Thursday, April 4, 2013

The marionettes grow uneasy - clever Schnitzler plays

Schnitzler is a clever writer, interested in cleverness.  He has a conceptual streak in his creativity.  I am still plenty ignorant, but I have read enough Schnitzler to piece together a timeline, and I can even make out a Clever Period, much of it documented in Paracelsus & Other One-Act Plays (tr. G. J. Weinberger, Ariadne Press, 1995), but also covering “Lieutenant Gustl” and of course La Ronde (written in 1897), which is the best example.

La Ronde is about sex but the structure could be used for almost anything.  The ten interlocking, circular scenes each have a pair of characters who are sexual partners, with one character moving on to the next scene and partner, but the structure could be used for doctors and patients, or salesmen and customers, or any situation where people are likely to be found in pairs.  The number of scenes could be reduced or increased as inspiration or resources require, and even the sexual story can easily be updated and rearranged.  Presumably some recent playwright has, for example, made some of the encounters homosexual.

La Ronde as written is good, but the genuine cleverness of the flexible gimmick is more noticeable, and perhaps even more important.

The series of one-act plays Schnitzler wrote between 1898 and 1910 are mostly what would now be called “high concept.”  The Green Cockatoo (1899) is set in a French dive where slumming nobility come to eavesdrop on criminals and lowlifes, except that the criminals are actors and it is all just a performance, and the nobles know it is a performance, so this is really a play-within-a-play with the fictional audience sitting onstage.  The play takes place on July 14, 1789, so we know that something “real” will intrude on the show.

A couple of plays are stylized commedia dell’arte mime plays.  A trio are not puppet plays, as I had guessed from their titles, but rather riffs on puppet plays.  In The Puppeteer (1903) a man who thinks that he is the puppeteer discovers that he is the puppet.  The Gallant Cassian (1904) reprises the idea but as farce and nonsense, with a lot of instantaneous changes in luck and love, a pointless duel, and a woman who hurls herself from a window but is saved when the title character leaps after her and catches her in the air.  Why not, they are all just puppets.  This is the end (Martin lost the duel):

MARTIN plays the flute  It is bitter to die alone when one was still loved, well-to-do, and full of the most splendid hopes a quarter hour before.  Truly, it is a bad joke, and I’m actually not at all in the mood to play the flute.  Lets it fall and dies.

Most amazing is The Great Puppet Show (1906) which features an onstage carnival and another play-within-etc., an entire puppet theater and its audience, who constantly comment on the action.  I assume that the marionettes are meant to be played by humans, with paint on their faces and strings tied to their arms.  Or maybe not.  In the comic high point, a member of the “real” audience, perhaps sitting right next to me

Stands up and yells out loud  This is a fraud!  The people on stage all look over, the marionettes grow uneasy, and some of them look out from the sides of the marionette theater.

THE GENTLEMAN IN THE AUDIENCE  A fraud!  I won’t fall for that!...  that’s not worthy of a serious theater!...

DIRECTOR  on the apron My dear sir!

AUTHOR  also near the front, wringing his hands

THE GENTLEMAN  going further forward  I won’t let myself be cheated out of the ending!...  To the orchestra section  it’s obvious that the author couldn’t think of an ending… (ellipses in original, except for that last set)

The “real” audience member is invited to join the onstage audience, but he retreats in confusion.

I am not saying these Schnitzler plays are as complex as the best Pirandello, but anyone interested in clever meta-theater would enjoy these plays and should give Schnitzler some credit.


  1. Very intriguing and perhaps a writer I should add to my list of playwrights to keep under observation. What do you think is the best recent collection of his plays?

  2. I don't know. I guess the easy answer is anything with La Ronde. But this seemingly minor stuff was impressive - not first-rate, but still. So I don't know.