Monday, 28 September 2015
On the picture of Viennese society that emerges from Arthur Schnitzler's Liebelei (1895), and to what degree this society itself is the subject of the drama
“A poet’s hope: to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere” – Auden’s famed dictum is an apt one to apply to Arthur Schnitzler, whose oeuvre is inextricably bound up with its socio-cultural context but has been performed, analysed and respected in varying times and places since. Schnitzler is seen as first and foremost an artist who is representative of the Vienna of his day, whose “work embodies both the consciousness of his time, and his particular perception of that consciousness” (Swales 1971: 2). His 1894 play Liebelei is significant for its portrayal of the moral issues with which fin-de-siècle Vienna was or should have been concerned. The aspects of Viennese society in question are multifaceted and subtle, but all pertain to the complex relations between men and women in the context of love and class.
A key element of society represented in the work is Belanglosigkeit, a phenomenon at the heart of which we find the figures of Theodor, Mizi and (to a lesser extent) Fritz. The epochal change at the turn of the 19th century saw the stagnation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and by extension, a crisis of a more psychological nature. When Schnitzler was writing, one of the prevailing social trends was the disillusionment of the intellectual middle-class – as illustrated by Theodor and Fritz. They are young, wealthy men of the world (Fritz’s flat is ‘elegant’ (105), while Theodor, outstretched on the divan, claims that such evenings are his ‘Schwärmerei’ (117) and are always ‘behaglich’ (117)), but as upper or middle class individuals of the time they are permeated by “die große Tradition des österreichischen Zynismus” (Grossmann, cited Swales 1971: 6). When Fritz is asked what he does with his days, he offers up a few cursory answers before assuring Christine ‘das ist doch alles ganz belanglos’ (146).
But this Belanglosigkeit is most visible in Theodor’s attitudes toward love and relationships: ‘wir hassen nämlich die Frauen, die wir lieben – und wir lieben nur die Frauen, die uns gleichgültig sind’ (117). For him, as for many wealthy, cynical Austrians, the importance of life was to enjoy oneself and in such a context no relationship was understood as having true value. Theodor espouses the easy living of the ‘Vorstadt’ as contrasted with the more pious values of the ‘Innenstadt’, and epitomises the phenomenon of young middle class gentleman engaged in ‘Liebeleien’ with working class women. Love is merely a series of repeatable experiences for continuous gratification, what Alewyn calls “Ahnung der Wiederholbarkeit des Unwiederholbaren”.
Thus the short-lived fling between Theodor and Mizi (who is of course a fashionista or ‘Modistin’ (104), concerned entirely with outside appearance rather than permanence or dependability) could be seen as the archetype of these Liebeleien. For a couple which can on both sides quite legitimately say ‘wer wird denn im Mai an den August denken’ (112) the supposed modern ideal of Vorstadt-Innenstadt relations is perfect. Neither understands the relationship as anything other than enjoyably temporary, and therefore ‘Liebestragödien’ (109) are completely unnecessary. This feeds into Mizi’s own Zynismus – such that she is able to say confidently ‘den Männern soll man überhaupt kein Wort glauben’ (142). She and Theodor accept this as a given with what seems like minimal soul-searching.
On the other side of the moral landscape from the cynics are the romantics, where we locate the play’s central figure of Christine. Described by Swales as a (usually passive) stock figure of Schnitzler’s plays, the ‘süßes Mädel’ is here treated with unusual reverence and even elevated to narratively dramatic and significant status. Indeed, the entirety of Act 3 revolves around Christine’s thoughts, feelings and reactions to events. The importance with which Schnitzler treats Christine means her tragic story, and the tragedy of the mind-set of sensibility, is heightened. Her sentimentality and neediness, her dependence on Fritz above all else, are the chief facets of her character, against which everything else is defined. She seems to nominally understand that the ‘Liebelei’ cannot last forever (‘ich weiß ja, daß es nicht für immer ist’ (116)) but also is able to make sweeping statements about her never-ending loyalty to Fritz (‘du bist aber mein Alles’ (116) and ‘in meinem ganzen Leben werd’ich nach keinem andern fragen’ (142)). She is ‘anständig’ (134) in a society which no longer has time for decent women. (How much she has been formed by the laissez-faire attitude of her father, a man who saw his sister slowly stupefy into a spinster and resolved to let his daughter live with all the urgency of youth, is unclear. Certainly his more arty, liberal, tolerant nature make him stand out from his class, but even his is a fundamentally romantic nature – though he insists ‘die Erinnerungen sind doch das Beste, was Sie von Ihrem Leben haben’ (138), by way of encouraging daring in love, he will later retract this philosophy and reveal himself a hopeful romantic).
Christine’s naïveté, her blind clinging to one man in a world of impermanent relationships, stems from the same working-class conservatism we also see in Katharina. Hers is a wide-eyed world where the most important criterion is that a man is ‘fix angestellt’ (133), where she can without irony judge people to be ‘ein honetter junger Mensch’ (134) or can challenge class snobbery by insisting ‘wenn mein Mann auch ein Strumpfwirker ist, er ist ein honetter und ein braver Mann, über den ich mich nie zu beklagen gehabt hab’ (137). But one of the play’s most telling lines of dialogue is also given her – ‘ich weiß von der Zeit nicht mehr’ (137). With these seven words Schnitzler indicates the passing of the romantics, and their inability to cope with the disillusionment, the disaffectedness, and the cynicism which were the harbingers of a new age. Women like Katharina – and indeed Christine – were unable to find solace in the triviality of relationships the way Mizi could.
The dramatic power of Schnitzler’s work comes from this clash between cynicism and romanticism, experience and innocence, infidelity and fidelity. If Schnitzler’s portrayal of Vienna teaches us one thing it is that Belanglosigkeit and this sentimentality or Empfindsamkeit cannot co-exist. They are at odds with one another. This is revealed in the inner struggles of Fritz, who moves in both spheres of society and is unable to reconcile them psychologically. Schnitzler uses various dramatic devices to illustrate this irreconcilability: moments after the end of Act 1, in which Fritz receives ‘einen elegant gekleideten Herrn’ (124) in his ‘elegant…behaglich’ (105) flat, we see Christine also receiving a visitor, the working-class Katharina, in her ‘Zimmer’ (133) which is described as ‘bescheiden und nett’ (133). The class divide is obvious; these worlds are not meant to touch. Similarly, the dialogue is very reflective of Fritz’s middle ground – he falls back on clichés like ‘Engerl’, ‘Schatz’, ‘Gesichtel’, and ‘Kind’ which are all highly indicative of the sweet but almost childish light in which he views her. The bridge between cynicism and romanticism cannot be crossed.
Schnitzler’s was a world dominated with the concept of Sittlichkeit, and in his plays (most notably Reigen, but also present in Liebelei) he aimed to radically skewer the hypocrisy of social mores. He did this by reflecting back at the audience a depiction of a Vienna they were quite familiar with, but one suffused with the conflict arising from the discrepancies between public and private spheres. Swales argues that Schnitzler was more concerned with private behaviour than with public, and while this may be true, what seems most important in his plays is the necessity of one’s private behaviour as reacting to the values of the public.
The phenomenon of atavism is worth reflecting on here. At the turn of this century, as the era we call the ‘modern world’ was dawning, many intellectuals explored in art, music, psychology and literature the fact that stability – the stability of decades and centuries past – was being undermined. It has already been discussed that this led to Belanglosigkeit and Zynismus. But although ‘Liebelei’ has its fair share of pusillanimity and triviality, it is also a tragic play, and this undermining of stability leads us additionally to far graver consequences. Urbane and artistic though Viennese culture may seem, its periphery is notably primitive. Duelling, though outlawed, was widely practised, and intrudes upon Christine’s comfortably romantic world in violent fashion. ‘Er ist im Duell gefallen’ (157) chimes Theodor in another example of Schnitzler’s simple, effective dialogue, yet though the characters are saddened, they do not react with surprise.
The erosion of morals in the private sphere, of the worth of Sittlichkeit itself, has left the framework of society as a whole artificial and fragmented. This connects to the more intimate personal relationships between Fritz and Christine, between trivial cynicism and narrow sentimentality, in that their incompatibility necessitates acting. Like a very great number of plays, ‘Liebelei’ is a play about playing, play-acting, dissembling, and Schnitzler’s portrayal of Viennese society is very much a part of that focus. ‘Wie lügen solche Stunden!’ (149) laments Fritz exasperatedly, after yet another bout of faux-impassioned devotions to the poor blind Christine. Much as it is rather absurd that Anna and Vronsky must play-act and cover their tracks in ‘Anna Karenina’, there is an almost pathetic foolishness about the pretences in ‘Liebelei’. Again, Schnitzler’s use of dialogue conveys this particularly well: ‘er ist einer unserer wenigen Meister des Gesprächs’ (163), concludes Alewyn. Conspiracy, innuendo, understatement, half-truth and suggestion are rife throughout, even where the characters seem most harmonious with one another. In two short, efficient pages of vaguely cordial interchange between Fritz and the unnamed gentleman, Schnitzler conveys the vivid reality of what is taking place, despite the fact that all is unspoken in the name of pretence and obeying the social norms. Such ambiguity and lack of expository dialogue make direct statements like Fritz’s as soon as Theodor re-enters – ‘er weiß es’ (126) – all the more hard-hitting, puncturing the artificiality of the Viennese world.
All plays lie in the way Fritz frets about his overtures of love; all plays lie by necessity in showing us artifice and pretence. But by putting up on a stage for all of Vienna to see the transparent, exposed gulf between what is pretended and what is enacted, the exploitation of romanticism and the prevalence of cynical hedonism, it could be argued that Schnitzler was himself condemning Vienna for the sheer fact that it could be placed on a stage at all. Whether this means Viennese society is the subject of the drama is debatable. Certainly it is the subject of the drama insofar as it is unavoidably and undeniably the society which has given birth to these principal figures. It is the constantly changing social movements, radicalism, cynicism, naturalism, liberalism, hedonism, and so on, which have moulded and shaped the development of the people he examines on the stage. But it is a portrayal rather than a social critique – or at the very least, it is not a critique in the way Dickens or Hugo make social critiques, or even Ibsen. Schnitzler does not offer us any alternatives. It is never suggested ‘if it had been otherwise, this could have been avoided’. This bleak stoicism of an endless cycle of clashing romanticism and cynicism – as expressed in the cyclical nature of Christine’s cry ‘und wann kommt der nächste Liebhaber?’ (160) – is Schnitzler’s final word on the society with which he is now forever associated. Though it is always tempting to see timelessness and universality where there is none, it could be said that this is a final word which does not apply to Viennese society alone.
Schnitzler, Arthur, Reigen/Liebelei, Fischer, 37. Auflage 2004.
Swales, Martin, Arthur Schnitzler: A Critical Study, Oxford, 1971.