Like so many of his contemporaries in the Romantic movement, Franz Grillparzer found early inspiration for a number of his creative works in classical mythology. For centuries, the tale of the Greek poet Sappho’s unrequited love for the young Phaon served as the subject for works that emphasized the comic qualities inherent in the story of an older woman attempting to secure the love of a younger man. Grillparzer found something else entirely in the tale. For him, the story of Sappho and Phaon was appealing because it permitted him to explore a topic of personal interest: the fate of artists in a world that does not understand or appreciate them.
Structurally, Sappho follows closely the form of Greek tragedy. Grillparzer is careful to observe the classical unities (a practice he abandons in later works), concentrating the dramatic action on the climactic scenes in which Sappho confronts her lover, Phaon, and his new beloved, Melitta. Through this series of altercations, and through the skillful presentation of much-needed background material in a series of lengthy speeches by a number of characters, the playwright vivifies the central conflict in his drama. Neither the conflict nor its resolution is classical, however; instead, in Sappho Grillparzer dramatizes the conflict the Romantic artist faces in dealing with those who are unable to understand or to appreciate the psychological demands placed on those who have the power to create art. The heroine desperately wants to synthesize her desires for a normal life as a wife and a lover with her vocation as a poet. Unfortunately, her beloved Phaon sees her only in the latter role, revering her as an artist but transferring his love to the younger Melitta. The heroine’s decision to end her life when she finds she cannot keep Phaon as her lover is carried out as a means of demonstrating that she has the will to determine her own fate.
The central critical issue in Grillparzer’s play revolves around an important issue that has both technical and moral overtones: whether the dramatic action justifies the ending. More than one critic observed that the choice Grillparzer gives his heroine seems forced, and her fate too...
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