Monday, January 21, 2013

Only a man can be that inconsiderate. - Arthur Schnitzler's 1893 eternal sitcom

The earliest Arthur Schnitzler work I have found in English is the 1893 play Anatol, a comic, poignant, insightful, etc. investigation in seven scenes of the human sub-species of which Schnitzler himself was a member, Homo sapiens canis sexualis, commonly known as the skirt-chasin’ dog.  I got all the detail I needed on that subject, in fact more, from Peter Gay’s history of the Victorian bourgeoisie, Schnitzler’s Century (2002), which is not even about Schnitzler.  A big biography of him would be a trial.  Schnitzler recorded everything.

The cast of the play: Anatol (the dog), his pal Max, and seven women, one for each scene.  In not one but two scenes, Anatol is about to get married, but the woman in the scene is never the prospective bride.  Anatol pursues women, juggles multiple girlfriends, has flings and long-term affairs, and beds an old girlfriend the night before his wedding (without telling her that he is about to marry).

Given that Anatol has a resemblance to his creator, I might think that the play excuses Anatol’s behavior, but in fact in each scene Anatol is portrayed as hypocritical and cruel.  Schnitzler was a perceptive self-analyst, for all of the good it did him.  Quoting Peter Gay, “As usual, this insight had no effect on his conduct” (p. 75), which could have been Schnitzler’s motto.  But a positive result is that the play is pretty good.

Anatol is throwing a farewell supper for one of his girlfriends, at which he is planning to dump her.  Viennese period note:  they are at the Sacher Hotel which is still in operation, so you could do the same as Anatol!  He has been giving a farewell supper every night for a week, it turns out.  Maybe his friend Max will help him:

MAX:  As for convincing her?  I could never do such a thing.  You’re a far too likable man.

ANATOL:  But my dear Max!  You could, up to a certain point?  Couldn’t you?  I mean, you could tell her that I’m no great loss.

MAX:  I suppose I could.

ANATOL:  And that she’ll find hundreds of other men who are – handsomer – richer –

MAX:  More intelligent –

ANATOL:  No, no, please.  Don’t exaggerate.  (Sc. V)

Max always gets the best lines.  Once Annie arrives, she begins guzzling the champagne and oysters:

ANNIE:  I’m just wild about oysters!  It’s the only food one can eat every day.

MAX:  Can?!  Should!  Must!

ANNIE:  I know!  I told you so!

It turns out she is dumping Anatol.  He becomes hysterical, demanding, and finally cruel, revealing that he has been cheating on her, his secret turned into a weapon.

ANNIE:  (At the door.)  I would never have told you.  Never.  Only a man can be that inconsiderate.

The women do not necessarily win every battle, but they do well in the war.  Some might object that love affairs are not battles.  They are once the woman has been dragged down to Anatol’s level.

It is likely that you have seen this sitcom before, perhaps many times.  Why read or watch a 120 year old version of what you can see in some form on Girls or How I Met Your Mother or some better example I have never seen?  That is a good question.  Some works of art are eternal; some are constantly updated and replaced.

Update: I forgot to include the source. Four Major Plays (1999), tr. Carl R. Mueller.


  1. Tom - You raise an interesting question about originality. Ofttimes a classic and groundbreaking work may seem mundane and unoriginal only because it has been imitated so many times. I find this true with everything from classic literature such as Shakespeare to classic television shows.

    I agree that there is much value in experiencing the original.

  2. The original in this case is a lot older than Arthur Schnitzler. Homer and Genesis, perhaps.

    A sign you are reading a great work is that you can recapture its strangeness. Typically, it is really the style that is original and inimitable, not the easily transportable content.

    Shakespeare's plays, in their content, are often themselves imitations of earlier works. Yet they are also, mostly, of the highest originality.

  3. Though the only Schnitzler I've read is La Ronde, I love the notion of his work as sit-com (it's easy enough to imagine La Ronde as a lengthy Seinfeld episode).

    My favorite devolution from the original, so far, still has to be Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill's "Ballad of Mac the Knife" from The Three-Penny Opera undergoing the alchemical process by Bobby Darin then ending up as "Mac Tonight" in a McDonald's commercial.

  4. You can see the path to La Ronde here, which is neato. In Anatol just the women rotate, so rotating the men is the logical next step.

    I have just been listening to an Ella Fitzgerald concert recording of "Mack the Knife" where she does not know the words so just makes up lyrics about how the song was a big hit for Darin and Armstrong.

    It occurs to me that it would be fun to revisit The Beggar's Opera and those other crazy 18th century comedies some time.

  5. John Gay is a hidden treasure. I particularly enjoyed his "Trivia," a poem on London sidewalk etiquette, but the fables are delightful as well.

    Gay was good friends with Swift and Pope; "The Beggar's Opera" is more fun when read as a companion piece to "Gulliver's Travels" and "The Dunciad."

  6. I have just read the play. The narrator of Henry Esmond identifies his acquaintance Gay as "the author of
    'Trivia,' the most charming kind soul that ever laughed at a joke or cracked a bottle."

  7. I would love to do a Beggar's Opera read-along. That stands out as a highlight from an 18th century directed study I did two decades ago, and it's high time to revisit it. In the meantime, I'll look up "Trivia," which sounds delightful.

  8. A Beggar's Opera read-along? Yeah, that would be fun. Remind me several months from now.