Franz Grillparzer 1791-1872
Austrian dramatist, novella writer, poet, and critic.
Franz Grillparzer wrote in an age of transition, between the classical Romanticism of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller and the realism of the middle and late nineteenth century. Drawing from one period and sensing the approach of the other, Grillparzer successfully employed the poetic form and Romantic tone of the first to depict the subtle psychological states characteristic of the second. Grillparzer's work also reflects the influences of Shakespeare, the Spanish dramatists Pedro Calderón and Lope de Vega, and the popular theater of his home city, Vienna. His rich and varied oeuvre—little appreciated in his own time—is today widely studied and respected.
Grillparzer was born in Vienna on January 15, 1791. His father was a court lawyer, and the family was esteemed and wealthy. The personalities of Grillparzer's moody, indulgent mother and cold father reflect the opposition between poetic idealism and reality that dominates his work. Grillparzer shared his mother's love of music, and the cadence and structure of his dramas reflect his melodic sense. The Grillparzers were involved in the rich musical culture of Vienna, and Grillparzer shared a lifelong friendship with Ludwig von Beethoven. After studying law at the University of Vienna, Grillparzer briefly acted as a tutor and worked at the court library. Eventually, he became an administrator at the Imperial Archives. In 1817 his first play, Die Ahnfrau (The Ancestress), was produced in Vienna. The censorship imposed under the rule of Prince Metternich, which intervened especially in the productions of historical tragedies such as König Ottokar's Glück und Ende (1825; King Ottocar: His Rise and Fall), hindered Grillparzer's success. In 1838, broken by Vienna's resounding rejection of his one comedy, Weh dem, der lügt! (1838; Thou Shall Not Lie), Grillparzer retreated from the theater, neither publishing nor producing another drama, although he continued to write for thirty years.
Grillparzer's first produced play, Die Ahnfrau, was dismissed by critics as a Schicksalstragödie or “fate-tragedy,” despite its obvious poetic promise and dramatic power. In his second play, Sappho (1818), Grillparzer employed the literary effects that characterize his work from that point on: the classical blank verse form, serious subject matter derived mainly from classical or historical themes, and an emphasis on psychological motivation. His trilogy, Das goldene Vließ (1821; The Golden Fleece)—Der Gastfreund (The Guest-Friend), Die Argonauten (The Argonauts), and Medea—utilizes Greek mythology as subject matter. A few of his works, like König Ottokar's Glück und Ende and Ein treuer Diener seines Herrn (1828; A Faithful Servant of His Master), focus on the history of Vienna and its monarchy.
During his lifetime, many critics deemed Grillparzer a “fate-tragedian.” This charge of sensationalism devastated Grillparzer, who always adhered to the highest artistic ideals, and he struggled during the rest of his career to shake off the label with which he was branded. Although many of his plays were commercially and critically successful, the recognition he craved did not come until after his death. Commentators agree that Grillparzer drew from the theatrical traditions of classical Romanticism, Spanish baroque, Shakespeare, and popular theater. That in synthesizing these influences he presaged the realism of the next dramatic age is testimony to the genius that has earned Grillparzer his position as the most distinguished Austrian dramatist.