On the importance of sexuality in human life

Arthur Schnitzler's play "Reigen": a theater scandal
A Jahr100Wissen / 100 years ago interview with literary scholar Prof. Dr. Michael Scheffel

It is considered Arthur Schnitzler's most successful stage play and unleashed one of the biggest theater scandals of the 20th century: The "Reigen". What is Schnitzler's drama about?

Scheffel: The "Reigen" is probably Schnitzler's most popular play. It consists of ten acts and ten times one act. More precisely, it is about the conversations and behavior of man and woman before and after the sexual act. Ten characters appear in all, five men and five women. Each man consorts with two women and each woman with two men. Each act shows a couple, and in the following act a man or woman from the previous act is presented with a second partner, so that the partners thus change and remain in each case. A with B, B with C, C with D, etc., this is the almost mathematically strict form of a piece in which the love round closes insofar as we meet the female character from the first act for the second time at the end. In addition, the men and women who appear come from very different social classes. We have a spectrum that ranges from the count to the simple soldier and from the street girl to the upper middle-class lady - apart from the fact that the locations of the action are also spread over the city of Vienna and its surroundings, and that we are dealing with very different types of spaces, some private and some public.
Ultimately, the play reveals the mendacity of bourgeois society, or more precisely of its sexual morality, a morality, it must be made clear, that around 1900 officially permitted sexuality only within the framework of marriage and that, moreover, assumed that sexual interest was unequally distributed between the sexes; namely, that men had a stronger desire, while women had a weaker desire or none at all. Even in the sexology of this time it is claimed that so-called "healthy women" associate sexuality only with motherhood, that it is the 'nature' of women not to feel any sexual need beyond the reproductive instinct. The play demonstrates that a sexus not necessarily dependent on love dominates all social classes and indiscriminately the natures of men and women. Sexus, as demonstrated here, cannot be so easily relegated to the confines of marital intercourse, and the scale of the feminine cannot be categorically divided into the two types "harlot" and "mother".

Part of the principle of the "Reigen" is that it is a conversation piece interested in the coming together and going apart of sexual partners, which does not depict sexuality at all; the act as such is not shown and not the subject of the conversations. In the text, Schnitzler places dashes in its place; for the performance, he had intended that the curtain falls or the stage is darkened for a brief, purely symbolic moment.

The first publication of the book in Vienna in 1903 was banned in Germany and Poland. Schnitzler's publisher Fischer did not dare to publish it until the 101st edition in 1931. For what reason?


Scheffel: Schnitzler wrote the series of dialogues in the winter of 1896/97, and completed them in February 1897. Part of the printing history is that there was initially a private printing of two hundred copies in 1900, which he distributed to friends and acquaintances. This was a first test to see how the piece would work. Then in 1903 it was published by a Viennese publisher and not by the Berlin publisher S. Fischer, because Fischer found the matter too delicate and he believed that Austrian censorship law was more liberal in erotic matters than Prussian. The fear was, of course, that even if sexuality did not appear (unlike in Josefine Mutzenbacher or other erotic or even pornographic novels of the era), it would still be considered the real subject of the piece. After all, sexuality is only indirectly discussed, if at all, but the nude is always in focus, and that was enough to cause fear of the censorship authorities. Schnitzler himself assumed from the beginning that there would never be a lack of, as he put it, "stupidity and ill will" to misunderstand the play.

At its premiere on December 23, 1920 in Berlin and shortly thereafter in Vienna, the play unleashed an unprecedented theatrical scandal. What happened then?

Scheffel: The play had already been performed unauthorized before. For example, there was a partial performance in a Munich student club in 1903 or also a one-time performance in Budapest in 1912. Max Reinhardt, one of the most important directors of the time, who had already wanted to perform Schnitzler's plays several times, was interested in the "Reigen" and wanted to stage it at the Großes Schauspielhaus in Berlin. It was thought that the time had come. Schnitzler was also persuaded by the publisher Fischer. Max Reinhardt then unexpectedly relinquished the directorship of the Schauspielhaus, but the performance plans continued under a new management of the house and with a different director, and Schnitzler did not refuse any further.
There had already been protests before the premiere, and the Berlin District Court III had issued an injunction against the performance without any further hearing the day before. However, the ensemble performed and real turmoil probably only occurred at later performances in February 1921. These were actions by organized associations such as German-Völkisch Schutz- und Trutzbund, Bund nationalgesinnter Soldaten or German-Völkisch Geselligkeitsverein, to mention just a few descriptive names. Its most important driving force was a Berlin ministry official named Professor Dr. Emil Brunner, who liked to be called "Schmutz-Brunner" ("dirt-Brunner") because he wanted to protect his contemporaries from "dirt" that was supposedly corrupting morals. Then, in November 1921, a legendary trial took place in Berlin against all those who had been involved in the performance of the play. In the end all the defendants were acquitted. As in the case of the previously issued injunction, which was lifted again after a few days, the court determined upon closer examination of the work and the performance that the accusation of immorality could not be sustained.
De facto, the performances of the play in Berlin and especially at the Kammerspiele in Vienna were used for the purposes of a primitive anti-Semitism, i.e. the Jewish origin of its author was targeted and, according to the formulations of the time, they spoke of a "Jewish swine literature" that prepared the way for the "downfall" of the "Christian-national morality in filth and trash." And in Vienna, on February 16, 1921, there were even progrom-like scenes in and in front of the theater. Here, so-called "Volksstürmler" stormed a performance of the "Reigen," which had been declared a "symbol" of the "Jewish plague," beat the allegedly all-Jewish audience members, tore off some of their clothes, made them run gauntlets and flooded the theater by opening fire hydrants.
These events led to further public conflicts and brawls, even into the Viennese parliament. In view of such excesses and a functionalization of the play for the anti-Semitic agitation of conservative-nationalist circles, Schnitzler then understandably withdrew the performance rights.

The critic Alfred Kerr asked the question at the time, "Is it permissible to ban plays?" The play was banned outright in Munich, Budapest and the USA. Even the film version by Roger Vadim in 1964 later brought both the director and posthumously even the author before the Italian court once again. Nevertheless, how can the success of the 'Reigen' be explained?

Scheffel: First of all, "Reigen" is a play that already works very well on stage because of its sophisticated structure and its basic idea of tenfold variations on a theme, because of its vivid characters and the highly entertaining dialogues. But its particular success certainly lies in the fact that it poses the question of the rituals of desire, of before and after, and of the meaning of eroticism and sexuality in the togetherness and opposition of the sexes in a way that is as artful as it is direct. And that is timeless. Vadim's film adaptation, by the way, is far from the first; this one was made by Max Ophüls in 1950, even before the play was released for the stage again, with great French stars such as Simone Signoret, Gerard Philippe and Jean-Louis Barrault. In the film, Ophüls introduced a kind of play director who leads through the acts. Vadim, on the other hand, moves the action to Paris and relies on the charisma of actresses like Jane Fonda, who was still very young at the time. Many great actors and actresses, such as Catherine Deneuve, Nicole Kidmann, Hildegard Knef, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Curd Jürgens and Helmut Qualtinger, have played in productions, film adaptations or adaptations of "Reigen" - or became famous through the play in the first place.

Schnitzler was so shocked by the reactions that he withdrew the performance rights from Fischer-Verlag, which could then only be granted again 50 years after his death, in 1982. This also marked the beginning of an unprecedented Schnitzler reception. What is the significance of "Reigen" in theater history?

Scheffel: Copyright expires in Germany seventy years after the death of an author, but in Switzerland already after fifty years. Schnitzler died at the end of 1931, so that the rights became free in Switzerland at the end of 1981. This led to the fact that Schnitzler's son and heir Heinrich, who administered his father's estate very responsibly, then also immediately allowed performances worldwide again.
On New Year's Eve from 1981 to 82, or more precisely after midnight, at the beginning of January 1, 1982, the play was performed in Basel, Munich, Manchester and London. From then on, the "Reigen" was staged again and again. And as always, when a play is scandalous, people are particularly interested in it. It's because of the play's theme, it's because of its brilliant style, but it's also because of the aura of the seemingly wicked. And besides, directors and dramaturges have written ever-varying new versions, staged the action in different spatial and temporal contexts, and developed their own interpretations. Sexuality and corporeality, which in Schnitzler's work are, if at all, only an artfully played around object of speech and also (dis)silence, are here demonstrated again and again, sometimes very directly and drastically. In the end, it is as always: "Sex sells".

Mr. Scheffel, together with Prof. Lukas you are leading the project "Arthur Schnitzler digital". What is that about?


Scheffel: This is a historical-critical digital edition of Schnitzler's works published from 1905 onwards, a cooperation with English colleagues at Cambridge University, among others. And this edition is hosted within the framework of the so-called 'Digital Library' of one of the most important libraries in the world, the Cambridge University Library. The German sub-project here in Wuppertal is editing Schnitzler's works from 1914 onwards. Our declared intention is to make it possible to understand how Schnitzler's texts came into being in a comparatively vivid way and in an innovative format, namely the digital. Philologists, computer scientists and web designers as well as Englishmen and Germans are involved in this large-scale project, which is funded with several million Euros. On our homepage you can open the texts that have been published so far, such as "Fräulein Else" or "Doktor Gräsler, Badearzt" in a kind of virtual archive and look at everything that has been preserved from the production process, i.e. from the first note, the sketch, the elaboration of the text and all the variants. We put the versions online with and without deletions, transcribed and with a quotable and annotated reading text. The project "Arthur Schnitzler digital" can be found online at www.arthur-schnitzler.de.

Uwe Blass (Interview on 07.10.2020)


Prof. Dr. Michael Scheffel studied German, Romance and Art History in Tübingen, Tours and Göttingen and habilitated in 1995. In 2002 he took over the professorship for Modern German Literary History and General Literary Studies at the University of Wuppertal. Since 2008, he has also been Vice-Rector for Research, Third-Party Funding and Graduate Promotion at the University of Wuppertal.

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