Round Two/Round One
By Eric Bentley
[The following essay is Eric Bentley's preface to a new version
of Arthur Schnitzler's play Reigen (1900),
published by Broadway Play Publishing Inc. in December 2008. Bentley
was the translator for the first American production of Reigen,
titled La Ronde, at Circle in the Square in 1955, and his new
version, titled Round
One, is an adaptation of that translation. Bentley says that
Round One "also serves as a full-length prologue" to Round
Two, a play he wrote in 1986 that relocates Schnitzler's action
from 1890s Vienna to 1970s Manhattan. Round
Two was reissued by BPPI in June 2008. About the Viennese author,
Bentley writes: "On and off, throughout the twentieth century and beyond,
it was conceded, if often grudgingly, that Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1921)
was a major figure both in fiction and in drama and, looking back today,
one can confidently affirm that Reigen was, and therefore is,
a major work."]
Round One, in its day, provoked what was possibly the biggest
theater scandal ever. Here is what we find in the Deutsch-Österreichische
Tages-Zeitung, Vienna, April 24, 1922:
Lust for money and power were always the driving
force of all Jewish transactions. Productions of Reigen have
for a long time now been much more than a business: they are a test
of power through which Jewry (Juda) wishes to show that in this age-old
cultural center of the German spirit it has taken to itself the power.
To whom then did Vienna belong--Schnitzler or
the Nazis? Sigmund Freud or Adolf Hitler? In 1938 the former fled to
a quiet death in London while the latter entered Vienna in a triumphal
Of course productions of Reigen were
never a test of political or social power but the anti-Semites should
be thanked for finding more in Reigen than anyone else did.
Read properly, it does pack a punch. And it does speak for a sophisticated
sense of civilization that no fanatic of any persuasion can accept.
That Reigen shocks Puritans is the least of it -- and the worst
of it. The Tages-Zeitung just cited provided the standard puritanical
The aim is not the satisfaction of artistic
needs but the exploitation of the easily-aroused erotic feelings.
Note here the double error: it is assumed, first,
that a work should not arouse erotic feelings and, second, that Schnitzler's
purpose was precisely to arouse such feelings.
The truth could not be more different. Though
in principle Schnitzler would not have objected to open eroticism ("arousing
erotic feelings") Reigen happens to be a comedy, and comedy
is apt to make fun of such feelings. Schnitzler has even replaced the
sexual act, in this play, with asterisks on his page or a blackout on
his stage. (Oscar Straus, at one point, composed a pleasant Viennese
waltz to be played during this blackout.) Reigen is indeed
so serious a comedy that overserious readers, especially medical men,
have found in it a warning against "promiscuity" and unprotected sex
in a time of rampant syphilis. (Winston Churchill's father was one of
its many victims.) I might add that when I wrote Round Two
in the nineteen eighties, one serious reader said my characters seemed
to him to be passing AIDS along…
What is it that the characters in Round One
actually do? Each of them, as we say, "has sex" with two partners and
makes no full or sincere commitment to either one. To the Tages-Zeitung
that was both disgusting and titillating -- a terrifying mix. To some
critics, scholars and physicians it was dangerous to the health and
much needed the exposure which, they felt, Schnitzler's play gave it.
Two schools of thought, or pseudo-thought, are here at odds with each
other. One sees Round One as the enemy in the great war of
the age, Aryans versus Semites. The other sees it as a potential friend
and ally in the current war against syphilis. Both take any production
of the play as an urgent socio-political act, if not an act of war,
at least an act in a war.
How wrong they both were! For this play is not
propaganda of any sort; it is not even didactic. That its author, a
medical man himself, must, in 1900, have been acutely aware of the dangers
of syphilis is true but such awareness is not present in Reigen,
and the notion that he may be warning a future generation against AIDS
is absurd. As to the proto-Nazi attack in the Tages-Zeitung,
Schnitzler might have seen that coming, but it has not influenced the
text of his play. And when it came, and other troubles followed, Schnitzler
did not return the fire of the Nazis. He withdrew the play from stages
all over Europe: performances were not to be licensed for the duration
of his copyright. Thus Reigen had no presence on the European
stage until 1982.
The American stage is a different matter, for
the United States had very different copyright laws. This part of the
Reigen story begins in 1950 with a film of which the title
was a French translation of the word "Reigen": La Ronde. Initially,
the film was banned by the New York authorities, not indeed as Semitic,
but as indecent. It was a Jewish attorney who took the case all the
way to the Supreme Court and won, much to the consternation of Roman
Catholic officials who saw in Reigen as great a threat to social
stability as the Viennese Nazis had.
The film was shown, at least in art houses, all
over the United States. Did this mean that Schnitzler's work could at
last emerge as what it was, a work of art, a comedy, by a worthy contemporary
of Shaw and Wilde? It had high credentials, a cast of first rank French
actors, and a director of great talent and taste, Max Ophuls. But from
here on I must cease to tell the story from the outside and "objectively"
because I was on the inside.
I reviewed the Ophuls film in The New Republic.
Unfavorably. For though indeed this film was a breakthrough of sorts,
presenting Reigen as a work of art, and not as any kind of
propaganda or didacticism, I found it untrue to the original, not in
the spirit of the author. Schnitzler abhorred the myth of Gay Vienna
("gay" in its traditional, not its sexual, meaning), the frivolous Vienna
of Strauss waltzes in which the Danube is a mythical blue, its actual
color in Viennese territory being a dull brown. But Ophuls's film hewed
all too closely to that stereotype. It was, in every sense, too light.
Which fact enabled it to get by the Supreme Court but prevented it bringing
Schnitzler's clinical realism and rawness to the American public.
At this time, I was in touch with Schnitzler's
son Heinrich, who was Arthur's heir and handled theatrical rights. On
the Ophuls film, his opinion was the same as mine or perhaps I should
say my opinion was the same as his as he had been lecturing me about
Arthur's disbelief in Gay Vienna for years. But when I proposed to make
a new translation of the play which would be authentic Schnitzler he
did not want it to be produced but stood by his father's express wish
that it be withheld from all theaters. I would have respected Arthur's
wishes except that I learned at this time that the German text was not
protected by U.S. copyright law. I therefore assumed that if I did not
offer a translation to a theater someone else would. Arthur's wishes,
in any case, had not been a stipulation in his will, and I didn't feel
I had the same obligation to respect them as did his son and heir.
The rest is history. I made the translation and
offered it to the outstanding Off Broadway theater of the time, Circle
in the Square, "the Square" being Sheridan Square, where it was produced
by Theodore Mann and Jose Quintero. Quintero's 1955 direction of Reigen
was not only a correction of the Ophuls film. It was, in North America
at least, the first production of the play as a work of art, not more,
not less, a story the moving images of which define ten human beings,
and this not to titillate or enflame an audience, nor on the other hand
to teach them to use safe sex, but to amuse and entertain them (this
comedy is a comedy) and to present a Schnitzlerian vision of things:
in the midst of life we are in death, but in the midst of death we are
in life. Our audiences at Circle in the Square left the theater rather
sadly, I thought, though much of the time during the actual performance
they were smiling broadly or even laughing loudly. And I found myself
asking total strangers, what has this play done for you, what would
you say is its point, if any, what does it add up to, if anything? Not
all the responses I got were single words, or even one-liners. Some
had to be provided in extenso in a neighboring bar. Let me attempt to
extract the essence of the more interesting replies:
First off, the form of Reigen, the famous
daisy chain, is paradoxical: the play is centered, yet not centered,
in the sexual act. This is the play all about fucking, which is the
play about anything but fucking: the sexual act is off stage and thus
unseen, while drama consists of what you see on stage. So is Schnitzler
playing a game with us? By all means: was not a BBC-TV Schnitzler series
entitled Games of Love and Death? Death may not be prominent
in Reigen but is present in the shadows and notably in the
first scene and the last. Both the Soldier who starts the play and the
Count who finishes it are close companions of the Grim Reaper. What
is more prominent in the play is of course Love, that is, the idea or
hope (or despair) of Love. Love is on everyone's tongue but has not
reached anyone's heart.
The form of Reigen -- A in bed with
B, B with C, C with D, etcetera -- calls so much attention to itself
that people, including professional critics, have had trouble seeing
anything else and thus, in the press, we have often found Reigen
described as hardly a play at all. Did not Schnitzler himself regard
it as but a series of conversations? In a letter, he even suggested
it had no great literary pretension. The conversations are structured,
of course, being neatly arranged in twos, the first leading to orgasm,
the second away from orgasm. Which might give Schnitzler a sound claim
to originality in playwriting except that critics who know their history
will say No, this dual structure is simply a derivation from two Hogarth
paintings entitled "Before" and "After."
Myself, I am inclined to concede
that these paintings may indeed have been Schnitzler's starting point.
But they are not more than that. Hogarth portrays a single, if presumably
typical, seduction. On his canvases we catch two moments in the process
and find out nothing more about the two people involved, let alone about
a third, fourth, or fifth person in that environment. In Reigen
we are confronted with ten distinct human beings in a continuing action,
with something more than hints of their past and their future. At a
first reading or viewing, it may be that only the repetitions of this
"plot" are noticed but a second and third will reveal more and more.
One may note, for example, that while each character has two partners,
he (or she) does not have two similar partners, nor yet two partners
neatly contrasted with each other. In a character's first encounter,
you will find the seed of his (or her) second: the reason why he or
she needs or at least seeks a different kind of partner, the differences
all set forth in the dialogues. The way the upper-class Husband, for
instance, talks to his Young Wife in his first scene prepares us for
his choice of partner in his second scene: it will be a Viennese type
known as The Little Miss, a working class girl who will not take money
from the man who picks her up but will gladly give him sex in return
for dinner and drinks in a good restaurant... And such a forward thrust
also works backwards: in a character's second scene, you also recognize
the different mask he or she wore in the first scene.
So you are making a mistake if you view Reigen
as a succession of asterisks or blackouts which signify a succession
of orgasms, but you are no closer to the full truth of the matter if
you view it as a circle or carousel (i.e. movement in a circle), though
of course this metaphor is alive within the play. If the structure were
indeed circular, one would, at the end, be back at the beginning. But
one is not. The play opens with the encounter of Whore and Soldier.
The latter is the crudest character in the play, a man who has almost
totally given up his humanity. Other people exist just to provide him
with a physical release. Thus in the interplay of body and soul which
is the life of this play and the characters in it, he stands at one
extreme, and the Count in the last scene stands at the other. The Count
is so intent on proving that the soul is more real than the body that
he actually forgets he has had sex with the whore and fantasizes about
a conceivable relation, even with a whore (!), that is "romantic," i.e.
spiritual. Thus Reigen has what most commentators have denied
it: a development of plot and theme from one extremity to another.
And what gives this development its justification:
its energy and its point? It is a variation or serious parody of a standard
pattern: the development of sinners from their fleshly sins and commitments
upwards toward heaven and all things spiritual. Shades of Wagner's Tannhäuser
and a thousand lesser works! For the spirituality of the Count, though
well meant, is not authentic. He thinks he hasn't "had sex," but he
has. And when he realizes this, he can only regret that reality is less
attractive than illusion and look forward to his next talk with his
philosophical friend Lulu (Louis) who perhaps can find a form of words
that will perform a miracle...
As to the Before and After pattern, every scene
except the last (which presents the After but not the Before) does conform
to it, and thus if sexual intercourse were the goal, all the characters
could be deemed successful, even the Count whose intercourse is forgotten.
But very evidently, intercourse was not the goal, and none of them feel
successful, except possibly the Soldier of Scene One who in a cynicism
that betokens despair has abandoned not only all hope of happiness but
even the dream of it. All the others do dream of it, and speak of love
as what would produce happiness. Love in what sense? Love mostly undefined
and vague, as befits a dream. Through orgasm to love -- that is one
underlying formula -- the hope that, through orgasm, one might arrive
at love. One can of course hope for love with a less pretentious aim
in view: simple intimacy. And what the people of Vienna and Reigen
are seeking in all those beds is intimacy. Only the Soldier is
incapable of it. The others achieve it in different degrees and styles.
Even the Whore can manage a degree of it when she has a civilized partner
like the Count.
"Only connect" -- famous formula of E.M. Forster.
Sexual intercourse thinks of itself as the ultimate connection. Parental
coition gave birth to all of us, so we feel entitled to expect some
benefit from almost any bedroom encounter. We get to be disappointed.
What can be the most intimate and loving connection is often, perhaps
usually, and in Vienna 1900 always, loveless and even if very exciting
("that was terrific sex!") spiritually empty, leaving the coupling couple
strangely and negatively affected. Conversations following sex (of which
Schnitzler has here provided ten examples) define the "degrees of separation"
between the parties. They may think of themselves as sensual, even lecherous,
but actually they are people who hope that sensuality or even a mere
pretense of it and the ability to fuck will end their isolation, their
They are insulated, yes, each of them marooned
on his own little island. Arthur Schnitzler once remarked that the title
of one of his other plays would also fit Reigen. It is Der
einsame Weg, The Lonely Way.