I was going to call this attempt to read mainly theatrical works in March ‘Drama in March’, but in fact both Coward’s and Schnitzler’s plays reviewed in this post are considered comedies, although one might argue that they veer between farce and satire, with a good dose of sadness or anger as well. You’re not going to find out much about the plot of any of these, because… well, there is either too much of a plot, (too many characters and intrigues), or else nothing at all.
Arthur Schnitzler: Comedy of Seduction – Komödie der Verführung 1924
As if to really drive home the point, one of the plays even has the word ‘comedy’ in its title, just in case we might take it too seriously. Of course, given the Viennese propensity for finding darkness in even the cheeriest of subjects, it is obviously a tragicomedy, featuring betrayal, a couple of suicides and the outbreak of the First World War. Hilarious!
The action takes place between 1st of May and 1st of August 1914, and the rather large cast of characters are mostly aristocrats and wealthy bankers (or living off their family inheritance), or else artists – writers and musicians – who are moving in these circles but without having the same kind of wealth to splurge, therefore doomed to be hangers-on. As always with Schnitzler, the two main topics here are love and death, and the imminence of war turns this comedy of errors into something more profound. It starts off with a masked ball, so we instantly are transported to a Venice carnival atmosphere, or a Mozart opera of confused identities and easily switched love affairs and allegiances. There are seducers of either gender: philandering young Max, who cannot resist any woman he meets, and Aurelie, the duchess courted and coveted by most of the men in the play, but reluctant to get married to anyone.
Musil and Kafka both derided Schnitzler’s plays as being too superficial. It is true that this has all the charm and cheekiness of Watteau or Fragonard paintings, but beneath the frivolity, none of the characters are truly happy. They are all searching for something – for a connection to others, for true love, for their own identity, for something that they can’t quite articulate or find. Aurelie says at some point: ‘I fear it and yet I love it, to be alone again, between one joy and another, between one desire and another, between one death and another.’ Each of the characters ends up being terribly alone, often very sad. As for the suicidal gestures, it could be argued that it’s a metaphor for a society plunging into a large-scale form of suicide.
Schnitzler: Light Summer Air – Im Spiel der Sommerlüfte – 1929
This play is much slighter and frothier, although it was written just after his daughter’s suicide and was Schnitzler’s last finished play. The action is set a little further back in time, at the end of the 19th century, a more innocent time. It takes place over the course of two days in a holiday village in Lower Austria, a short train hop away from Vienna. A famous sculptor is holidaying here with his rather discontented wife, teenage son and his wife’s niece, an aspiring actress. The sculptor is a bit of a domestic tyrant and a serious philanderer – Schnitzler is perhaps making fun of himself here, for he certainly was not immune to the charm of actresses throughout his lifetime. There are ominous rumbles of thunder for most of the play, predicting a storm. When the storm comes, both literally and metaphorically, it gives people a momentary respite from politeness. Yet in the world depicted here, being honest and stating your true feelings are almost considered crimes. Wanting more in life and giving in to your desires in the mad heat of summer cannot lead to any lasting change. After the storm things seem to be somewhat resolved. however, any solution is only temporary or perhaps illusory. Things go back to their not entirely satisfactory everyday, and readers cannot help thinking that the naive schoolboy, the dashing young soldier, the dull but worthy young doctor will soon all end up as cannon fodder.
Noel Coward’s youthful plays Hay Fever (1925) and Easy Virtue (1926) are far less earnest. In fact, it is hard to believe they were written around the same time as Schnitzler’s plays, because they are all about escapism, with no hint at all of the war. Yet here too we have a good dose of satire. Under the veneer of charm and wealth, these are self-absorbed, privileged families who are careless about other people (even when those people are their guests). They are perfectly willing to trample on others to get their own way – or even for their own amusement. These are the utterly ruthless people that F. Scott Fitzgerald talked about in The Great Gatsby – all the more dangerous because they don’t even recognise that they are doing anything wrong. The matriarch Judith in Hay Fever, a retired actress, is so busy putting on a show for herself and others, that no one can figure out what is real anymore.
Coward was attracted by English high society, yet aware that he was never going to be fully accepted there: he was the wrong class and the wrong sexual orientation, no matter how talented and charming a social butterfly he was striving to become. In Easy Virtue in particular, he exposes the hypocrisy of a very stuffy upper middle-class family, when they find out that their beloved only son has married a glamorous American divorcée with a past (foreshadowing the affair that led to the abdication of Edward VIII, but also reminiscent of the whole current Meghan and Harry shenanigans). The fittingly-named Larita is initially bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but gradually loses her illusions and understands she will never be accepted by her husband’s family and that he isn’t strong enough to stand up for her. Larita is punished for being too open and honest, for responding to accusations and indignations in a cool, ironical way and refusing to be browbeaten.
These plays are nearly a hundred years old, but they don’t feel too dated, despite the lavish display of wealth and the servants putting up with the bad behaviour of their masters. Clearly, snobbishness, greediness, selfishness never go out of fashion!