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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 Ludwig Lewisohn (1882–1955)

By Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931)

GRILLPARZER, the great Austrian dramatist, declared that to understand him at all one must understand Vienna. The same is true of Arthur Schnitzler, the most distinguished Viennese dramatist of our time. For the ancient and imperial city has indeed developed a culture and a mood of its own, an attitude and an aroma that are unmistakable. It is the city of Mozart, we must remember, and of the dreamy sweetness of waltzes: it has never been for long, or in any strenuous sense, politically minded, but deeply concerned always over the art of life. The native German civilization has been touched with melancholy by the surging of the Slavs to the south, with subtlety and grace and disillusion by the large and thoroughly assimilated Jewish element, from which, indeed, both Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal have sprung. To call the city Phæacian is to be unjust, as profoundly unjust as it would be to call Schnitzler a graceful trifler. It is true enough, however, that grace has here sometimes flourished at the expense of strength, and endless currents of music and verse and talk at the expense of action. In a word an intensely ripe, richly memoried, but very modern culture has here arisen from a civilization which one might call Alexandrian but for the splendid paradox of its ceaseless productivity in every department of art and thought.

Arthur Schnitzler was born in Vienna in 1862 as the son of a distinguished physician. He himself studied medicine and practiced until he was past thirty. The evidence of this training may be traced in all his works. He has the physician’s firmness and tenderness, his insight and his sad detachment. He is not concerned—or only very rarely—with the accidents of existence: matters social or economic or political or racial. He speaks in that subdued and exquisite yet so telling way of his of but three things, and these three things are life and love and death. His light touch, his beautiful and apparently effortless art have often deceived critics as to the deep gravity of mood and import of his plays and stories.

He began his career with the famous series of one-act plays known as ‘Anatol’ (1889), so admirably presented to the American public by John Barrymore and Frank Reicher in 1913. And these scenes, though so deftly written and with so light a touch, are, in truth, a prelude to the spirit of even his most serious work. For what Anatol wants, trifler though he is, is to raise the hours into beauty and significance and to distill from life, that is so shadowy and brief, a touch of immortality. And that is the fundamental theme or leit-motif of Schnitzler both as a dramatic artist and as a writer of fiction. Life is transitory: of the beyond in any sense we have no certain message. To render permanent and touch with nobility the fleeting moments of this brief existence there are art and thought and love. Love, however, must not be tenacious and enslaving, but kind and full of subtle renunciations. It is useless to be pedantic about institutions or social conventions, for “the land of the soul” is a great land in which the strangest and most contradictory impulses can co-exist. It must not be thought that Schnitzler is absolutely careless of the immediately practical issues of life. In ‘The Fairy-Tale’ (1891); ‘Free Game’ (1896); ‘The Legacy’ (1897), and more recently in ‘Professor Bernhardi’ (1912) he has spoken with virile energy and pointedness on moral and social problems. But his plea has always been for tolerance, for kindness, for freedom. Why should men torment each other during their brief and perishable years, and enslave and judge harshly and condemn? Life is difficult and complex. To make it lovely and harmonious for even an hour, and to make it that at the expense of no pain to any other soul—such is, in many forms, the recurrent philosophy of Schnitzler’s characters. They seem ever mindful of that great saying of the elder Goethe: “The world-spirit is far more tolerant than one thinks….”

Aside from the one-act plays (a form of writing in which he easily ranks first among modern dramatists) Schnitzler’s best dramas are probably ‘Light o’ Love’ (1894); ‘The Lonely Way’ (1900), and ‘The Land of the Soul’ (1910). These are, at least, highly characteristic examples of his genius and his art. The fables are in all three cases of the highest interest. They have truth and representative power. The characters are memorable. No one who has read or seen the plays is likely to forget Christine Weiring or Georg von Skala or Friedrich Hofreiter. Yet when all is said and done—and with this point one disengages the master quality of Schnitzler—it is neither of the story nor of the characters that one thinks longest or most deeply. It is of the dialogue. For Schnitzler’s characters are chosen for the most part from among the most cultivated members of a very cultivated society. And it must be remembered that culture in Germany and German-Austria means quite rarely a veneer of letters and art superimposed upon the most cheerless philistinism of thought and feeling. Culture in Schnitzler’s men and women means emotional richness and subtlety, boundless flexibility of mind, a searching, troubled philosophic vision that is alive to all points of view, to all the perplexities, dissonances, yearnings of our mortal lot. These people never fancy when they have approved or disapproved a thing or an action or a problem by some tribal rule of thumb that they have yet measurably approached it. Hence the mere dialogue of Schnitzler’s dramas with its exquisite play of mind, its fine curiosity, its blending of complete naturalness with a constant plangency of rhythm, is one of the most remarkable and most moving artistic experiences of our age. To turn from the hurry and heat of life, from crude judgments and haphazard action into those Viennese gardens in which Schnitzler’s men and women walk and discourse of love and life and death—this is, in truth, like the love of Steele’s ideal lady, a liberal education.

All these qualities of Schnitzler’s dialogue appear in an even higher degree in his stories. These are, unhappily, not nearly so well known in America as his plays. They are written with an air of detachment which is, however, neither cold nor hard. They are psychological in character—masterly analyses of modern souls. Yet again the highest beauty of these stories is in their style, if we use the word style in a broader than the merely technical sense. That style has infinite ease and grace, yet never a touch of the facile. It is a style in which every syllable has been weighed not only for its tone-color but also for its meaning: it is rich in implication without ever verging upon obscurity and constantly felicitous without a touch of the merely precious. The best of these stories are ‘Dying,’ ‘Mrs. Bertha Garlan,’ ‘A Farewell,’ ‘The Dead are Silent,’ ‘The Stranger,’ ‘The New Song,’ ‘The Sage’s Wife,’ ‘Lieutenant Gustle.’ To convey a notion of the quality of these stories is difficult. But imagine a Henry James possessed of a warmer style, a richer rhythm, a Henry James, above all, who is not at all concerned for the manners but wholly for the souls of men, who has behind him no New England tradition that causes him to cling desperately to the mere periphery of the events of whose core he is so uncomfortably conscious. Schnitzler, with an equal fineness and keenness, exhausts his subjects and thus adds, in his stories not less than in his plays, a notable chapter to the spiritual history of his age.