Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:18 pm - Far and Wide (Das Weite Land)
On October 15th I attended Far and Wide at the Mint Theatre on West rad Street, seeing another remarkable play by this singular company specializing in masterful rarities one could see nowhere else done with the personal attention of its sterling and zealous artistic director, Jonathan Bank, certainly one of the premier New York champions of the richness of theatre history.
Bank has also translated the play with some free adapting, honing down its 29 character to 15, cutting its four hours to 2 hours and 40 minutes, directing it in modern dress with American accents.
Bank did a beautiful directorís job of breaking down some long speeches into fragments and breaths that actors could make into mixtures of text and takes suggesting verisimilitude in their fragmentary character. Bank also introduced the play personally and charmingly.
The odd but effective abstract scene design by Viki R. Davis constituents of wrought steely wire fencers, several black iron chairs and a small round metal table. The costume designer, Theresa Squire, found a color scheme of beige, brown, tan and yellow that seems right for the light yet earthy upper middle class of this play. Josh Bradfordís lighting design was garish and bright at the proper moments with light that almost hurt the eyes, at other moments subtly dusky.
Of necessity a director cannot get anymore from his actors than they have to give. He can get them to stretch a little, even to emptied him if they can't get his instructions from the inside; he is limited by the talents of his soldiers. When one has two or three actors one can limit the damage; a play with fifteen parts, eight of them major, attempting to create an epic mood by mirroring the themes back and forth between various characters, is going inherently to have some erratic moments.
A play like this one, drenched as it is in Austrian Hapsburg culture from climbing mountains to duels, immersed in Viennese cynicism and urbanity, might have done much better to have the actors play the roles with Austrian accents much as movers used to give the impression of being up to the eyeballs in German or French culture when the actors spoke English with accents of those regions. Austrians tend to be brown haired, rarely blonde. The cast of Far and Wide had three blondes playing the lead roles. A Viennese accent is very specific, softer than more northern German or Berliner German with different sound values; perhaps it would be hard to find fifteen actors in New York who could do it among other crafts. Yet played with generic American accents Far And Wide has plenty of deep false notes and episodes of cultural incoherence.
Erich von Stroheim, another satirical and moral Viennese Jew, got tremendous power in his Austrian films by giving them an authentic period flavor that had set off all kinds of primal bells in the mind of his audiences. In his sound movies he knew the difference between various Teutonic accents and did them all. This Mint production simply doesnít take that option. Its American sound in rendering the schlag-immersed Schnitzler sometimes has a cracked quality.
Stefan Jacobís choice of Chopin nocturnes and snippets from the Schumann Piano Quintet in E Flat suggests ironically the lack of comparable passionate romance in Schnitzler; characters if they resonate with the easy melancholy of that early 19th century music.
The most winning actor of the large cast was the startlingly lovely Lisa Bostmar as the hapless wife of the protagonist. She had a range of smiles, dark looks, and multiple takes that invited one into her inner life. She is also magnetically beautiful. Ken Kiliban as the sick noble turned manager of a mountain resort who has never seen much less known his son after infancy is perfect in his sheathed power and tragic mein for all his urbanity. His slight accent suggests Vienna. He is what Schnitzler had asked for.
On the other hand the lead actor, Hans Tester, also with a bit of an accent, was less persuasive; he looks the part but doesn't have a range of acting craft beyond comic and seductive charm. He cannot play big, deep and sinister when the part calls for it. The director certainly had told him to slow down and do long takes on his perorations; the moments still don't resonated seems as if he is merely at a loss for words. Maybe some crepuscular lighting would have helped him.
As a result Testerís womanizing protagonist seems lethally more shallow than Schnitzler had written him to be. Schnitzler, always one to present rounded characters, wrote a great part for him. He should seem tragic, enigmatic, iconic,; stead he is a man adrift who is winging it. Itís hard to feel the requisite awe and terror Schnitzler put into his part from this performance if one might sometimes feel pathos. It needs a great actor. Olvier would have done marvels with it.
Tester may not have that darkness accessible in his own character to put into the part. He plays it with few takes, lots of smiles, a kind of seductive frenzy, a feckless scrambling quality that makes his amorality and brutality toward those who are his antral allies all the more unpleasant after a while. Since one finds him at once sleazily reptilian and detestable n a shallow way one doesnít feel any compassion for him when he loses his wife and alienates his friends.
Since everyone else in the cast offers much more sympathetic if often weak characters Testerís performance puts a collum of burnished brass at the center of Far And Wide that doesn't help the audience to feel much tragedy and rue for the makers of the playís main action. The character that admires himself for his honesty and moral bravery yet is in the end an amorous vampire reminds one of the protagonist of Ann Riceís books, a wonderfully lupine idea not at all realized by Tester.
He is sympathetic, wily and insinuating when he should be terrible, amused when he should be stonily enraged, a drifter in an abyss when he should be granitic and iconic as the Stone Guest.
Similarly Allen Lewis Rickman brings intelligence and depth to his performance as Natter, an arch epicurean and cuckold; yet when Schnitzler calls for him to get dangerous and sinister, even diabolical, Rickman doesnít become over the top and operatic.
Schnitzler always gives us complex characters even in minor parts much as Shakespeare does; Pilar Witherspoon captures the polyhedrous honesty that infects most of the people in this play very well as the former mistress of the protagonists rake. Ezra Barnes often strikes a posture of proper muted frustration as the doctor confident of the liberating who can do nothing to heal anyone.
Yet there is more to this slippery character than Barnes offers. The doctor after all in one scene is as avid to have an affair with a young lady more partial to amours with the errant husband in the play, the ingenue not conscious any more than the middle aged of her foolish and sentimental assessment of the value and virtues of others. Barnes doesn't plumb this sly physician by giving his character a secretive circumspection that is in the lines; he plays the doctor as a simple good guy.
Schnitzler gives each character idiosyncratic tricks of speech that vary a style tending toward a sermon-like lucidity. Anne-Marie Cusson uses her ample large physicality and mature good looks beautifully as the mother of one of the rakeís lovers, oddly partial to parenthesis in her speech that caliphates her more strident assertions. In a way her tricks of parlance are apt fare in a hall of mirrors in which all the characters have had a chance during or prior to the main action to have second dour opinions about any passion whatsoever.
Schnitzler characters oscillate between the melancholy of turning their passion to trivialities and the casual injuries they do to themselves and their lovers when they take themselves to be more classical amarants. Their only refuge from their casual saran tastes is philosophical inquiry and stoic measure.
The complex main action of Far and Wide of a breadth and length I can only sketch opens with a preamble about the mysterious suicide of a Russian house guest of Friedreich and Genia who has impolitely dispatched himself mysteriously at 27 with ďhis life before himĒ. He is described as one without vanity, limited by playing only Chopin and Schumann well, Beethoven and Mozart indifferently. beings with a meditation after the funeral of a young pianist, Korsakoff, who has it turns out evidently killed himself after a refusal of favors by the not overly moral but mistily scrupulous Genia, wife of the libertine womanizing, factory owning Friedreich.
In a domestic colloquy Friedreich discovers his wife was not unfaithful though she had every reason to be if only out of vanity and revenge for how she has been shamed by the irrepressible Friedreich. She makes up for her sloth in amour later by an affair with a twenty year old ensign whom Friedreich rather oddly slays by provoking a formal in a duel at the denouement. Friedreich is also not loath to take on erotic adhesions with filched amarants from the cradle though both he and his wife are ripe with early middle age. The young take their amours merely seriously than do these jaded bourgeois libertines armed with both domesticity and an uncomfortably long memory.
Yet even these chamber tyros, somewhat like the Ibsenian Shawís youthful characters in Man and Superman and Heartbreak House seem precociously jaded, lacking in much expectation from anything and anybody. Some marginal fun is made of the absurdity of the hoary institutions by which this society lives as if they are intelligent dinosaurs. They mock the silliness and tedium of churches, funerals, marriage, and even the sentimental exhilaration of climbing dangerous mountains.
Friedrich and Genia are what we used to call in the 70s in America a ďswinging coupleĒ they delight in anatomizing their infidelities in long inquiries plumbing the secrets of each other, hoping to cadge criminal revelations they might have missed from the troves of the normatively illicit. Friedrich accuses Genia of implicitly killing a potential love she liked well enough by refusing him.
Yet when she accepted a near adolescent ensign as her amarant, the son of a close female intimate, Friedrichís kills the scurvy bugger in a duel.
Schnitzler comments not only on the perfidies of domestic life bit parallel ruptures in modern life between parents and children. The young people in this play are totally indifferent to their parents. The ensign Friedrich slays never knows his father, has no interest in him. He as well as his mother confides to Genia, as uncaring about her. Having children in this society is a one way burden that leads nowhere.
Running a factory or a career in the Navy in the South Pacific is equally meaningless, the last a joke perhaps more amusing to Schnitzler than to us since we may not be as aware that like Shakespeareís Bohemia, Austria is landlocked and probably had no navy.
At the end of a convoluted plot in which all the men are womanizers, the women as well not notable for a disinclination for trivial erotica Friedrich and Genia have effectively destroyed several lives, broken their marriage apart, and alienated their allies. Friedrich has even exchanged amiable civilities with the mother of his wifeís lover he had just killed, knowing that he has ruined part of her life forever. Though she has always known that Friedrich was a civil brute, this one act of perfidy toward a woman she loves and admires finally sours Genia on her marriage.
Yet unlike the mother of the dead ensign, she shows a peculiar indifference herself to her son as does Friedrich; these parents are no less terminally egoistical than their children. Both take on puerile lovers when they can of course; that is more amusing. They are as adept at ridding themselves of them when they cease to be entertaining as they were in garnering them from the rich erotic or of Viennaís more affluent folk. They never seduce anyone with mere sentiment.
At one point Friedrich promises to leave Genia and marry his ingenue; we and he know that a legal mating wouldnít be much different than the marriage he has. Yet everyone in the play has a fear of death as if their demise might keep them from something important.
The erotic inferences Schnitzler wants one to draw from his plot are rather sensational Isbenian insights he sheathes in his dark comedy of manners; they couldnít have been voiced directly on a stage in his time. He had learned something from being censored early. One of them, a notion we could think of as quintessential Freudian, is that the egoists of this play are themselves disinterested in their one child- after one they wisely donít have anymore- they have long ago substituted erotic interest for charity in their own character. Yet there are some atrocities they could not imagine; they retain in their vanity some shards of honor and propriety which do not include sleeping with their own children.
As a corollary der kinder are attacked to lovers who might have been their father or mother in a primal and intensely romantic way; they have lacked any parental attention from their own sires. Such perception, hovering around the edges of an atmosphere of extreme frankness that never quite vaults into those unthinkable undiscovered countries, given Schnitzlerís plays their sinewy power and resonance.
The fulcrum of this play which we miss mostly because of the generic America accents is the killing of young ensign who might have been the slayerís own son in a duel that had once served another time but was now as obsolete in modern Vienna as a Confederacy dollar is to us. Schnitzler means to produce in this central irony a hunger for a past that Hitler himself preyed upon as the ultimate flight for a culture who could not in its very comforts sensual trivialities and bear either its present or its future. Itís a condition that should be familiar to us.
Tennessee Williams used to say that playwrights have at best a career of five or ten years; afterwards they either become ghosts or occasional boring monuments. Given the dated quality of most theatre itís reasonable to ask whether or not it is worth reviving anything in a time in which Broadway and theaters like The Mint with their patrons in place avid to support it, do nothing but revivals.
Some people make a big tzimmis about resurrection; on Broadway it is ordinary as the egg rolls they fast food short order cooks dole out to the rubes from Dubuque coming from the tourist hotels. Rasing the dead is a particular concern that artistic directors like Jonathan Bank or Shephard Sobel at The Pearl must and do embrace at their spas dedicated to such minor alchemy.
Unlike dentists,, directors work on enthusiasm. Nobody could pay a director for his afflatus or generate the sacred flame by give the wild eyed keeper of the pyre a tolerable salary. A director in these situations must communicate that zeal to his actors was well as have it himself. First he has to wrestle alone with why he wants to do any revival for the audience of his time; his answers will almost always be reflected in the production. When the play was written in a different language and he is as well its translator or adaptor, since the playwright himself is dead, many of the creative mechanics that led the playwright to fashion his drama in the first place now rests with the director.
It is an adventure to chose theater work; yet like Club Med or even a gourmet ice cream parlor it has its paradoxes and lairs. The whole focus of Ibsenian theatre is to anatomize an ordinary but major modern dilemma for an audience much as preachers do in their sermons, not to entertain the public with a detached brassy spectacle. An Ibsenian play like Schnitzlerís darkly moral comedies must appeal to a director not as a period piece but one having much to say to an audience in a different time.
Bankís work in the service of Schnitzler must reflect a powerful fleeing in him that Schnitzlerís play has significance for another age than the perished one for which it had been written. The Mint usually does sober ethical plays. As much as we would want to know as an audience why Banks thinks that Schnitzler has value to us, we as well might inquire within ourselves why we as ticket buyers think like Banks that it does.
Itís plain from his notes that Banks values Schnitzlerís intrepid psychological insights some have compared to Freudian anatomizations of erotic hungers, especially Oedipal concerns of classical psychoanalysis; one must emphasize that Schnitzler was a famous playwright in Vienna before Freud, residing in that same city and probably taking in Schnitzlerís early dramas. began his own psychoanalytic investigations tentatively with his Three Studies in Hysteria of 1893.
Schnitzler plays arenít psychoanalytic inquiries even in our terms as much as such mental anatomical exploration wedded to moral concerns that perhaps are closer to Herzlís critiques than them seem to be immediately. Though he never offered any remedies for the moral degeneracy of his age Schnitzler does ask inferentially to an audience whether or not they can think of a better life than empty epicurean egoism.
Itís not a question entirely irrelevant to a New York audience in 2003. New York for a half century had been inundated with an upper middle class set all of whom have been immersed in popular therapy like a tepid bath that is without trying to be a rather coarse and polemical parody of psychoanalysis. Many of these Upper West Side enameled cultists preach in the guise of liberation from heinous bonded obligations a life of vigorous redemptive egoism without charity much as Schnitzler lampoons in his plays.
Many of our fashionable broken homes promulgated among the lacquered epicurean among these gilded spirits along with their inordinate passion for instant pleasure are regarded even in the hinterlands as a crusade to refashion the planet as a drug-ridden Columbine suburb that is inevitable as Marx had once said Communism was. Possibly some of the audience at the Mint with such religious training had thought the characters in Far and Wide are good guys tainted with some bad luck.
We havenít had the complete devastation of Austria in the United States; degeneracy merely inspires people west of the Hudson to vote Republican. We also donít have serious enemies proximate to us as Austria did nor are we quite as inept as the Austrian government in running an empire that could have been virile and powerful had it like us franchised its divert, not buried itself in bigoted monarchial and medieval religious absurdities Schnitzler refers to in passing in dry mockery before it was more formally interred in timeís copious landfill by others.
We have been after the Trade Center And Pentagon bombings in 2001 touched by a less than lethal disaster by our foes that has certainly inspired at least a few playwrights these days to reexamine the national culture as Jonathan Bank implicitly asks us to do with this Schnitzler play, much as Jonah in a different time warned the citizens of Ninevah after much procrastination of their own folly.
Certainly Ominum Gatherum, a September 11th based play of 2003, isnít depicting any a less terrible society than Schnitzlerís Vienna. Perhaps that is what Jonathan Bank had in mind when he offered us this play; sometimes, as Andreyev noted in Lazarus, even resurrections are not what they seem.
Itís easier to guess what Tom Stoppard had in mind when he did his early adaption of this play. The witty and clever playwright who once gave us Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead along with some remarkable early farce almost certainly saw in Schnitzler the same dolor of living in a country whose monarchial institutional life, cults and medieval past were of no use to his then present of 1979.
English folk of his age were engaged in the same epicurean presumptions that gave in the long run them no happiness as it eroded their character, the sufferings of Schnitzlerís actors as they moved through a world mirroring their gaudy yet hellish spas werenít at all strange to Stoppard.
The final doom that awaited Austria in the past were all concerns Stoppard had felt very particularly relevant to English life a quarter of a century ago during the late and rarely mourned age of reaction ruled by decisive, iron willed Margaret Thatcher. Of course like the rose every age with its furies and hopes flowers and dies in its own venoms. These days England has shifted at its heart to a kneejerk nihilism often beyond theatre. Stoppard has lately given us a more sympathetic view of the uses of his cultural past in Arcadia, along with his even longer mature historical plays, one on Houseman, another on utopian socialism. It doesnít mean that most of England doesnít feel in 2003 as if their country is a headless chicken that hasnít noticed its loss.
Schnitzler was known rather egregiously but inaccurately in a more naive and sleepy America once gulled by Andy Hardy movies as a cynic and even a kind of nihilist; one can see from this play that even when he was the most famous playwright of Austria he didnít travel well across the Atlantic Ocean.
Since Tom Stoppard and Jonathan Bank call their venison of his play an ďadaptionĒ, not translation, it suggest both of Schnitzlerís champions were aware that the special character of Vainness culture didnít make sense to too many beyond this lately perished land mit schlagischer leibeslied. Bank particularly implies in his excellent notes the feeling that authenticity to its German and production demands was giving him some major problems.
I saw a version with a third of the action cut, near all the minor characters absent, without the very realistic sets Schnitzler called for, all of which might not have ben lethal to the play but beneficial, but perhaps gave the drama a kind of covert choppiness and artificial focus not entirely true to a more leisurely time.
The other adaptor, Stoppard, as we know, is not averse to mounting plays that take several hours and have actions ranging over decades and centuries. Usually directors like Bank quite properly look for focus, main actions, an implosion of means in a play whose playwright might have wanted a lack of those virtues to emphasize the ubiquity in a society of his materials.
Some of these concerns might tell us something of our own limitations and follies as a society. We are a society in a hurry that likes tight main actions such as we find in American movies, impatient with a drama that donít make its point quickly and pithily. When we see plays from other times, even Shakespeareís offerings, quite commonly directors cut major portion of the action that seem to them to slow the propulsion of the main story.
As a result we get not the dramatistís leisurely and broad action but a collection of excepts from the play that a modern director looking for a sleeker craft like a Yuppie coming out of a gym feels he is comfortable with. Itís why he almost ever see an uncut Hamlet or any of Sergio Leoneís flicks; most of the plays and movies we savor after the directorís cuts but a necessarily choppy versions fifteen minutes to a half hour shooter than the film the director gave to the Hollywood slaughterhouse.
Rightly or wrongly, most directors feel their audiences will not stretch beyond their impatience for easily ingestible fare or they honestly feel the playwright has been self indulgent.
Our modern censorship is offended by nothing but a seeming sloth to get on it, whatever it is. Americans on the evidence seem only to find length and breadth acceptable in theatre or movies when it is either European continental opera or from England and written by Tom Stoppard.
Bankís adaption probably gives us all of the main action but in cutting a third of the play and half the characters he may have offered us a kind of imploded focus Schnitzler never intended. As a consequence far and Wide is neither an epic nor a play coming in with no fat like a middle eight champion.
American audiences that went to see the long running production of La Ronde or other plays of this ilk were pitched that they were going to see the acrid comedy of a confirmed jade of Vienna writing in a covertly elegiac way about a sex-mad epicurean society in which virtue, honor and measure were not merely absent but rather unimaginable.
He was understood very well in Vienna: they banned his work from the stage at times much as Lenny Bruce was persecuted in the United States because Austrian censors understood very well that Schnitzler wasnít a jade but an excoriating moralist more like Savanarola than Sacha Guitry. His Ibsenite anatomies of Viennese bourgeois and noble life were condemnations of its corruption and morality worthy of a Hebrew prophet of ancient times in the modern marketplace. It is a world in which nearly every character has the morals of Hedda Gabler and suffers for it as Hedda Gabler did.
Schnitzler rarely preaches but he is opposed to the epikuros as any Talmudist; he shows the action of such egoism and expects the audience to be repelled by what in Vienna among some was hustled as ordinary, acceptable, even optimally comfortable woe. From this engine to work properly one has to have an audience that lives in a large urbane society that regards such materialist ethics as either virtues or normative flaws deserving with at best a tolerant shrug. The United States didnít have that kind of society until the 1970s. Even in the 70s the most shallow egoists and libertines one met in that age would always tell one they were involved in some political march of ethical progression adhered by feminist pundits on television and fashionable in the news.
The 70s in America might have benefitted from an exploration of Schnitzelís dour vision; the last thing the pious rakes and jade of that time wanted in their lives was even minor discomfort. We can all do with at least a little bit of honest morals anytime, even after death when we donít need it, but mon vieux, who listens? Iím merely dropping a bit of French, hypocrite lecteur, because the characters in this play do too. Itís after all one of Schnitzlerís little jokes about Viennese bourgeois affectation. Tant pis, non?
These churls take the refuge of a pilgrim in a shopping mall in both the trivial and the banal. It certainly in a different way in Americaís hinterlands if not among the armies of college educated fools in its formal urban collegiums has found it repugnant all by itself from the 1980s on; Schnitzler characters are much more distasteful to Americans than to the Viennese he wrote for because their dour inquiries into the passions don't reflect the piety one finds among our more affluent acolytes of pleasure in the hinterlands.
In this sense Schnitzler has not had his day in America. Even the most liberated New Yorkers for the 70s to the present will claim in conversations with one that they are sentimental humanists at bottom, good guys now and again are empty from a seasonal lack of amusement. One would never hear that from a tiger if big cats wrote their memoirs.
Even Al Capone apparently thought of himself as a community stalwart and family man who happened to run a risky business. Very few to none will admit they are severe epicurean with all the limitations of the heart and the flaws in honor of such a low and noysome ilk.
Thus in American productions Schnitzler scares people but he doesn't move them much. An Ibsenite like OíNeill does better in the United States playhouses; like Ibsen OíNeill in a bar or in domestic life is centrally out to expose hypocrisy and denial: characteristic American vices along with all the more classical derelictions from virtues and measure we are family with all over the planet. Schnitzler character may be at most in an action be momentarily confused; they are always honest. It is his and their trump.
Although a rage against hypocrisy reflects some niches of Jewish thought from Godís cements to Adams, Eve and Cain through Nathan excoriation of David, Jesusí comments on the Pharisees and those who stoned moral weaklings, in its modern form it takes most often the comedic tone of a Karl Kraus, Lenny Bruce or a Jackie Mason, or the sober and sauve inquirers of a Freud. Marx makes fun of bourgeois domestic adulterous life in the Communist Manifesto in passing much as Schnitzler devotes this whole play to that subject.
Yet Jewish thought at its center takes the words more or less as it is as a given, then suggests action to remedy its moral flaws. The first half of this habit almost always offends many people as the prophets, Jesus, Freud, Karl Kraus and Lenny Bruce irritated many with their uncomfortable crotches. At least Freud, doctor that he was, offered anodynes if they were on the vaporous side.
Freud had always predicted he would be replaced by a pharmacy. Schnitzler like Ibsen offers no remedies; he doesnít display world of hypocrites; Schnitzler characters from play to play always live with who they are and where they do what they do in an unsettling way to those who havenít got that virtue.
Schnitzlerís male and female libertines arenít Hogarthian denizens of brothels and institutional lairs of banal wickedness. Their are married and rich bourgeois types, even occasionally nobles, with children, living in domestic intimacies that sometimes are conducted with a brave frankness as much as they are hurtful.
His characters have no doubt they lack virtue. They say so quite often. Itís almost their sole consolation that they understand and tolerate very well if with rue and minor pain their constant and intractable capacity for easy wickedness. Schnitzler doesn't have the neo-medieval view of Hogarth that is rooted in a sheathed quasi-Persian dualism.
He himself as well as his characters aimed at a fearless inquiry into their nature much as id the prophets and philosophers of ancient times. Nobody lacks for money in Schnitzler plays; they can afford any life they choose and are libation bearers to seasonal pleasure act a free act.
Far And Wideís main action is a leisurely anatomy of the perfidious intimacy of a domestic couple aiming at shallowness in a sober manner saints once took up pain, the husband owning a large factory that libras them both from the scurvy desperations of poltroons at finance, both adulterous on principle as well as treacherous perhaps out of tedium, living among a society whose serpentine aims are a ubiquity. In a curious way this seeming tragicomedy of manners is not far from Frank Wedekindís more directly metaphysical but equally sensational Earth-Spirit we know better as Alban Bergís Lulu or Berthold Brechtís really scary venture into the supposed corruptions of an indifferent nature in his early play Baal.
Far And Wide has in an indirectly the virtues and defects of the Viennese Jewish culture in which Schnitzler was born, raised and died. It is involute; there are no overt Jewish character in the play. In fact Schnitzler aim was always to mirror centrist Vainness realms; he never wrote dramas that were exoterically Jewish. Vienna was after all one of the capitals in its involute way of the perished cause of Enlightenment assimilation if oneís ethnicity vanished in Austria into a social emptiness, an expensive misery Schnitzler exposes as not even viable in the long run privately.
His characters are paradigms of non-practicing urbane Austrian Catholics as Arthur Millerís actors in his dramas are in this way closer to Andy Hardy movies than the open difficulties of living without franchise in Tevye.
Yet Schnitzlerís dramas have the erotic interest one might find in another form in the speculations of Seigmund Freud, the cynical and sardonic journalistic humor of Karl Kraus, the interest in the hidden intestinal folds of domestic intimacy of the later Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, a sense of Jewish morality one wouldnít find quickly in Viennese operata yet could take up sentimentally and openly in the Yiddish theatre.
Since Schnitzlerís Viennese career proceeded the effusions of both all three men and our American Second Avenue arenas itís more likely they were all influenced by him than the other way around.
Since the Hapsburg monarchy officially redlined Jews from government and university jobs, were anti-Semitic in the service of their established church in policies we see as suicidal for this elite in the bright and clear light of retrospect, itís hardly a wonder that most Jews in Austria, growing up as they did in a country that wouldnít grant them a franchise, were often scramblers, scoffers, fierce dissenters from its reactionary and bogus government with its sham claims to either leadership or virtue.
Yet the very ineptitude of the Hapsburg regime produced a freedom that those with a constitution guaranteeing them rights they had lost subsequently in the execution of the law might justly envy. Of course the anxiety and grief in such a society in which one by birth is a lifelong criminal, nature itself is defined as a theatre of ordinary felony. Itís unfashionable to say so but itís doubtful that Creation is ever utterly a negligible venom to the spirit.
Sometimes oneís power and liberty comes not from oneís legitimacy, privilege or any known virtue but the stupidity, ineffectuality and vices of others. In practice the whole Austria-Hungarian empire was always loose and laissez faire; had it been otherwise, even with rulers other than the degenerates and inept officers of this now haply vanished regime, its diversity which included people from the Ukraine to Balkan tribes would have been ungovernable.
As it was millions of residents in that realm settled in America during Schnitzlerís lifetime; it was also the sanguine arena in which both Balkan nationalism and Zionism as well as mass flight to the New World ultimately thrived to the point of banality.
If one cannot live in a moral and equitable state, if there are no serious enemies abroad to enslave and slaughter one. it is never lethal to scramble covertly under the rule of the weak. Schnitzler, Freud, Herzl and Kraus couldnít get most jobs but like the best of all enfranchised groups in any time at least their geniuses made the most of being marginal. Schnitzler was prosecuted for supposed immorality as a playwright early; censored for his audacious honesty, he learned from foes what he could not have garnered from kin and allies.
Freud of course shocked the genteel. Karl Kraus never spared the Jews in his acid commentary, exemplifying the kind of manic nihilism and covert contagion of hatred of oneís own diversity one ingests by osmosis when one is not able to embrace oneís country as a patriot and is other than politically equal.
Unlike many regimes of equally terminal inefficiency, Austria in its capital of Vienna in particular was for centuries the home of the Arts among other necessary amusements. One might not have freedom there but if one had a little money one cold eat very well dining on the generous portions of its restaurants, grew mellow imbibing its many excellent beers, read several enormous newspapers which could take many delightfully torporous hours to complete studying properly.
One might be amused by oneís favorite sonic baubles and visual confections afterward by two opera companies if one were a high Parnassian, otherwise patronize a large run of vulgar or bohemian theaters, have every other sensual consolation for mortality classic to the immortal urbane taste long before the fall of Rome.
Schnitzlerís large body of prose and plays breathes this Viennese enjoyment of life in a thousand ways if it also embraces its sadness. Born in 1863, dying in 1931, he never faced the tragic denouement of Austrian culture a few years later when Hitler destroyed Austria seemingly forever.
By the time I had gotten to Austria in 1963 I saw a country with living people still in it in which the state had died. One could still see the opera and operettas; they were all like a dinosaur museum featuring work composed several decades ago. One could eat the sumptuous cuisine in the warm and pub-like restaurants, breakfast gloriously on strong coffee washing down delicious boles of warm fresh strudel; yet this was a world with no hope that woke up in the morning to do what they had done because they didnít know what else to do.
It was a realm beyond death and sadness; it was bankruptcy of spirit that lacked even the manic shallows of Schnitzlerís libertine world. It had the inner silence of a cemetery,
There were not only no Jews in Austria by 1963 but not too many young Austrians either. People who grew up there went elsewhere quickly, leaving a country of oldsters. The shallow and deep devastation of this world, how it at once lost its aesthetic leadership as well as everything else from material affluence to freedom from military occupation by its enemies became an immense spiritual landfill for its own people redefined in a way Schnitzler could not have predicted.
If we are creators like Schnitzler we never know how the future is going to see our libations to enigmas unborn as well as born. Unless we are Gypsies we donít have enough information. If we knew our subsequent despairs might be enough to stop us from writing them.
Far And Wide usus a title rather less telling that Tom Stoppard in his version. Undiscovered Country refers neatly to Hamletís remark about death along with his the Danish princeís other commentary about the staleness and unprofitability of life in a world in which sensual appetites and a partiality for casual injury rules even the elite.
Stoppardís choice focuses on Schnitzlerís putative resonance for comparable elements in English and Viennese culture. Das Weite Land in a culture in which Jews were restricted legally as they were, often couldnít own land at all, has different ironical meaning for Jews. Perhaps the most audacious in his solutions among Schnitzlerís Vainness Jewish peers was Theodore Herzl, at the time a newspaper journalist, also a sometime novelist and playwright like Schnitzler.
One might see Herzl coming from the same dilemmas as Schnitzler, responding to them with quite a different solution. Herzl understood that the Industrial Revolution with its reductive ways of thinking and inherently fascist economic tendencies was going to put pressure on, even crash the life of European Jews as well as everybody else to the point where it was preferable to try their luck starting from nothing in a new Zion. The Biblical land of Israel was a preferable place for such a pioneer life staring from nothing; Herzl also looked into Madagascar. Schnitzler saw the West and its materialism as a demean more difficult to ASPCA than by taking up travel from it and living elsewhere.
When one cannot change oneís communal woes in a place it always occurs to those not in love with their own melancholy and despair to pick up their hat and politely depart. During Schnitzlerís youth many millions of Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and Hungarians in the volatile Austrian empire including half my own family were inspired to do just that; emigrating to America. Itsí easier than starting a revolution.
I mention this only to note that Schnitzler himself given his early success as a celebrated Viennese gadfly couldnít after a while either Herzlís or my familyís solutions to the dead end Austria was becoming. Yet he got a whiff of it. At his death in 1931 Austria was in the first phase of a great Depression which had put most of the country out of work.
Sometimes life offers one lessons art cannot teach. When I lived in Israel there were many Israelis there who did not want to forget Vienna anymore than Schnitzler could or did. The best Viennese beer in Israel I had there was served in a in a Viennese gasthaus just outside of Sodom.
We are familiar in America with the rather resonances and major Jewish contributions to our current Western sensibility. In modern times in America such celebrity gadflies, entertainers and comic prophets nurtured the United States as well as Europe reacting to rather similar conditions: they were enfranchised, despised by the genteel, satirical about their masters.
Becoming White by magic is not always a boon. In many of our mid-century American comics from Mort Sahl to Lenny Bruce, in poets like Allen Ginsberg, novelists like Ben Hecht and Philip Roth, goofy musicians like Mickey Katz, politicians like Ralph Nader, Jews have taken up like Schnitzlerís niche as national clowns who offer one a conscience at once uncomfortable and amusing. Sometimes they are very direct about it like Jackie Mason.
Since Jews became White in my lifetime the role of prophetic dissenter some of them took up between the time of Napoleon and the foundation of Israel has become blurred. Perhaps nature needs a gaggle of marginal folk in its divert to be its proper dyspeptic criticism; the worst thing that could happen to any community from Atlantis to our arachnid cousins on Mars all is acceptance of those they formerly shunned or dismissed as lepers or clowns.
Schnitzler, a dramatic genius in a Vienna world that tolerated him as an entertainer yet never let him forget he was not first class, much as we can asses comparable American dramatists and even song writers parallel to him in the New World of the first half of the 20th century. Schnitzler had a love-hate affair with Vienna for understandable reason; it had at once nurtured him and made him always a little illegitimate.
Could Schnitzler awake in America now and find republican reflections of the same Viennese epicurean malaise? We have institutions formed by those escaping from the regal tyranny Stoppard inherited as a fossil in his once present; we are not the dead relics of a vanished monarchy.
Yet itís plain that our voters feel the usual suspects they have as their leaders don't represent them anymore than the Hapsburgs might have been spun to the gulls as livered servants of the common people.
The breakup of family life, the mutual indifference of parents and children in a real of egoists, the father and son who donít care to see each other, were realities with which Schnitzler had meant to shock and disgust his audience; they arenít all that strange to us in America now. Nor are the motherís who can't imagine when they abandon their homes they will do so while taking their children with them away from the father.
Even the paucity of children of such people Schnitzlerís jibes at is trumpeted to all of certain classes here as an act of piety; it is probably more a way of limiting the quantity of oneís enemies.
The experience of taking up the erotic as a corollary to Trivial Pursuits, finding it has tragic resonances one hadnít expected is hardly alien to our society either. Like Schnitzlerís characters, affluent beyond the dreams of many medieval princes, our time and country has hordes of smiling epicurean who act in middle age as if they were striplings because they have no notion either of maturity or measure.
When they look for virtue, they find it like Hitler only in a past which has lethal consequences for them when they invoke it form the dead. Any serious passion in this realm brings one infallibly to some baleful end.
As one can see I found this Schnitzlerís play like his others still quite powerful and startling. The Viennese were much more honest in their expression of feelings than epicureans in my own culture. At last nobody runs piety at one s they repair to their spas of indolent pleasure. These are after all not lushes in a bar with nothing to lose by bluing out their inner truths as in an OíNeill play but efficiently functioning family members living very well in an urbane world.
One doesn't hear such things in America. We are a culture that in and out of corporate life and our colleges takes up diplomacy as if it were morals. It is very powerful to hear Schnitzlerís domestic couple revealing everything to each other. Itís as intriguing to hear one of his cuckold say he finds life as it is and who he is very amusing.
Of course in the end the protagonist commits his rash murder not from motives of sage operon measure; his rage is foaled from a fossilized medieval vanity; he has been a fool his whole life, yet he cannot bear being a dunce and cuckold to himself in his own skewed terms though he has in the old way humbled and cuckolded others.
Finally his rage surfaces against others, youthful how have the capacity for love if they have the wrong lovers, when it should have been turned against himself for his life of continual misreading of his own nature. After all his suffering cold have been curbed instantly by a simple act of taking up a moronís view of virtue.
In this decadent world one cannot even if one is rich as this brutish minor plutocrat sustain oneís hungers more than a short time; it lacks the capacity to translate an initial genital itch one already rejects at times at twelve as silly into charity, friendship and compassion. Schnitzlerís characters while they congratulate themselves on their honesty quite justly since it would be even worse for them were they also hypocrites, suffer terribly like their American cousins of a century later though they have a fitful animal vigor; their sole anodyne in Vienna seems to have been be mountain climbing.
Perhaps we Americans in the West are still not yet ready for Schnitzler. While or government makes war against some drugs, licenses others, claims a third group are only for adults as if sentimentally only children should be exempt from certain ordinary venoms.
Our epicureans have Prozak to lave their melancholy, Viagara to inflame their fatigued loins, the hope after a century of expansive therapy that they or their children might perhaps one day find redemption in a pharmacy.
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