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.
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.
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.
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.