The theme of the play is the inevitable emptiness and loneliness of lives devoted wholly to self-indulgence without regard to the welfare or suffering of others. In a succession of quiet conversations the characters reveal themselves and their relations to each other, which make the situation a tragedy. A young art student, Wegrath, takes his friend, Julian Fichtner, to visit his betrothed, Gabrielle. The fascinating Julian falls in love with her, and they plan to elope a week before the wedding. The night before they are to leave together, Julian decides that he wishes to be free from the ties and duties which marriage brings, and he deserts her. She marries Wegrath, who becomes a professor of art and president of the Academy. The oldest of her two children Felix, is Julian’s son. The play opens just before Gabrielle’s death when Philip is twenty-three. Julian has drifted about in pursuit of pleasure and has not fulfilled the great promise of his early years. His hope of solving the problem of the “lonely way” is to claim the love and companionship of his son Felix. Felix turns from him to the father he has always known and loved as his own. Von Sala, a middle-aged dramatic poet, who like Julian has lived for himself, disregarding human ties, points out to Julian that he had acquired no right of possession in Felix. He defines love as service. For those who will not serve, there lies ahead the “lonely way.” The lonely are “their kind” who are free because they have never belonged to anyone but themselves. Johanna, the sister of Felix, loves Von Sala, and he commits suicide when he learns she has drowned herself for his sake. The characters of the two egoists, Julian and Von Sala, are brilliantly and consistently drawn.
THE FIFTH ACT
SALA (accompanies Irene and Felix up the steps to the terrace)
JULIAN (remains behind, walking back and forth; after a while he is joined by Sala) Have you no doubt that your appeal to Count Ronsky will be effective?
I have already received definite assurances from him, or I should never have aroused any hopes in Felix.
What caused you to do this, Sala?
My sympathy for Felix, I should say, and the fact that I like to travel in pleasant company.
And did it never occur to you, that the thought of losing him might be very painful to me?
What’s the use of that, Julian? It is only possible to lose what you possess. And you cannot possess a thing to which you have not acquired any right. You know that as well as I do.
Does not, in the last instance, the fact that you need somebody give you a certain claim on him?—Can’t you understand, Sala, that he represents my last hope?… That actually I haven’t got anything or anybody left but him?… That wherever I turn, I find nothing but emptiness?… That I am horrified by the loneliness awaiting me?
And what could it help you if he stayed? And even if he felt something like filial tenderness toward you, how could that help you?… How can he or anybody else help you?… You say that loneliness horrifies you?… And if you had a wife by your side to-day, wouldn’t you be lonely just the same?… Wouldn’t you be lonely even if you were surrounded by children and grandchildren?… Suppose you had kept your money, your fame and your genius—don’t you think you would be lonely for all that?… Suppose we were always attended by a train of bacchantes—nevertheless we should have to tread the downward path alone—we, who have never belonged to anybody ourselves. The process of aging must needs be a lonely one for our kind, and he is nothing but a fool who doesn’t in time prepare himself against having to rely on any human being.
And do you imagine, Sala, that you need no human being?
In the manner I have used them they will always be at my disposal. I have always been in favor of keeping at a certain distance. It is not my fault that other people haven’t realized it.
In that respect you are right, Sala. For you have never really loved anybody in this world.
Perhaps not. And how about you? No more than I, Julian…. To love means to live for the sake of somebody else. I don’t say that it is a more desirable form of existence, but I do think, at any rate, that you and I have been pretty far removed from it. What has that which one like us brings into the world got to do with love? Though it include all sorts of funny, hypocritical, tender, unworthy, passionate things that pose as love—it isn’t love for all that…. Have we ever made a sacrifice by which our sensuality or our vanity didn’t profit?… Have we ever hesitated to betray or blackguard decent people, if by doing so we could gain an hour of happiness or of mere lust?… Have we ever risked our peace or our lives—not out of whim or recklessness—but to promote the welfare of someone who had given all to us?… Have we ever denied ourselves an enjoyment unless from such denial we could at least derive some comfort?… And do you think that we could dare to turn to any human being, man or woman, with a demand that any gift of ours be returned? I am not thinking of pearls now, or annuities, or cheap wisdom, but of some piece of our real selves, some hour of our own existence, which we have surrendered to such a being without at once exacting payment for it in some sort of coin. My dear Julian, we have kept our doors open, and have allowed our treasures to be viewed—but prodigal with them we have never been. You no more than I. We may just as well join hands, Julian. I am a little less prone to complain than you are—that’s the whole difference…. But I am not telling you anything new. All this you know as well as I do. It is simply impossible for us not to know ourselves. Of course, we try at times conscientiously to deceive ourselves, but it never works. Our follies and rascalities may remain hidden to others—but never to ourselves. In our innermost souls we always know what to think of ourselves.—It’s getting cold, Julian. Let’s go indoors.
(They begin to ascend the steps to the terrace)
All that may be true, Sala. But this much you have to grant me. If there be anybody in the world who has no right to make us pay for the mistakes of our lives, it is a person who has us to thank for his own life.
There is no question of payment in this. Your son has a mind for essentials, Julian. You have said so yourself. And he feels that to have done nothing for a man but to put him into the world, is to have done very little indeed.
Then, at least, everything must become as it was before he knew anything at all. Once more I shall become to him a human being like anybody else. Then he will not dare to leave me…. I cannot bear it. How have I deserved that he should run away from me?… And even if all that I have held for good and true within myself—even if, in the end, my very fondness for this young man, who is my son—should prove nothing but self-delusion—yet I love him now…. Do you understand me, Sala? I love him, and all I ask is that he may believe it before I must lose him forever….
[It grows dark. The two men pass across the terrace and enter the drawing-room. The stage stands empty a little while. In the meantime the wind has risen somewhat. Johanna enters by the avenue of trees from the right and goes past the pool toward the terrace. The windows of the drawing-room are illumined. Sala has seated himself at a table. The valet enters the room and serves him a glass of wine. Johanna stops. She is apparently much excited. Then she ascends two of the steps to the terrace. Sala seems to hear a noise and turns his head slightly. When she sees this, Johanna hurries down again and stops beside the pool. There she stands looking down into the water.
Arthur Schnitzler was born at Vienna on May 15, 1862. His father was Professor Johann Schnitzler, a renowned Jewish throat specialist. I am told that Professor Bernhardi in the play of the same name must be regarded as a pretty faithful portrait of the elder Schnitzler, who, besides his large and important practice, had many other interests, including an extensive medical authorship and the editing of the Wiener klinische Rundschau. It is also to be noticed that Professor Bernhardi has among his assistants a son, who divides his time between medicine and the composition of waltz music.
The younger Schnitzler studied medicine at the Vienna University, as did also his brother, and obtained his M.D. in 1885. During the next two years he was attached to the resident staff of one of the big hospitals. It was also the period that saw the beginning of his authorship. While contributing medical reviews to his father’s journal, he was also publishing poems and prose sketches in various literary periodicals. Most of his contributions from this time appeared in a publication named „An der schönen blauen Donau“ (By the Beautiful Blue Danube), now long defunct.
He was also continuing his studies, which almost from the start seem to have turned toward the psychic side of the medical science. The new methods of hypnotism and suggestion interested him greatly, and in 1889 he published a monograph on „Functional Aphonia and its Treatment by Hypnotism and Suggestion.“ In 1888 he made a study trip to England, during which he wrote a series of „London Letters“ on medical subjects for his father’s journal. On his return he settled down as a practicing physician, but continued to act as his father’s assistant. And as late as 1891-95 we find him named as his father’s collaborator on a large medical work entitled „Clinical Atlas of Laryngology and Rhinology.“
There are many signs to indicate uncertainty as to his true calling during those early years. The ensuing inner conflict was probably sharpened by some pressure exercised by his father, who seems to have been anxious that he should turn his energies undividedly to medicine. To a practical and outwardly successful man like the elder Schnitzler, his own profession must have appeared by far the more important and promising. While there is no reason to believe that his attitude in this matter was aggressive, it must have been keenly felt and, to some extent at least, resented by the son. One of the dominant notes of the latter’s work is the mutual lack of understanding between successive generations, and this lack tends with significant frequency to assume the form of a father’s opposition to a son’s choice of profession.
This conflict cannot have lasted very long, however, for the younger Schnitzler proved quickly successful in his purely literary efforts. The „Anatol“ sketches attracted a great deal of attention even while appearing separately in periodicals, and with their publication in book form, which occurred almost simultaneously with the first performance of „A Piece of Fiction“ at a Viennese theater, their author was hailed as one of the most promising among the younger men. From that time he has been adding steadily to his output and his reputation. When his collected works were issued in 1912, these included four volumes of plays and three volumes of novels and stories. Since then he has finished another play and two volumes of prose sketches.
It is rare to find an author turning with such regularity from the epic to the dramatic form and back again. And it is still more rare to find him so thoroughly at home and successful in both fields. In Schnitzler’s case these two parallel veins have mutually supported and developed each other. Time and again he has treated the same theme first in one form and then in another. And not infrequently he has introduced characters from his plays into his stories, and vice versa. A careful study of his other works would undoubtedly assist toward a better understanding of his plays, but I do not regard such a study essential for the purpose. It is my belief that Schnitzler has given himself most fully and most typically in his dramatic authorship, and it is to this side of his creative production I must confine myself here.
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