Austrian drama

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La Ronde

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Schnitzler’s comic masterpiece shows a spectrum of social class from prostitutes to noblemen in a series of drily observed sexual encounters. It is a cycle of ten dialogues, retaining one character from each scene into the next one, so that a prostitute picks up a solider who then seduces a housemaid who then falls into bed with her master. The cycle is completed by a return to the prostitute of the first scene. Famously, each scene features a set of dashes, denoting sexual intercourse. It is a witty, knowing examination of the rituals of seduction and shame and the hollow sounds of courtship.

La Ronde formed the basis of a famous film in 1950, but its real notoriety goes back to 1900 when it was privately printed and subsequently banned. It was not performed until 1920 in Berlin, where anti-Semitic riots broke out, resulting in the arrest and trial of the cast and director, allegedly for obscenity. The controversy continued with David Hare’s 1998 adaptation, The Blue Room.

Frank Marcus’s translation was aired on the BBC in 1982.

Sweet Nothings

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

A young man has an affair with a married woman. He is terrified her husband will challenge him to a duel and kill him. Meanwhile he toys with the affections of another and, for a moment, life seems full of joy.

The doorbell rings. The husband enters the room.

Based on Schnitzler’s play Liebelei, David Harrower’s Sweet Nothings captures the power of sexual longing, the cruelty of tradition and the vulnerability of those in love.

‘I write of love and death. What other subjects are there?’
Arthur Schnitzler

At the beginning of the twentieth century Austrian theatre’s outstanding figures were members of the Young Vienna group of artists, the playwrights Hermann Bahr, Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo Von Hofmannstahl. With the Austrian director Max Reinhardt, one of the towering figures of the modern European theatre, Hofmannstahl founded the Salzburg Festival, which became a leading international theatrical gathering after the First World War. The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, however, and later the rise of Nazism, saw the development of Austrian drama increasingly intertwined with that of Germany. Austria nevertheless continued to make its own distinctive contribution. Playwrights Oscar Kokoschka, Arnolt Bronnen and Franz Werfel were early exponents of expressionism. Actors such as Fritz Kortner, Werner Krauss and Max Pallenberg earned reputations in both Germany and Austria, particularly at the Vienna Burgtheater, a major European theatre revitalized briefly under playwright and director Anton Wildgans (1881–1932). Alongside the peasant and folk plays of Richard Billinger (1890–1965) and Max Mell (1882–1971), and the historical works of writers like Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897–1976) and Richard Beer-Hoffman (1866–1945, another member of the Young Vienna group), there were plays with a more modern sensibility by Franz Csokor (1885–1969), Karl Kraus, Ferdinand Bruckner and the Hungarian Odön Von Horváth, who lived and worked in Austria. Nazism dispersed many of these artists, like the writers Stefan Zweig and Fritz Hochwälder, and it took several years for Austrian theatre to recover after the Second World War. Director Walter Felsenstein stayed in Germany, while Bertold Viertel returned to Austria after making his mark in Germany to direct the rebuilt Burgtheater in 1951, but soon a new generation focused on another Vienna Group were challenging the postwar orthodoxy. Konrad Bayer (1932–64) led the way by reviving the traditional folk figure Kasperl in grim farces that set the tone for the harsh worlds of plays by Peter Handke and Wolfgang Bauer. A different kind of alienation is at work in the other major Austrian playwright of the postwar years, Thomas Bernard, whose ironic, symphonic pieces have often caused offence at home. Other writers of note include George Tabori, Werner Schwab (b. 1958) and the Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti (1905– 94), whose plays from an earlier period, such as The Marriage (written 1932), excited interest in a new generation.

from Charles London, The Continnum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).