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Travelling stories: putting Schnitzler on the London stage

Third year PhD Student Nicole Robertson explores the works of Arthur Schnitzler and the history of the ‘Englishing’ of the great Viennese dramatist.

Why does this research matter?  It’s a question the best of us might struggle to answer when immersed in the nitty-gritty of humanities study. My own indebtedness to the public purse often compels me to step back and reflect on the wider issues at stake in my doctoral project. The conclusion I come to again and again is that my work is about stories, and that stories are what make us human. 

We are the stories we tell about ourselves and others; and these stories are as much about the how as the what. To revise slightly the words of the post-modern literary critic, Professor N Katherine Hayles: by changing how a story means, we alter what it means. (Translating media: why we should rethink textuality, in The Yale Journal of Criticism Hayles refers to ‘the work’ rather than ‘a story’).

By understanding how stories are told, and how they travel from one time and place to another, we learn about ourselves as human beings, and about our very humanity.

Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931), the Viennese doctor and writer, dramatised stories about the people he encountered every day in the city around him. He wrote about their habits, their relationships, their social rules, and the circumstances in which those rules could be bent. His plays not only enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) significant success as part of the Austrian repertoire, they have also travelled beyond Schnitzler’s homeland, having been translated into French, Russian, Italian, Swedish, Danish and Chinese, among other languages.

In the Anglophone world, Schnitzler’s reputation has lingered unduly around a French film made in the 1950s (La Ronde) and, more recently, a saucy adaptation by Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut). But the history of ‘Englishing’ Schnitzler is far denser and more complex than is legible in that skewed picture. There are thousands upon thousands of archived pages of letters, notes, and drafts, which testify to the negotiations carefully carried out by Schnitzler, and later his son, in the promotion of the plays in Great Britain, and to the often frustrated attempts by translators, directors and theatre managers keen to see Schnitzler’s work on the London stage. Reading these papers, alongside the English translations published and performed over the last 115 years, it has been possible to chart a bell-curve of power over meaning.

Whereas Schnitzler’s own grip on the dissemination of his work overseas was relatively weak, his son’s 50 years at the helm of the literary estate, from 1931 to 1982, represented a period of much greater control by the owner of the source text.  Heinrich Schnitzler (1902–1982) could read and write English fluently, having spent more than 15 years in exile in the US. This allowed him to assess confidently those translations sent to him for approval and to express clearly his reasons for withholding (more often than not) the performance rights. The tussles between literary trustee and translator can be seen as conflicting efforts to control meaning. As the translator tried to pull away in his or her own direction, Heinrich Schnitzler imposed on the proposed translation what was, in effect, his own interpretation of his father’s plays, albeit an interpretation masked by a claim to privileged knowledge of authorial intent.

Only after the expiry of copyright on 1 January 1982 could those interested in presenting Schnitzler’s plays to British audiences do so freely and without fear of legal ramifications. The last 35 years have accordingly witnessed the unleashing of innumerable new readings of the Schnitzler corpus. In 2009 alone there were four different London productions of just one play, Reigen. This infamous daisy chain of heterosexual exchanges has variously been re-fitted to accommodate an all-female cast (Cash Cows, 2005), an all-male cast (Fucking Men, 2009), and a cast decided by a wheel of fate (La Ronde, 2017).

The paper trail that leads the researcher from Cambridge University Library to the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach, and from Vienna’s Theatermuseum to the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, narrates over a century of attempts to determine the way Schnitzler’s stories are told on stage, to take ownership of the plays and to allow them to speak to new audiences.

Research and theory will be put into practice on 23 May when the Austrian Cultural Forum hosts a translation and theatre workshop, Adapting Schnitzler, organised by the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, Critical Digital Edition of Selected Middle-Period Works by Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931).

Participants will be invited to explore the challenges of bringing one of Schnitzler’s puppet plays, Der tapfere Cassian (Galliant Cassian, 1906), into 21st- century London.  The potential for the play to be performed by either people or puppets opens up to further examination my earlier conclusion. We are prompted to ask again what it means to be human, how to present that humanity on stage, and, ultimately, who gets to control the stories thereby told.

Nicole Robertson is in the third year of her PhD at University College London.  Her thesis, Arthur Schnitzler in Britain, explores how power and narrative operate as theoretical lenses through which the translation, adaptation and dissemination of Schnitzler’s dramas in Britain can be understood.

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