Who Is Arthur Schnitzler?

The final film of director Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut, was based on a novella called Traumnovelle (Rhapsody: A Dream Novel) by a fin de siècle Austrian writer named Arthur Schnitzler, whose name seems vaguely familiar to many but whose major works could be named by few. Who, exactly, is he?

Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) lived in Vienna all his life, first as a physician and then, after the death of his father, who was also a doctor, as a writer. His body of work–4,000 pages in the German edition–includes plays, fiction, and poetry. His most celebrated plays are Anatol (1893), a series of seven one-act plays chronicling the affairs of a melancholy playboy; Leibelei (1896), about a sweet, sexually available girl; Reigen (1903) consisting of 10 dialogues, nine of which center on acts of sexual intercourse; and ProfessorBernhardi (1912), which addresses anti-Semitism in Viennese society. The most popular of Schnitzler’s novels, The Road Into the Open (1908), is another study of anti-Semitism and its effect on Vienna’s youth. Anti-Semitism aside (Schnitzler was Jewish), his main themes–love, sex, and death–were informed by his study of psychology and his own capacious sexual appetite. He once wrote in his diary that he longed to have his own harem. In real life, Schnitzler had numerous affairs, as well as orgasms, every one of which he cataloged for years. His work reflects his belief in a key principle: Everything that can go wrong between lovers, will.

Schnitzler’s writing was perceived as immoral and scandalized critics in both Europe and the United States. In 1902, Leon Trotsky called him “an esthete and nothing but an esthete!” However, some of the hostility toward the writer was clearly due to anti-Semitism. During the obscenity trial for Schnitzler’s most controversial play, Reigen (RoundDance), which portrayed infidelity and casual couplings, the court transcript states, “For the defense it is important to state that this trial is indeed not a battle against Reigen but one against the Jews, that Reigen was only used in order to bring about an anti-Semitic action.” The directors and cast were acquitted of the charges, but Reigen still earned Schnitzler a reputation as a pornographer, and subsequent performances of the play sparked riots. In 1938, after Hitler annexed Vienna, that city’s most prestigious theater pledged to purge from its stage all “Jewish filth” such as Schnitzler.

Americans first came into contact with Schnitzler’s plays in 1912, when John Barrymore mounted a production of Anatol. Tom Stoppard adapted two Schnitzler plays: Liebelei, which he called Dalliance, and Das Weite Land (1911), which he called Undiscovered Country. David Hare’s The Blue Room , in which Nicole Kidman’s backside was glimpsed (though more of her was exposed in Eyes Wide Shut) was based on Reigen, as was Max Ophuls’ film adaptation, La Ronde (1950).

Schnitzler’s Rhapsody: A Dream Novel (1926), which has been difficult to find for many years, is being reissued with the release of Eyes Wide Shut. Collections of plays and stories are also finding their way back into print, and Schnitzler criticism has been collected in a centennial volume due out in 2000. Germanists consider him an indispensable part of their syllabuses, though generalists have until recently given him short shrift. Critics interviewed by Slate agree that Schnitzler is worth revisiting because of his wit, his insight into men and women, and his grasp of the way sex, love, and hate intersect. As Sigmund Freud once put it in an admiring letter to Schnitzler: “I have gained the impression that you have learned through intuition–though actually as a result of sensitive introspection–everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons.”

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