in turn-of-the-century Vienna, during the winter of 1896-97. He initially considered his collection of ‘‘dialogues,’’ as he called them, too scandalous to ever be staged, and preferred to simply have them printed, at his own expense, and distributed to friends for their enjoyment. Reportedly, when his fiancee asked to see a copy, he even refused her, saying Reigen was not appropriate reading for a young lady.

It wasn’t until 1920 that Schnitzler allowed a publicly staged performance of Reigen, and even then it opened out of town, in Berlin. The German production met with demonstrations, riots, and the arrest of the cast on charges of obscenity (they were later acquitted). The next year, in 1921, the Viennese premiere of the play was closed by police, who considered the performance a form of public pornography.

What a difference a century can make. A hundred years after Dr. Schnitzler shocked his society (some of the more sensitive members, anyway) with Reigen, the first production of English playwright David Hare’s 1998 adaptation of the work, The Blue Room, was greeted by a very different kind of disturbance: ticket riots. Publicity for Hare’s modernized daisy chain of casual sexual encounters proudly trumpeted the appearance of a scantily clad, and occasionally nude, popular film star, Australian actress Nicole Kidman, and instead of shouting moral outrage, theatregoers clamored in line for tickets. The limited run of the show on Broadway in New York City opened with an amazing $4 million in advance sales, and scalped seats were reportedly going for several hundred dollars a cushion. Same play, same prurience, but a very different audience.

The production record of Reigen in its various forms throughout the century illustrates the cultural relativity of all literature. What is shocking and abhorrent to one group of people in one particular place at one specific time sometimes becomes quaint, or even comical, to a different society years later. Important, burning issues, particularly those with contemporary political themes, fade into the distant, collective memory of a culture, while new hot topics take their place. It is as true of Shakespeare Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe as it is of Arthur Schnitzler and David Hare: The words remain the same, but they are heard a different way.

In the Introduction to Hands Around: A Cycle of Ten Dialogues, a limited-circulation, English language translation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen, printed for members of the Schnitzler Society in 1929, the anonymous translators of the text observe:

Humanity seems gayest when dancing on the brink of a volcano. The culture of a period preceding a social cataclysm is marked by a spirit of light wit and sophisticated elegance which finds expression in a literature of a distinct type. This literature is lighthearted, audacious and self-conscious. It can treat with the most charming insouciance subjects which in another age would have been awkward or even vulgar. But with the riper experience of a period approaching its end the writers feel untrammeled in the choice of them by pride or prejudice knowing that they will never transgress the line of good taste.

This observation is an attempt to position Reigen in its proper place in history. In Schnitzler’s Vienna, the twilight years of the nineteenth century (often referred to by the French term fin de siecle) were a time of aristocratic sophistication, intellectual and artistic achievement, and social gaiety. In the words of Charles Osborne, another of Schnitzler’s English translators, the era ‘‘produced significant new movements in the arts in several countries, notably England France and Austria. Nowhere, however, did the arts thrive more richly in those years than in Austria, and specifically in its capital city, Vienna, which is where many of the most exciting developments had their beginnings.’’

Those developments the accomplishments of fin de siecle Vienna were created by the hands and minds of an amazing collection of painters, composers, philosophers, playwrights, and scientists, all gathered together in one place and time. Among the notables were the poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the painter Oskar Kokoschka, composer Johann Strauss, and one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, the psychologist Sigmund Freud whose Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900, laying the foundation for modern psychoanalysis.

When they say humanity is gayest while ‘‘dancing on the brink of a volcano,’’ the translators of Hands Around are suggesting that, without realizing it, the Viennese of Schnitzler’s day and Schnitzler’s play were experiencing a last hurrah before proud, cultured, aristocratic Vienna would be consumed and forever changed by the First and Second World Wars. In other words, the creation of this play had to wait until the time was just right, and a little longer would have been too late.

In his description of The Round Dance, in Hauptmann, Wedekind and Schnitzler, scholar Peter Skrine suggested, ‘‘The idea [of the play] was a good one: one wonders why no one had thought of it before. Perhaps someone had, but it was of course unthinkable on the modern stage until in the Vienna of the early-1900s a sufficiently large group of open-minded theatre-goers . . . were able to provide a potential audience in sympathy with what Schnitzler was doing and the encouragement he needed to bring out into the open what he had on his mind.’’

Thanks to decades worth of intense exploration into anthropology, biology, sociology, and psychology by scientists in the nineteenth century, Schnitzler was also better armed than any of his predecessor playwrights had been to write such an insightful play. Charles Darwin Karl Marx and Auguste Comte contributed to Reigen, indirectly at least as much as the atmosphere of aristocratic Vienna. ‘‘Schnitzler was drawing the logical literary consequences from the biological and sociological discoveries of the late-nineteenth century,’’ Skrine noted. ‘‘Sex is the basic manifestation of life, and he therefore presents it as the common denominator of a wide cross-section of humanity drawn from the widely differing social strata of Viennese society.’’

A century later, that social strata has changed somewhat. Schnitzler’s characters remain largely intact in Hare’s Blue Room. The ‘‘Sweet Young Lady’’ of Schnitzler’s play, who sips a little too much wine with the Husband character, becomes a cocaine sniffing, pill-popping waifish Model in Hare’s updating, but otherwise the people onstage are remarkably similar. Those in the audience, however, have undergone a major transformation.

Schnitzler’s audiences claimed to be surprised by the acts of debauchery in Reigen. Perhaps to provide a mask of honor for an otherwise dishonorable production, some critics suggested that there was a moral lesson to be learned from the play: Besides the emptiness and emotional despair that are passed along by casual sex, venereal diseases may also find their way from partner to partner. In the 1990s, audiences in Europe and America have seen it all, on the stage and on the screen, and are unlikely to be truly shocked by any mere display of the naked human form. Titillated yes, but shocked, no. They have lived through a decade of proliferating pornography, thanks to the widespread use of the Internet, and witnessed the impeachment of U.S. President Bill Clinton over a variety of sexual affairs, ending with the now infamous White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Their steamy encounters were described in graphic detail by an infamous Special Prosecutor, whose written report, including accounts of oral sex in the president’s office, was made public and printed in serial form in newspapers and magazines across the country. As Rod Dreher dryly noted in a review of The Blue Room in the National Review, ‘‘It’s easy to imagine what a shock these vignettes must have delivered to Schnitzler’s cultured audiences in 1920s Vienna, but at this late date in the sexual revolution, especially after the year-long Lewinskian Thermidor, it’s all very old hat. Been there, done that, saw it on C-SPAN.’’

Modern audiences might be expected, however, to be more frightened by the specter of AIDS, a devastating sexually transmitted disease that killed nearly 7 million people between the time of its discovery in 1981 and the time The Blue Room was staged in 1998. Intriguingly, however, Hare does not turn AIDS into a major, or even minor, topic of discussion in the new adaptation. At one point in the sexual roundelay, the Au Pair tells her new beau, the Cab Driver, she wants to wait to have sex ‘‘because of the risk. . . . It’s not safe nowadays.’’ But when he tells her the act will mean something significant to him, her resolve melts and they fall down together on a bed of cardboard boxes. Occasional glimpses of tentative regrets are all that surface in the play.

Perhaps this seeming lack of social consciousness can be forgiven, in light of Hare’s previous track record of socially important works. Describing the playwright’s previous work, Robert Viagas wrote in Back Stage, ‘‘Hare’s plays examine various facets of the troubled late-20th century British soul.’’ This is undeniably true of plays like Plenty, The Secret Rapture, and Hare’s remarkable trilogy of dramas examining British social institutions, Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges, and The Absence of War. With The Blue Room, however, Britain’s most popular playwright-polemicist was telling a more universal story, and seemed to be less concerned with large social issues, than with intimate, personal crises that are experienced the same the world over, in any time period.

Unlike Schnitzler’s original work, which deliberately attempts to evoke the spirit of fin de siecle Vienna, The Blue Room’s preface suggests only that ‘‘The play is set in one of the great cities of the world, in the present day,’’ and, indeed, there is little about the work that ties it to a particular geographic location. Schnitzler’s audiences may indeed have seen something uniquely Austrian, or German, about the characters in Reigen. In fact, Skrine asserted that without the proper treatment of the language and a delicately nuanced approach to the unique Viennese personality, the play would become something very different than its author intended. ’’The Round Dance is a play which needs plenty of tact,’’ said Skrine. ‘‘If the subtle inflections of Viennese speech and the details of Viennese manners are not captured, the true qualities of the text are apt to evaporate, and we are left with an episodic and rather smutty entertainment in which Schnitzler’s delightfully varied and pointed dialogue might just as well be replaced by coarse innuendo and heavy breathing.’’

Half a century later, when he filmed Reigen as La Ronde in 1950, Max Ophuls must have felt the same way. His production, which has become a favorite of cinema buffs everywhere, labors to recreate the same Viennese turn-of-the-century elegance and wistfulness found in Schnitzler’s play. Five more decades later though, a full century after Dr. Schnitzler circulated copies of his ‘‘dialogues’’ he had printed at his own expense among a select group of friends, Hare’s new adaptation has proven that it really is a small world after all. In the last hours of the twentieth century, geographic boundaries and cultural differences are melting away in a flurry of electronic global communications and a powerful world economy. It doesn’t matter whether The Blue Room takes place in Vienna, Venice, or Ventura, California, its characters possess recognizable traits of people the world over, and they struggle with some of the same problems individuals in advanced societies have always found themselves struggling with—class conflicts, loveless relationships, sexual inhibition, and its counterpart, aggressive licentiousness.

In the 1990s, however, those themes, in this story, haven’t achieved the same resonance they once found with audiences less programmed for voyeuristic thrills. As Charles Isherwood noted in his review of The Blue Room for Variety, ‘‘One notes an irony: At the last turn of the century, when the original was written, it was considered too dangerous to be published and later inspired police action; on the cusp of the next, the new text has become virtually insignificant, lost in the swirl of celebrity hype that has surrounded the production. Play? What play? Draw your own conclusion about the decline of culture.’’

Source: Lane A. Glenn, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Glenn is a Ph.D. specializing in theatre history and literature.

Review of The Blue Room

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 602

Perhaps the one world-theater figure left undervalued many years after his death is Arthur Schnitzler. Esteemed by the cognoscenti, his work performed intermittently (though often in bastardized versions), and dimly known to many theatergoers, he has yet to achieve the honors due a genius in both drama and fiction. Unfortunately, the updating of his comedy Reigen by David Hare (rhymes with Guare) as The Blue Room will not add many laurels to the great Austrian’s reputation.

Reigen (‘‘Round Dance’’), known mostly from Max Ophuls’s movie version, La Ronde—a flamboyant but facile Ophulsification—is a play that astutely views the sexual act as also a sexual leveler and psychological placebo, but only fleetingly satisfying in any capacity. It is both a dance of sex (A screws B, B screws C, and so on until J screws A) and a dance of death—the death of love, as various partners from diverse social strata declare feelings for one another that are transparently transient.

What Schnitzler achieves, and Hare pretty much loses, is a careful demonstration of how sex takes on varying significance depending on the status of the participants, and of how emotions change from before intercourse to after. Yet Hare and his clever director, Sam Mendes, have conceived this modernization as a bravura display piece for one actor and one actress, each playing five parts. That way, however, the sense of a cross section of humankind caught in the act fades, and the focus becomes the versatility of the two performers. Similarly, the startling minimalist décor by Mark Thompson and neon-edged abstract lighting by Hugh Vanstone further detract from Schnitzler’s detailed and minutely documented societal and existential exploration.

Still, if all you want is two highly attractive performers—she an Australian-American movie star, he a British-stage leading man—exhibiting their skills and bodies in a sufficiently sophisticated but slick vehicle, more Hare than Schnitzler, The Blue Room fills the bill.

I doubt whether there exists a young actress anywhere today who better combines physical allure with histrionic gifts than Nicole Kidman. Here she manages five idiosyncratic and duly varied performances that will not be outshone by an almost continuous dishabille and brief nudity (mostly from the back) that would be enough to eclipse many a lesser talent. For Miss Kidman’s is a great and very nearly flawless beauty, extending from hair to toes and skipping nothing, unless, unlike me, you feel that a tall, willowy, essentially girlish figure is inferior to womanly copiousness. But be forewarned: You will see much more of Miss Kidman’s face, legs, and feet, superb as they are, than of her torso.

I dwell on body so much because that is what the hype has been all about, dishonest in hype’s usual way. You get more nudity on the masculine side, from Iain Glen, an equally fine performer and not inconsiderable looker. But what with capitalization on Miss Kidman’s star aura, and underestimation of female and homosexual audiences, Glen’s even greater self-baring has gotten less publicity.

The hundred uninterrupted minutes go by without boring you, but do not expect major erotic, any more than artistic, stimulation. No doubt intentionally, the essence of eroticism—the passionately sensual interplay of two performers—has been downplayed, if not exactly curbed. Moreover, what was incomparably daring a century ago (1897, and then in 1900, only privately printed) is mere marginal titillation today. And Hare, to his credit, was not simply after sexual jokiness, although he may still have overemphasized it.

Source: John Simon, review of The Blue Room in New York, Vol. 31, no. 50, January 4, 1999, p. 69.

Nicole Kidman's Behind

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752

If the theater is a temple, it’s no surprise that the most popular faith on Broadway this holiday season is ‘‘The Blue Room,’’ to which pilgrims flock from miles around to worship Nicole Kidman’s tush.

But given the competing prurience on tap this year, anyone who sees ‘‘The Blue Room’’ must be baffled. It’s no Starr report. You pay your money— even $35 balcony seats are scalped for hundreds— and all you get is 100 minutes of arch acting—class skits in which Ms. Kidman’s backside (and only her backside) is visible undraped for about five seconds. The dim lighting hasn’t been turned up a watt since the similar faux-nude tableau in ‘‘Hair’’ 30 years ago. Let the sunshine in—please!

The shortfall between the show’s lurid reputation and its PG-13 content—as well as that between its status as a highfalutin cultural event and its slim theatrical rewards—once more proves that our waning century’s most powerful invention, publicity, can alter even empirical reality once harnessed to sex to sell a product. The notoriously rapacious promotional machine of Ms. Kidman and her husband, Tom Cruise, has pulled off the feat of making cynical, allegedly sophisticated New Yorkers look like rubes who shell out big bucks for a carny show that’s all smoke and mirrors once they’re inside the tent.

What brought the product, Ms. Kidman, to Broadway? She isn’t a has been, like the usual TV refugees who turned up as novelty acts in ‘‘Grease.’’ Nor is she in the category of Christian Slater, currently doing penance in another play, ‘‘Side Man,’’ to re-establish his employability after a highly public detox. And she doesn’t need her paltry Broadway paycheck. (The entire box-office gross for the 12-week run of ‘‘The Blue Room’’ equals roughly a fifth of what Mr. Cruise alone makes per picture.)

Officially, yes, Ms. Kidman simply yearned to return to her stage roots in a classic. (‘‘The Blue Room’’ is an updating of Arthur Schnitzler, albeit in Cliff Notes form.) The actual motive, though, is a stalled screen career. Ms. Kidman’s recent movies (‘‘The Peacemaker,’’ ‘‘Practical Magic’’) didn’t set the world on fire, so it’s time to manufacture buzz— and where cheaper or easier to do it than on starand- sex-deprived Broadway, where the biggest celebrities are ‘‘Lion King’’ puppets, vanity productions can be assembled for a fraction of Hollywood’s cost, and only 1,000 seats a night need be sold to earn the accolade ‘‘smash hit’’?

The ‘‘Blue Room’’ agenda was dictated to a compliant Newsweek, which set the tone for the monkey-see media to follow. Ms. Kidman, we were told, is no longer ‘‘Mrs. Tom Cruise, a nepotistic status assigned to her by a twitchy, bitchy Hollywood,’’ but a budding superstar heading for ‘‘what may be a career unlike any other.’’ Eager to hop on the ‘‘Blue Room’’ gravy train for its own commercial purposes, Newsweek oversold the sexual comeon, taking a lead from the British critic, apparently on sabbatical from a monastery, who had fatuously labeled Ms. Kidman’s performance ‘‘pure theatrical Viagra’’ at its debut in London. The magazine’s cover announced that ‘‘Nicole Kidman bares all,’’ and its article led with the empty promise that the star would be seen on stage ‘‘in various percentages of undress (including a climactic 100 percent).’’ The play’s artistic bona fides were similarly hyped, the director, Sam Mendes, and adaptor David Hare lent ‘‘The Blue Room’’ their cachet but not their best efforts.

Ms. Kidman is a good actress. If she had found a stage vehicle as challenging as her best movie, ‘‘To Die For,’’ she might have had an acting rather than a publicity triumph. Instead she became one of the few stars of recent seasons to be denied a unanimous standing ovation on her Broadway opening night.

The morning after, New York critics blew the whistle on the whole stunt, noting its acute shortfall as both sex show and cultural event. Too little, too late. Ticket buyers had already been suckered into spending some $4 million in advance to subsidize Ms. Kidman’s image makeover, and what New Yorker wants to admit he’s been had? A ticket to ‘‘The Blue Room,’’ the terminally tedious club no one can get into, still confirms status, even if anyone in search of pure theatrical Viagra might have had a better shot with the Rockettes.

Source: Frank Rich, ‘‘Nicole Kidman’s Behind’’ in the New York Times, December 30, 1998, p. A17.

Scorched-Earth Strategy

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 857

The most passionately anticipated movie in years is Stanley Kubrick’s ‘‘Eyes Wide Shut,’’ starring Tom Cruise and his wife, Nicole Kidman. Now that desire is being partially slaked by the appearance of Kidman onstage in London in David Hare’s erotically charged new play The Blue Room. While Kubrick edits the closely guarded film in his London lair, Kidman is hitting the boards like a fireball, scorching the normally nonflammable critics. The Daily Telegraph swore that Kidman was ‘‘pure sexual Viagra.’’ The Guardian said, ‘‘She is not just a star, she delivers the goods.’’ As for Kidman, she’s acting in the 250-seat Donmar Warehouse because ‘‘you cannot look just to movies to be fulfilled.’’

‘‘The Blue Room’’ is Hare’s modernized version of Arthur Schnitzler’s ‘‘La Ronde,’’ in which five men and five women form an inadvertent sexual daisy chain that crosses lines of social class and money. In Hare’s version, two actors, Kidman and Iain Glen, play all 10 contemporary copulators. Both give virtuoso performances, switching identities, costumes, accents and positions with speed, elegance, pathos and hilarity. These attributes apply equally to Sam Mendes’s staging and to Hare’s play, which looks with cool empathy at the illusions and deceptions of the modern mating dance.

As a stage image, Kidman is the essence of - escense: luminescent, opalescent, incandescent. As an actress, she evokes with wit and style a teenage hooker, a French au pair, an upscale wife, a cokedup model, an imperious stage diva. Matching her is Glen as a lecherous cabdriver, a callow student, a self-adoring playwright, a philandering politician, a jaded aristocrat. Flinging their clothes off and on with finger-straining abandon, they couple in stage blackouts, to the frazzling accompaniment of an electric buzzer, followed by a sign signaling the length of their liaisons. (Winner: the politician at 2 hours 28 minutes. Flunkout: the student at 0.)

It took guts for movie-star Kidman, 31, to step into the naked reality of the stage in such a risky project. Living in London with Cruise for 18 months while working on Kubrick’s project, Kidman felt the call of the theater, where she hadn’t worked since she was 19 in her native Australia. The skydiving, mountain-climbing Kidman was undaunted by the relentless sexuality of ‘‘The Blue Room.’’ The most erotic scene in the play is one in which the playwright tenderly dresses the model after they’ve made love. ‘‘That was my idea,’’ says Kidman. ‘‘I thought it was sexier for him than ripping her clothes off.’’

Kidman has a special insight into the character of the young model. She’s frank about her own emotional history and her youthful dalliance with drugs. ‘‘When I was 17, I had a relationship with a 37-year-old man,’’ she says. ‘‘Another man was 13 years older than me. He was lovely and kind. He gave me such a strong belief in men, which is a lovely thing to have.’’ Kidman studied ballet as a youngster, and later joined a theater group in Sydney. Inevitably the movies grabbed the girl with the red-gold hair and moonglow skin. Her best American role so far was the murderously ambitious TV weather girl in 1995’s ‘‘To Die For.’’ (Her next film, ‘‘Practical Magic,’’ opens mid-October.) Cruise and Kidman—whose previous films together, ‘‘Days of Thunder’’ and ‘‘Far and Away,’’ were not successful—are as anxious as anyone to see what Kubrick has wrought with them in ‘‘Eyes Wide Shut.’’

The director has buttoned the lips of everyone connected with the film (now set to open next summer). But Kidman’s awed affection for Kubrick (‘‘He’s truly inspired’’) threatens to pop one button. The movie, a thriller about jealousy and sexual obsession, involves scenes of highly charged eroticism with Kidman and Cruise reportedly as husbandand- wife psychiatrists. ‘‘Stanley was extremely respectful of us, of our marriage,’’ says Kidman. ‘‘He set those scenes up from the beginning so that he dealt with us separately. He told us, ‘I don’t want you to direct each other or give each other notes.’ He thought that when a threesome works on such sensitive scenes, two can gang up on the third without meaning to.’’

‘‘The Blue Room’’ will run through October, but Kidman won’t escape from sex. Her next film is ‘‘In the Cut,’’ from novelist Susanna Moore’s (what else?) erotic thriller, which Kidman bought for filmmaker Jane Campion, who directed her in ‘‘Portrait of a Lady.’’ ‘‘Jane will push me to the limit, she’ll ask me to do things I’ve never done before,’’ says Kidman. She doesn’t sound like someone who has threatened to give up acting. ‘‘It’s the awful scrutiny of your private life that gets you down.’’ She and Cruise are currently suing an English magazine that wrote they were getting divorced. Their two children go to English schools, but Kidman says ideally she’d like to raise the kids in Australia. As for her husband, she calls him ‘‘wonderfully American.’’ It sounds as if no one country, no one medium, is going to contain her energy and daring.

Source: Jack Kroll, ‘‘Scorched-Earth Strategy’’ in Newsweek, Vol. 132, May 10, 1998, p. 89.

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