Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

Arthur Schnitzler wrote Hands Around between November, 1896, and February, 1897, and this tragicomedy bedeviled him for the rest of his life. In 1900 he had two hundred copies privately printed, and he distributed them to his friends. Three years later, a Viennese publisher brought out a commercial edition, which was either ignored or vilified by the press. Because of the controversial nature of the work, S. Fischer, Schnitzler’s regular publisher, did not issue it under his imprint until the year of the playwright’s death.

From the outset, Schnitzler was aware of the untimeliness and explosive nature of the play, and he had doubts about the advisability of staging it. For decades he referred to it in his letters, and in an unpublished note of 1922 he outlined some of its problematical points: The play does not communicate outrage at sex between casual acquaintances, and the sex act is marked by a short curtain at the midpoint of each scene, not its end. Seven years after an unauthorized Hungarian performance in Budapest in 1913, Schnitzler permitted Max Reinhardt to produce it in Berlin. Actually, Gertrud Eysoldt had already premiered the play there at her Kleines Schauspielhaus in December, 1920. In the inhospitable climate of the troubled early postwar years, Hands Around became a cause célèbre. There were demonstrations and riots. Far from viewing it as a critique of selfishness and lovelessness in a corrupt, doomed society, a hostile press and government officials chose to interpret it as smut, pornography, a celebration of promiscuity, and a lustful Jew’s invitation to free sex. After a week-long trial the management and cast of the Berlin theater were acquitted. Numerous performances followed in Berlin and other German cities. Riots and scandals, however, led Schnitzler to prohibit further performances, and his son Heinrich did not lift the ban for the German-speaking stage until 1981.

Most critics have long regarded Schnitzler’s play as a masterpiece and a modern classic. Though there is nothing to indicate that the author intended to highlight the dangers of sexual promiscuity, this comment by the Viennese-born psychoanalyst Theodor Reik is relevant in the age of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome:At any given moment in reading the Reigen one might wonder what would happen if one of the partners had a primary syphilitic infection. The picture of the merry-go-round would quickly be transformed into that of the danse macabre. . . . the dance of life becomes a whirlwind of spirochetes.

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