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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Franz Grillparzer (1791–1872)

GRILLPARZER, the most distinguished dramatist that Austria has produced, was born in Vienna on January 15th, 1791. His father, an esteemed advocate of the Austrian capital, seems to have been, like Goethe’s father, a man of cold austerity. His mother, on the other hand, had a deeply emotional nature, lived in a world of music, and ended her life a suicide. From her, as in the case of so many poets, Grillparzer derived his poetic gifts and his musical taste. At the age of twenty-two he entered the service of the State, in which he remained until at his own request he was retired on a pension in 1856. In 1847 he was made a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences. In his quiet and well-ordered life there is little that is striking to record; its most picturesque periods were those of his extensive travels in Turkey, Italy, and Greece. Of these travels he has left fragmentary accounts in his volume of autobiographical sketches.

In literature Grillparzer took his own independent course. He was filled with the spirit of Greek tragedy; but far from attempting a strict modern adaptation of the classic forms, he gave his plays a frankly romantic and sentimental coloring. He made a close study of the Spanish drama, but was not dominated by it. Shakespeare, too, whose colossal genius had first created and then crushed the German drama, never overmastered Grillparzer. Among his autobiographical works occurs this remarkable passage:—

  • “You ask what books I shall take with me? Many and few: Herodotus, Plutarch, and the two Spanish dramatists. And not Shakespeare? Not Shakespeare; although he is perhaps the greatest thing the modern world has produced—not Shakespeare! He tyrannizes over my mind, and I wish to remain free. I thank God for him, and that it was my good fortune to read and re-read him and make him mine; but now I strive to forget him. The ancients strengthen me; the Spaniards inspire me to produce;… but the giant Shakespeare usurps the place of nature, whose most glorious organ of expression he was; and whoever gives himself up to him will, to every question asked of nature, forever receive an answer from Shakespeare only. No more Shakespeare! German literature will be ruined in that very abyss out of which it once arose; but I will be free and independent.”
  • Grillparzer’s public career as a dramatist began in 1817 with the famous tragedy of ‘Die Ahnfrau’ (The Ancestress), which is typical of the class to which it belongs, the so-called tragedies of fate. Two years later came ‘Sappho.’ In Byron’s Journal, under date of January 12th, 1821, we find this entry:—

  • “Read the Italian translation by Guido Sorelli of the German Grillparzer—a devil of a name, to be sure, for posterity, but they must learn to pronounce it: the tragedy of ‘Sappho’ is superb and sublime. There is no denying it. The man has done a great thing in writing that play. And who is he? I know him not; but ages will. ’Tis a high intellect; Grillparzer is grand, antique,—not so simple as the ancients, but very simple for a modern,—too Madame De Staël-ish now and then, but altogether a great and goodly writer.”
  • This critical estimate is singularly just. What Grillparzer lacks in simplicity is offset by his lyric tenderness and portrayal of complex emotions. In 1831 was performed ‘Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen’ (The Waves of the Sea and of Love). Grillparzer was conscious that the title was affected. The theme is the tale of Hero and Leander. “It was my purpose,” he wrote, “to indicate at the outset that although of an antique coloring, my treatment of the material was intended to be romantic. In short, it was an attempt to combine the two dramatic styles.” This confirms Byron’s judgment. There was something of timidity in Grillparzer’s nature; the first acts are often grand and imposing, but the catastrophe frequently passes away in an elegiac mood, like fading music. But he has produced plays in his own peculiar manner which are full of genuine humanity and vigorous dramatic action, and their place is still secure in the repertory of the German stage.

    Grillparzer’s collected works fill sixteen volumes. His most extensive undertaking was the trilogy of ‘Das Goldene Vliess’ (The Golden Fleece), of which ‘Medea’ is still a favorite. The most important of his works is ‘King Ottokar,’ which occupies a place in the national life of Austria comparable to that held by Shakespeare’s historical plays in English literature; and the excellent tragedy ‘Ein Treuer Diener seines Herrn’ (A Faithful Servant of his Master) is likewise the product of Austrian national life. The direct influence of Calderón is manifest in the fairy-tale character of the charming drama ‘Der Traum, ein Leben’ (Dream is a Life), in which the title of the famous Spanish play is reversed.

    Grillparzer’s comedy ‘Weh’ dem der Lügt’ (Woe to Him who Lies) was not at first a success, and for a long time thereafter the poet refused in disgust to submit his dramas to the stage. The play subsequently became popular, but this disregard of all pecuniary considerations in relation to his plays was characteristic of Grillparzer. At Beethoven’s request he wrote the opera text of ‘Melusine,’ and the poet has told us in his recollections of Beethoven how insistent the composer was that a contract be drawn dividing the proceeds. But Grillparzer refused to allow this: he was satisfied to know that Beethoven liked his poem and was willing to devote his genius to giving it a musical setting. The great composer died before the music had taken definite form, and it was Grillparzer’s office to deliver the funeral oration. “I loved Beethoven,” he says simply in one of his touching paragraphs.

    Grillparzer outlived his productivity, but his fame increased. At the celebration of his eightieth birthday, honors were showered thick upon him. He was named by the side of Goethe and Schiller, and the highest aristocracy of that most aristocratic land joined with the common people to do him homage. In the following year—January 21st, 1872—Grillparzer died. His place in the front rank of German dramatists is as assured to-day as when, at the culmination of a long life, all Germany brought tributes to the genius of the greatest of Austrian poets.