The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 886

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Hands Around consists of ten short scenes in the form of dialogues between a man and a woman. The central concern of each is conversation before and after sexual intercourse, which is itself not depicted onstage. The playwright’s inspiration may have been William Hogarth’s two 1736 engravings “Before” and “After.”

The first partners are the prostitute and the soldier. Leocadia is so attracted to Franz that she offers herself to him free of charge. Since the swaggering soldier is not willing to accompany her to her room, they perch precariously on the banks of the Danube Canal while making love. Throughout this terse encounter, the brutish man prefers to remain faceless and anonymous.

The second instance of the recurring dialectic of persuasion and reluctance is the encounter between the soldier and the maid. Having met Marie at a dance in the Prater, Vienna’s amusement park and pleasure ground, Franz takes the initiative and has his way with her on the grass. Afterward he agrees to take her home, but not until he has had some more fun dancing with another girl.

In the third scene, the maid is seduced by Alfred, the blasé, feckless young gentleman of the house, in his bedroom. After intercourse, eager to restore (or continue) the master-servant relationship, he orders her to answer the doorbell and rushes off to his favorite café.

The young gentleman is next shown with the young wife. This time Alfred does not improvise a seduction but carefully and aesthetically prepares for a visit from Frau Emma, who arrives heavily veiled at the apartment he has rented for the assignation. After overcoming her scruples, he finds himself impotent, possibly because she is not his inferior but his socioeconomic equal. Alfred attempts to rationalize, intellectualize, and poetize his failure by recounting a Stendhal story in which some cavalry officers were unable to perform with the women they desired the most. One of them wept for joy with his lover for nights on end, presumably because their love was so pure. Frau Emma’s attractiveness and experience finally enable the young gentleman to function after all, whereupon she remarks that this outcome is better than crying. After she leaves, he notes that he now has had an affair with a “respectable” woman.

The fifth scene presents the only sexual encounter sanctioned by society: conjugal love between the young wife and the husband. Placing his wife on a pedestal, the domineering philistine Karl priggishly preaches the virtues of morality and carefully rationed sex, with periods of friendship and continence to be followed by conjugal “affairs.” As he smugly moralizes about the unhappiness of unfaithful wives, Emma, who desires to be his lover as well as his wife and wishes for a son in addition to her daughter, wistfully remembers their wedding night in Venice.

In an unabashed demonstration of the age-old double standard, the husband next takes up with the sweet girl in a cabinet particular (or chambre separee) of a restaurant. (Das susse Madel, a stock character in Arthur Schnitzler’s plays, appears in various translations as the Sweet Young Lady, the Sweet Young Thing, the Sweet Young Miss, the Little Miss, and the Little Darling.) This earthy, naïve, pleasure-loving girl from the lower class is by turns prudish and promiscuous. Typifying a sort of realpolitik of love, she seems resigned to her fate of being loved and left. After their lovemaking, her hypocritical partner almost makes her apologize for his adultery.

In the next scene, the Sweet Girl is the foil of the pretentious, pompous Poet, who is fascinated by her “sacred simplicity” and “divine stupidity,” attributes that serve to convince him of his own superiority, sophistication, and complexity. He vainly attempts to impress her with his nom de plume (she has never heard of the famous Biebitz), and he caresses her with one hand, as it were, while he jots down his poetic insights with the other.

At a country inn, the Poet gets his comeuppance from the Actress, a worldly, hard-boiled, take-charge type who uses sex for her own enjoyment and prestige and to cement professional and social relationships. She does want sex from him but sees through and ridicules the fanciful vaporings of this poseur.

The Actress next receives the Count in her bedroom. The hedonistic but inhibited aristocrat does not believe in making love so early in the day, but on the morning after her triumph on the stage the capricious, strong-willed, and rather misanthropic woman manages to get him into bed with her.

In the tenth and last scene, which is a postlude only, the play comes full cycle with the Count and Leocadia. Having followed her to her shabby room in a drunken stupor, the Count awakens early in the morning without any recollection of the night. Once more a reluctant sex partner, he is disappointed to learn that he has done more than kiss the girl’s eyes. A philosopher of sorts, he muses about the meaning of life, permanence, and happiness. Leocadia, who is this time emotionally uninvolved, is now more self-assured and “professional,” speaking realistically and hopefully of her forthcoming move to a better district. She even gets the Count to give a tip to a servant, something that Franz had refused her in the first scene.

Dramatic Devices

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The story is told (in Yiddish) about a man who attends his first play and then sums up his impression of the theater in these words: “First he wants to and she doesn’t. Then she wants to and he doesn’t. When they both want to, the curtain falls.” In print, Arthur Schnitzler discreetly indicated sexual intercourse by a series of dashes or asterisks, and he thought that on the stage the conversational prelude and postlude might be separated by a brief curtain or blackout.

Schnitzler chose a circular structure for his play. Reigen, its title in the original German, denotes a round dance or roundelay; the word also means a sequence or series. In English it has been variously titled La Ronde, Hands Around, Round Dance, Couples, Merry-Go-Round, Circle of Love (in a film version), and Dance of Love. The last-named renders the playwright’s working title, Liebesreigen, and La Ronde has prevailed since the film versions of Max Ophuls (1950) and Roger Vadim (1964).

Since each erotic encounter is so unsatisfying, the not-so-merry-go-round could be continued indefinitely. The sequence of scenes is determined by social possibilities, with a gradual progression up the socioeconomic ladder. The characters in the sexual rotation are not, however, interchangeable; an affair between the soldier and the young wife would be unthinkable. Schnitzler presents the figures as types, and their namelessness foreshadows the practice of expressionist playwrights, but his great theme of insecurity and evanescence places him in the mainstream of fin de siècle impressionism. The recurrent patterns of behavior and language serve to conceal rather than reveal. Only occasionally does a character have intimations of immorality or mortality. Thus the Count, who symbolizes the decline of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy and its lifestyle, shows some interest in the life of Leocadia and attempts to ennoble her even as he, like the husband with the Sweet Girl, wonders about the risks of his lovemaking. An aggressiveness that precludes any more lasting relationship is the price the Actress pays for her escape from a patriarchally conditioned social and emotional bondage. The darkness on the stage during some of the dialogues symbolizes the feigned bashfulness of several of the women and also serves to obscure the identity and individuality of the partners. Schnitzler makes it evident that men regard the abstractness of sexual encounters as unsatisfying but convenient, whereas women seek not only sex but also more personal and enduring relationships.


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Sources for Further Study

Hannum, Hunter G. “Killing Time: Aspects of Schnitzler’s Reigen.” Germanic Review 37 (1962): 190-206.

Liptzin, Solomon. Arthur Schnitzler. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne, 1995.

Reik, Theodor. “Hands Around.” In The Secret Self: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Literature. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Young, 1952.

Roberts, Adrian C. Arthur Schnitzler and Politics. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne, 1989.

Sanders, Jon Barry. “Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen: Lost Romanticism.” Modern Austrian Literature 1 (1968): 56-66.

Swales, Martin. Arthur Schnitzler: A Critical Study. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Urbach, Reinhard. Arthur Schnitzler. New York: Ungar, 1973.

Weinberger, G. J. Arthur Schnitzler’s Late Plays: A Critical Study. New York: Lang, 1997.

Wisely, Andrew C. Arthur Schnitzler and the Discourse of Honor and Dueling. New York: Lang, 1997.


Critical Essays