Sunday, 20 March 2016

On Arthur Schnitzler's Liebelei (1895)

On reading ‘Liebelei’ the thought occurred to me that Arthur Schnitzler could well be the German Ibsen. Having recently seen ‘A Doll’s House’ I noticed a strong similarity of theme – the rejection of oppressive, stifling morality or Sittlichkeit of fin-de-siècle Germany bearing strong resemblance to Ibsen’s tale of a woman’s empowerment against her tyrannical husband. Both writers, it seems, aimed to upset social mores, though the conclusions of their plays could not be more different.
The crucial difference in character terms is that Fritz in ‘Liebelei’ does not ever play a directly tyrannical role like Torvald in ‘A Doll’s House’. In fact, throughout the entire play he is outwardly charming and reassuring toward the long-suffering Christine. He calls her Engerl (presumably a Viennese colloquialism for ‘angel’) and Schatz (‘treasure’). He recalls the dunkelgraue Bluse and the weiß-schwarze Taille she has worn on past occasions, much to her delight (du denkst doch manchmal an mich!). He even seems to feel, or he indicates to her that he feels, some kind of transcendent love between them, speaking of moments of eternity (es gibt ja vielleicht Augenblicke, die einen Duft von Ewigkeit um sich sprühen). He takes pains to ensure Theodor sees Christine’s room as wunderlieb. The closing moment of Act 2 is perhaps the tenderest in the play, as Fritz presses his hand to her heart and urges her: leb wohl. Her feelings for Fritz are obvious; we learn that she ‘spoils’ him (verwöhnen) and she seems to speak of little else.
This pleasantry and decency in their on-stage interaction with each other is an aspect worth expanding to include all the play’s characters. Much of the first act in particular is given over to jollity and light entertainment. In the Heinrich Mann quotation reprinted on the back of the play, it is suggested that Schnitzler was concerned with, among other things, süßes Leben and Jubel, gehaltenes, zartes, mitleidendes Mitjubeln. Theodor is the epitome of a slightly careless, pleasure-seeking fin-de-siècle young gentleman, proposing weekends away taken up with reiten, kutschieren, frische Luft, Sennerinnen, etc. Outstretched on the divan, Theodor claims that such evenings are his Schwärmerei and are always behaglich. The wine/piano/singing/dancing sequence toward the end of Act 1 is probably the most expressively joyful, especially with the well-judged comic portrayal of Theodor pretending to be a wine critic.
But the same Mann quotation claims that Schnitzler deals with das bittere Sterbenmüssen, and grausames Wissen um unsere Nichtigkeit zwischen den Abgründen. The two crucial aspects run side by side throughout the play, which is what lends it its almost unbearably bitter, pusillanimous inevitability. These are characters which hide and scheme and discuss in low whispered voices what others cannot be allowed to know. Conspiracy, innuendo, understatement, half-truth and suggestion are rife throughout, even where the characters seem most harmonious with one another. As before, the closure of Act 1 is a particularly pertinent example. The two mini-scenes which involve the group jubilation are bisected by a short interlude in which Fritz is visited by an unnamed gentleman. Scenes such as this display Schnitzler’s status as what Richard Alewyn in his Nachwort describes as Meister des Gesprächs, des witzigen Dialogs sowohl wie der zwanglosen Plauderei; Alewyn goes on to dismiss the view that this is simply glib reproduction of everyday speech but in actuality das Medium des Dramas. 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. Such ambiguity and lack of expository dialogue makes direct statements like Fritz’s as soon as Theodor re-enters – er weiß es – all the more hard-hitting.
What makes the scene yet more effective, however, is that Fritz and Theodor – and indeed Mizi and Christine – carry on as though little or nothing has happened. This is still the moral 19th century, after all, the century in which Anna and Vronsky had to hide their affair in Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’. Despite Christine’s imploring attempts (sag mir die Wahrheit!) Theodor is adept at turning the evening once more into the social situation that was planned. There is dancing and music, and Fritz can stroke Christine’s hair as the room falls silent. But in his own words, ab und zu hat man halt Geheimnisse, and Act 1 closes with Fritz alone with the unequivocally unspoken, yet unequivocally certain, guilt of what he has done.
The doomed nature of the love between Fritz and Christine is certainly the driving force and momentum of the play. The opening line is one ripe in suspicion and paranoia (also es war niemand da?); Theodor and Fritz discuss with an ominous unwillingness to mention specifics jenes Weib; Christine brings flowers to Fritz rather than (as we might expect) the other way round; yet more painfully, Christine seems to nominally understand that their fling or liebelei cannot last forever (ich weiß ja, dass es nicht für immer ist) but also is able to make sweeping statements about her never-ending loyalty to Fritz (du bist aber mein Alles). There seems to be some kind of class divide, too: in Schnitzler’s brief but specific stage instructions, Fritz’s flat is behaglich whereas Christine’s is a mere bescheiden. Christine’s visitor is the more working-class Katharina whilst Fritz’s is the distinctly elegant gentleman. The growing distance between them strengthens throughout the play. In keeping with Mann’s quotation, one of Schnitzler’s chief points seems to be the elegant sentence die Erinnerungen sind doch das Beste, was Sie von Ihrem Leben haben – not necessarily a despairing thought, but in the context of Fritz and Christine a disquieting one. The best hours are those in the past.
 Into the matrix of this ‘doomed love’, which, while it would be perhaps an overstatement to describe it as of proportions equal to those in Greek tragedy, certainly evokes some of that inevitability and fatalism, the garrulous Mizi plays a crucial role. I see her as an interesting riff on the character of Iago in ‘Othello’, another play to which ‘Liebelei’ bears some resemblance, with the crucial exception that the decadence or, if decadence is too judgmental a word, the fault lies squarely at the lovers’ door in ‘Liebelei’ (specifically at Fritz’s) whereas ‘Othello’ sees an innocent, moral couple undone by supposition and invention planted in the mind by a demonic figure. However, there is something in the way Mizi sows doubt in Christine’s mind which reminds me of Iago’s machinations. It must be assumed she is acting sincerely, since her affection for Fritz earlier in the play is palpable and does not reek of pretence. She wants the best for Christine. But she is hopelessly unable to see the blindness with which Christine views the man in her life. When she urges das sind sie alle zusamm’ nicht wert, die Männer or den Männern soll man überhaupt kein Wort glauben, she may be offering good advice, but is setting Christine on the road to despair. She is undermining Christine’s most solid foundations, and though she cannot see it, we as an audience understand perfectly; hence the emotional pitch of this scene. Indeed, it is even possible that Christine feels Mizi’s cynicism to be valid, though she cannot admit it; the line ich kann solche Worte heute nicht vertragen, sie tun mir weh reminds one of T.S. Eliot’s oft-quoted ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’.
There are two contrasts to Mizi. Katharina is naïve and idealistic, and her attempted match-making between Christine and her cousin Binder seems rather hopeless, but she appears to be happily married. It is also she who tries to offer Christine a way out, much like Christine’s father Weiring, with whom she seems to have a highly amiable relationship. We hear, for instance, about how she has comforted him on the death of her aunt; he turns to her with a look that is zärtlich or ‘tender’. It is Weiring who tries to advise Christine to leave Fritz behind, to be sensible, and to embrace wunderschönes Leben. Although the tragic pitch of Schnitzler’s imagination, and the evidently real and despairing thoughts he himself harboured in his own diaries, would suggest he intends Weiring’s words to come across well-meaning but shallow and of little use, I would argue that this is not entirely the case; there is a sincerity and profundity in Weiring’s statement that da wären nicht so oft Tränen drin gewesen und die Wangen da wären nicht so blaß geworden, wenn du einen Lieb gehabt hättest, der’s verdient. This is no belittling of Christine’s emotional sensibilities. It is an indictment of Fritz. But in the broader scheme of things, Weiring is indeed ratlos (‘helpless’) to save his daughter, and his words cannot undo the suspicion and paranoia Mizi has conjured.
Mizi has left her mark. In the scene in which Fritz enters to see Christine one last time before ‘going away’, Christine sees more and more through the charade of his pleasantries and even goes so far as to challenge him over them. The more that she feels he is slipping away, the more certain and unwavering her resolution to cling to him, which is and must be like a sliver of ice through Fritz’s heart. The whispered mehr für sich declaration he makes after hearing Christine avowing she has had no love like him and will never have another again – the pained sag’s nicht, sag’s nicht, es klingt zu schön reflects his angst, as, like Antony and Cleopatra or Romeo and Juliet, the doomed lovers approach an unavoidable end point from which their course cannot deviate. Similarly telling is Fritz’s anguished, whispered confession to Theodor after her over-sentimental expressions of devotion at their parting: wie lügen solche Stunden! His pre-emptive guilt is a strong, tangible force throughout the play; he knows what is going to happen and he knows he cannot stop it, but wades in nonetheless (much like Morrissey’s declaration that ‘I’ve seen this happen/in other people’s lives/and now it’s happening in mine’).
The audience, then, go into Act 3 with an uneasy presentiment of what is coming. Although one would not necessarily describe Schnitzler’s work as a semi-feminist tract in the way that one could Ibsen’s, the play has expressly supported the poor, innocent Christine and her hopes and dreams. Act 3 sees them crash and burn and topple. Ever the master of showing us something before telling us, Schnitzler has Theodor entering schwarz gekleidet, and as soon as we hear er ist im Duell gefallen we are left in little doubt as to how Fritz has died, for the love of another woman. Christine takes a little longer to grasp it, although in typically dynamic stage directions Schnitzler has it that she seizes (faßt) Theodor. She is needy, desperate, and she needs something to lean on. The unravelling of these final pages expose the kind of love which has been the play’s topic. To Fritz it was, quite literally, a liebelei or a Zeitvertrieb (‘pastime’). Theodor is painfully correct when he says the duel was for ein nichtiger Grund, though not in the sense that he means it; to Fritz, such things, such entanglements with women such as duels are based on, really are nichtig as reasons. They are only flings. Similarly, in the ever-informative stage directions, the adjectives verlegen and traurig are skilfully complementary in describing their relationship. It was sad, certainly, and it is a mournful occasion. But it is not wrong, either, to describe it as verlegen (‘pathetic’). Christine and Fritz were in some measure pathetic people, and even the group standing around her in her woe are pathetic for not having had the bravery to inform her. The emotional arc of the story is one of littleness, of shallow littleness that ties itself up in knots and has no solid basis on which it can depend.
‘Liebelei’ would be a vastly weaker play if it were not for the character of Theodor, since it is he who really clinches this artistic vision of male infidelity and immorality. Were Fritz the only young man in the story, there would be little evidence to substantiate Mizi’s claim that no man is worth the pain of a relationship. But Theodor is included, and devoted time and space and dialogue, because he reinforces this view. We see little of his love life; although he appears to develop a little flirtation with Mizi it is not made clear where that will lead. From the opening scene onward Theodor makes a series of telling remarks. His casual throwing away of Sennerinnen in listing the countryside’s assets is the first indicator of misogyny, but plenty more are forthcoming. The point of finding a woman is simply so that man sich sehr gut amüsieren kann. He opines that women should not be interessant, but angenehm. He is annoyed about being corrected by Mizi over the instrument played by Christine’s father. His philosophy seems to be wir hassen die Frauen, die wir liebenund lieben nur die Frauen, die uns gleichgültig sind, hardly a rallying cry for traditional values of marriage and long-term commitment. Though various characters address one another as variants on the word Kind, there can be fewer phrases more patronising than Theodor’s to the ladies (Nichts für euch, Kinder. Wir philosophieren). His lack of tact, and inability to understand a woman’s love, in both Acts 2 and 3 is almost breath-taking, and to Christine’s justly furious charge that he has not informed her of Fritz’s death he has the gall to claim a difficult Gemütsstimmung… this, in comparison to the woman who loved him. The entire message conveyed here is that this is a broader problem than Fritz. If Theodor had been Christine’s lover, things would have ended much the same.

To return once more to Heinrich Mann, unserem Glück – in Schnitzler’s universe – is something über das kein Gott wacht. The ending sets the play in a godless universe, and thus shatters the illusions of 19th century Sittlichkeit just as many claimed Fyodor Dostoyevsky had done in his great work ‘Notes from the Underground’. Christine is not willing to pray. This forms a subtle contrast with one of the play’s minor characters, Katharina, who seems to be the most devout of all of them (though many characters exclaim Gott sei Dank with no necessarily religious implications, Katharina is the only one to make an explicit statement like Gott schenk’ ihr die ewige Ruh). This being the conclusion and his principal thesis, Schnitzler has arguably undermined the moral values and hypocrisies of this society through Christine’s inability to pray. The cycle appears endless, as I have tried to show with regard to Theodor above. Christine’s haunting cry und wann kommt denn der nächste Liebhaber? is a rejection of the religious, moral values in which her society is steeped – but not one which concludes with empowerment like ‘A Doll’s House’. Human beings do not act according to best advantages for themselves or others; they are erratic, foolish and deceitful. That Schnitzler can use such subtleties of language and of character to convey this message is what makes ‘Liebelei’ such a successful play. 

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