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A Young Vic/Wiener Festwochen/Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen co-production

Sweet Nothings

by Arthur Schnitzler
in a new version by David Harrower
co-commissioned by Warwick Arts Centre

 

01 March - 10 April 2010

 

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When Freud met Schnitzler – and why they didn’t

by Norman Lebrecht


They were two of Vienna’s most famous men, members of the same vocation with many mutual friends, yet they took extravagant care to avoid one another over the course of half a century. There are only two communications between Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler, to the best of my knowledge, a virtual silence that demands explanation, the more so when you read the empathy that is revealed in the letters.

In May 1922, on Schnitzler’s 60th birthday, the father of psychoanalysis greeted him as a long-lost identical twin. ‘All these years,’ wrote Freud, ‘I avoided you out of a kind of fear of finding my own Doppelgänger… When I read one of your beautiful works I keep finding, behind the fiction, the same propositions, interests and solutions that are familiar to me from my own thoughts.’

Freud was not prone to flattery, nor did he lightly credit others with his intellectual property. But he seems to be telling the playwright that they are kindred thinkers. In an earlier letter, in May 1906, Freud told Schnitzler that he found ‘a far-reaching agreement’ in many of their ideas, and often wondered ‘where you were able to derive this or that secret knowledge.’

Freud’s biographer, Peter Gay, interprets this comment as a symptom of his ‘habitual, unresentful envy’ of creative artists who make imaginative leaps without having to put in the hard, brow-furrowing hours of analytical thought. Gay finds Freud’s praise of Schnitzler excessive. But I suspect it expresses a symbiotic affinity between two social revolutionaries who had so much in common it is not always easy to tell which of them influenced the other.

Of similar age and background, Schnitzler and Freud were outspokenly Jewish. Both were medically qualified, both specialised in neurology and both gave up the practice of medicine for work that, while founded on close observation, was subjective and speculative in its remedies for the human condition. Freud was a brilliant writer, narrating his case histories in lucid, colloquial German, free of medical terminology and proposing a cure that was altogether intuitive - anathema to empirical science.

Schnitzler wrote dramas that explored the social unconscious, not just the sexual unmentionables of after-dark Vienna but also its political hypocrisy and (in Die Weg ins Freie) its embedded anti-semitism. He became aware of Freud in March 1900, shortly after the appearance of The Interpretation of Dreams, and commented in his diaries on further works of psychoanalysis. But he never joined the Wednesday night circle of Freud’s apostles and admirers, nor did he ever pursue a closer acquaintance.

Both men were widely ostracised. Schnitzler’s 1897 story Reigen, better known as La Ronde, was banned from the Austrian stage for 24 years. Freud’s theories were deemed so offensive that Gustav Mahler, director of the Opera, would not allow his name to be mentioned at table, remarking that the notorious professor treated every problem ‘from a certain standpoint’. Mahler would soon have need of Freud’s services during a breakdown in his marriage, but the reluctance of this otherwise uninhibited musician to allow the word ‘sex’ to pass his lips is indicative of the depth of equivocation that psychoanalysis had to overcome before Freud’s truths could be rationally discussed.

And that’s where Schnitzler came in. Giving up medicine on his father’s death in 1893, he set about exposing the sexual parts of Vienna in his second play Liebele (Sweet Nothings), staged at the Burgteather in October 1895. Sweet Nothings is a morality play, a tale of adultery that crosses three social classes and is more shocking for breaching those barriers than for exposing the promiscuity that lay beneath Vienna’s buttoned-up façade of marital respectability. In the stage directions, there is a bust of Schubert on the mantelpiece and a set of Schiller on the bookshelves. No wickedness could surely take place within sight of these hallowed objects.

Schnitzler introduced in Sweet Nothings a prototype of the süsse Mädchen, the lovely young working girl who is prey to wealthy men. What starts out as a comedy of manners is wrenched into a tragedy in which the victims are not just the women exploited and abandoned but the city that dares not name its deepest desires and anxieties. Max Burckhard, director of the Burgtheater, called it a ‘dangerous’ work. The Emperor Franz-Josef condemned it as ‘immoral’.

What Schnitzler did in Sweet Nothings was to break ground for Freud. Without Schnitzler, The Interpretation of Dreams might have seemed aberrant and esoteric, of little interest beyond the confines of the mental health professions. One of its earliest reviews, in Die Zeit, was by Max Burchkhard, the Burgtheater director who brought Sweet Nothings to life, and while Freud dismissed the review as ‘uncommonly lacking in understanding’ it brought his startling new ideas to the attention of the cultural community, and from there to the talk of the town.

The debt that Freud owed to Schnitzler stemmed from these early beginnings. It could not be openly acknowledged without the risk, endemic to Vienna, of an accusation of Jewish collusion. Both were attacked separately for undermining German morality. They may have deemed it prudent to keep well apart in order not to fuel the revving Viennese engines of anti-semitic propaganda. Or maybe they were just uncomfortable sharing the same patch of thematic territory.

Schnitzler, after receiving Freud’s encomium, spent his sixties depressed at the fate of his works and his family, crushed by the suicide of his daughter, Lily, (news of which was broken to him by Mahler’s daughter, Anna). He died, aged 68, in October 1931.

Freud endured the Nazi annexation of Austria before being brought to London where he died, aged 83, in September 1939. The two pioneers may never have met, but each knew exactly what he meant to the other.

 

Norman Lebrecht’s next book Why Mahler? is published by Faber and Faber on 07 July