Last reviewed: June 2018
May 15, 1862
October 21, 1931
Arthur Schnitzler was one of the most prominent writers living in the city of Vienna during the highly productive and creative late nineteenth, early twentieth century era that produced individuals such as Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Johannes Brahms. Born in that city on May 15, 1862, Schnitzler was the son of a famous Jewish professor of medicine and became himself a practicing physician upon graduation from the University of Vienna in 1885. For a time he was involved in studies in psychology. He was, however, more interested in a literary career and rather unsuccessful as a man of medicine. Schnitzler was somewhat of a dandy and a compulsive seducer but was at the same time always a keen observer of his own and his contemporaries’ behavior. He married in 1903 and had several children. Schnitzler died on October 21, 1931, in Vienna and is buried there. Arthur Schnitzler.
From 1888 to 1891, Schnitzler worked on the Anatol cycle of loosely connected dialogue sketches centering on the romantic obsessions of the young and frivolous bachelor Anatol, who becomes infatuated with a new woman—and attempts to seduce her—in every scene. The overwhelming mood of the sketches is one of a melancholy boredom, as Anatol, in repetitive but vain attempts, seeks to gain some sense of the authentic experience of himself and others. He is never able to penetrate to his true emotions and remains fixed in an illusory vision of life.
Light-O’-Love depicts two young frivolous women, Mizi and Christine, working girls from the outskirts of Vienna, who pursue love affairs with men of higher social status, in the vain illusion that they might elevate their class position. They are the prototypes of Schnitzler’s frequent character figures, the “sweet girl” (susses Madel), a kind of young, lower-class woman common to Viennese social circles and with whom the author was very familiar in his personal life. The young men of the play take such affairs and seductions lightly, and the ending is inevitably tragic. One of the men, Fritz, is killed in a duel because he has seduced a married woman. The Green Cockatoo is another of Schnitzler’s well-known one-act plays and takes place in France at the time of the 1789 revolution. As in many of his works, the action of this play revolves around the differences between reality and appearance, the typically Austrian theme of the theatricality of life.
Hands Around is the best known of Schnitzler’s plays and depicts a series of ten separate scenes involving a group of characters who have sex and go on to exchange partners in a cycle that links them to each other like a daisy chain. The series involves individuals from all levels of Viennese society. Because the scenes center so unabashedly on the sex act—the couples have nothing else to share except superficial talk—the play was banned from performance and publication in Germany and was involved in a court trial in Berlin in 1921. As in the earlier pieces, Schnitzler gives a devastating portrait of a decadent society in which people pursue fleeting sensations and in which true human interaction is reduced to a mere game of vanity and sexual conquest. The primacy of sexuality in Schnitzler’s plays and his keen observations of its role in motivating behavior once prompted Freud—who was doing his scientific work on sexuality and the psyche at the same time Schnitzler was writing his plays—to call the author his “double.” Both men seemed to be commenting on the same psychological phenomena from different perspectives. Film adaptations of the play were made in 1950, 1964, and 1973, and a musical version, Hello Again, premiered in 1993 and was itself adapted into film in 2017.
The play Professor Bernhardi treats the issue of anti-Semitism, commonly encountered in Vienna during Schnitzler’s time. A young Austrian, Adolf Hitler, was preaching his message of racial hatred at the time Schnitzler was working on the play. A Jewish doctor, Bernhardi, refuses to disturb the peace of a young Catholic girl, who is unaware that she is dying, by calling in a priest. An ugly incident ensues, and Bernhardi loses his position and is sent to prison. Schnitzler pointedly exposes a largely Christian society that, despite its commitment to brotherly love, is motivated by racial hatred, envy, and blatant stupidity.
Schnitzler was also a prolific writer of narrative literature. None but the Brave is one of his most read stories and deals with the young Lieutenant Gustl, who, after an opera performance, has a small confrontation in the lobby with a man of the lower classes. Because Gustl feels that his precious honor has been besmirched, he agonizes over the essentially trivial event, even considering suicide. Gustl is much like Schnitzler’s other male characters, a basically frivolous and vain personality who courts more the appearance than the substance of life. He manages to rationalize away the seriousness of the event and talk himself out of suicide. The text is written in an innovative narrative style that attempts to record Gustl’s flighty thought processes. The Road to the Openpresents a critical vision of Vienna during Schnitzler’s life. The novel examines a young artist and aesthete who undergoes a spiritual transformation when his lover sacrifices herself for his career.
Casanova’s Homecoming depicts the aging lover in his obsessive search for a final conquest. He murders a young man who is a youthful version of himself. Like None but the Brave, the well-known story Fräulein Else also uses a narrative technique of recording the often nonlinear strains of the character’s consciousness. It deals with an event in the life of a psychologically unstable young woman who falls victim to the sexual manipulations of an older man. The vain pursuit of sexuality and sensation versus the quest for authentic meaning in life characterizes these later narrative texts, as it does the majority of Schnitzler’s writings.