Franz Seraphicus Grillparzer (January 15, 1791 – January 21, 1872) was an Austrian dramatist whose tragedies were belatedly recognized as some of the finest plays in the tradition of the Austrian theater. While writing during the period of Romanticism, Grillparzer's poetic language owes far more to the period of classicism which reigned during his formative years. Committed to the classical ideals of aesthetic beauty and morality, his plots shy away from the realism which developed during his time, preferring instead to use the theater to address spiritual values, which in the words of the dying queen of his Libussa, would only come after the period of materialism had passed.
Grillparzer stands on the cusp of the new age of realism, in which reforming society would replace moral and aesthetic beauty as the focus of literary efforts; but he recoils, unwilling to trade moral perfection for social improvement. In the end, realism would win out, but Grillparzer's objections would also be vindicated, as materialism would prove to be a weak foundation for real social transformation.
Grillparzer was born in Vienna. His father, severe, pedantic, a staunch upholder of the liberal traditions of the reign of Joseph II, was an advocate of some standing; his mother, a nervous, finely-strung woman, belonged to the well-known musical family of Sonnleithner. After a desultory education, Grillparzer entered in 1807 the University of Vienna as a student of jurisprudence; but two years later his father died, leaving the family in straitened circumstances, and Franz, the eldest son, was obliged to turn to private tutoring. In 1813, he received an appointment in the court library, but as this was unpaid, he accepted after some months a clerkship that offered more solid prospects, in the Lower Austrian revenue administration. Through the influence of Count Johann Philipp von Stadion, the minister of finance, he was in 1818 appointed poet to the Hofburgtheater, and promoted to the Hofkammer (exchequer); in 1832 he became director of the archives of that department, and in 1856 retired, from the civil service with the title of Hofrat. Grillparzer had little capacity for an official career and regarded his office merely as a means of independence.
In 1817, the first staging of his tragedy Die Ahnfrau made him famous. Prior to this he had written a long tragedy in iambics, Blanca von Castilien (1807-1809), which was obviously modelled on Schiller's Don Carlos', and even more promising dramatic fragments, Spartacus and Alfred der Grosse (Alfred the Great 1809). Die Ahnfrau is a gruesome fate-tragedy in the trochaic measure of the Spanish drama, already made popular by Adolf Müllner in his Schuld; but Grillparzer's work is a play of real poetic beauties, and reveals an instinct for dramatic as opposed to merely theatrical effect, which distinguishes it from other fate-dramas of the day. The characters themselves prove their own undoing, demonstrating Grillparzer's talent for character development. Unfortunately, its success led him to be classified for the best part of his life with playwrights like Müllner and Houwald, whose talents his work clearly exceeded. Die Ahnfrau was followed by Sappho (1818), a drama of a very different type; in the classic spirit of Goethe's Tasso, Grillparzer laid bare the tragedy of poetic genius, as Sappho is unable to reconcile the demands of love and art, renouncing earthly happiness due to the demands imposed upon the poet by a higher calling.
In 1821, Das goldene Vlies (Golden Fleece) finished his trilogy which had been interrupted in 1819 by the death of the poet's mother. In a fit of depression, she took her own life. Opening with a powerful dramatic prelude in one act, Der Gastfreund, Grillparzer depicts in Die Argonauten Jason's adventures in his quest for the Fleece; while Medea, a tragedy of noble classic proportions, contains the culminating events of the story which had been so often dramatized before. The theme is similar to that of Sappho, but the scale on which it is represented is larger; it is again the tragedy of human desire, the conflict of the simple happy life with that sinister power, whether genius or ambition, which upsets the equilibrium and harmony of life. The end is bitter disillusionment, and the only consolation is renunciation. Medea, her revenge stilled, her children dead, bears the fatal Fleece back to Delphi, while Jason is left to realize the nothingness of human striving and earthly happiness.
For his historical tragedy König Ottokars Glück und Ende (1823, which owing to difficulties with the censor was not performed until February 19, 1825), Grillparzer chose one of the most picturesque events in Austrian domestic history, the conflict of Otakar II of Bohemia with Rudolph of Habsburg. With an almost modern realism he reproduced the motley world of the old chronicler, while never losing sight of the needs of the theater. The fall of Ottokar is but another text from which the poet preached the futility of endeavor and the vanity of worldly greatness. Written after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars and the fall of the Emporer, Grillparzer uses the historical king to reflect on current events, couching Napoleon's demise in apocalyptic terms.
A second historical tragedy, Ein treuer Diener seines Herrn (1826, first performed in 1828), attempted to embody a more heroic gospel; but the subject of the superhuman self-effacement of Bankbanus before Duke Otto of Meran proved too uncompromising an illustration of Kant's categorical imperative of moral duty to be palatable in the theater.
The period of these historical tragedies also proved to be the darkest ten years in the poet's life. They brought him into conflict with the Austrian censor—a conflict which grated on Grillparzer's sensitive soul, aggravated by his own position as a servant of the state. In 1826, he paid a visit to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Weimar, comparing the enlightened conditions which prevailed in the little Saxon duchy with the intellectual thraldom of Vienna.
To these troubles were added more serious personal worries. In the winter of 1820-1821, he had met for the first time Katharina Fröhlich (1801-1879), and the acquaintance rapidly ripened into love on both sides; but whether owing to a presentiment of mutual incompatibility, or merely owing to Grillparzer's conviction that life had no happiness in store for him, he shrank from marriage. Whatever the cause may have been, the poet was plunged into an abyss of misery and despair to which his diary bears heartrending witness; his sufferings found poetic expression in the fine cycle of poems bearing the significant title Tristia ex Ponto (1835).
These years saw the completion of two of Grillparzer's greatest dramas, Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (1831) and Der Traum, ein Leben (1834). In the former tragedy, a dramatization of the story of Hero and Leander, he returned to the Hellenic world of Sappho, and produced what is perhaps the finest of all German love-tragedies. His mastery of dramatic technique is here combined with a ripeness of poetic expression and with an insight into motive which suggests the modern psychological drama of Hebbel and Henrik Ibsen; the old Greek love-story of Musaeus is, moreover, endowed with something of that ineffable poetic grace which the poet had borrowed from the great Spanish poets, Lope de Vega and Calderón. Der Traum, ein Leben, Grillparzer's technical masterpiece, is in form perhaps even more indebted to Spanish drama; it is also more of what Goethe called a confession. The aspirations of Rustan, an ambitious young peasant, are shadowed forth in the hero's dream, which takes up nearly three acts of the play; ultimately Rustan awakens from his nightmare to realize the truth of Grillparzer's own pessimistic doctrine that all earthly ambitions and aspirations are vanity; the only true happiness is contentment with one's lot and inner peace.
Der Traum, ein Leben was the first of Grillparzer's dramas which did not end tragically, and in 1838 he produced his only comedy, Weh dem, der lügt. But Weh dem, der lügt, in spite of its humor of situation, its sparkling dialogue and the originality of its idea, proved unsuccessful with the public. The premise, in which the hero gains his end by invariably telling the truth, while his enemies as invariably expect him to be lying, was too strange to meet with approval in its day. Its premiere on March 6, 1838 was a failure. This was a severe blow to the poet, who turned his back forever on the German theater.
In 1836, Grillparzer paid a visit to Paris and London, in 1843 to Athens and Constantinople. Then came the Revolution of 1848 which struck off the intellectual fetters under which Grillparzer and his contemporaries had groaned in Austria, but the liberation came too late for him. Honors were heaped upon him; he was made a member of the Academy of Sciences; Heinrich Laube, as director of the Burgtheater, reinstated his plays on the repertory; in 1861, he was elected to the Austrian Herrenhaus; his eightieth birthday was a national festival, and when he died in Vienna, on the January 21, 1872, the mourning of the Austrian people was universal. With the exception of a beautiful fragment, Esther (1861), Grillparzer published no more dramatic poetry after the fiasco of Weh dem, der lügt, but at his death three completed tragedies were found among his papers. Of these, Die Jüdin von Toledo, an admirable adaptation from the Spanish, has won a permanent place in the German classical repertory; Ein Bruderzwist in Habsburg is a powerful historical tragedy and Libussa, the mythical ancestor of the Czech people, is perhaps the most mature, as it is certainly the deepest, of all Grillparzer's dramas; the latter two plays prove how much was lost due to the poet's divorce from the theater.
Grillparzer was an important figure in the Viennese theater of the 1840s when his greatest dramatic works were produced. Together with Hebbel, he rates as the most influential dramatist of the mid-nineteenth century. While most of his best plays originate in the age of Romanticism, his works could not be classified as Romantic. His language and characters reflect the earlier sensibilities of neo-classicism, exhibited in plays like Sappho and Das goldene Vlies which treats the subject matter of Jason bringing Medea back to Greece. In these plays he deals with classical themes as well as subject matter. One important characteristic of the age is that aethetic beauty and virtue are seen as inter-related. In his historical plays like König Ottokars Glück und Ende, he expresses the Enlightenment optimism that humankind can put its affairs in order and realize an age of peace an harmony. This is a common theme in Austrian thought from this period. Some have suggested that this is a reflection of their multi-ethnic Austrian state. Ottkar, the thirteenth century Bohemian King, wants to subjugate his neighbors, a thinly veiled reference to the recently defeated Napoleon. However, the play ends on an upbeat note.
Although Grillparzer was essentially a dramatist, his lyric poetry is in the intensity of its personal note hardly inferior to Lenau's; and the bitterness of his later years found vent in biting and stinging epigrams that spared few of his greater contemporaries. As a prose writer, he has left one powerful short story, Der arme Spielmann (1848), and a volume of critical studies on the Spanish drama, which shows how completely he had succeeded in identifying himself with the Spanish point of view.
Grillparzer's brooding, unbalanced temperament, his lack of will-power, his pessimistic renunciation and the bitterness which his self-imposed martyrdom produced in him, made him peculiarly adapted to express the mood of Austria in the epoch of intellectual thraldom that lay between the Napoleonic wars and the Revolution of 1848; his poetry reflects exactly the spirit of his people under the Metternich regime, and there is a deep truth behind the description of Der Traum, ein Leben as the Austrian Faust. His fame was in accordance with the general tenor of his life; even in Austria a true understanding for his genius was late in coming, and not until the centenary of 1891 did the German-speaking world realize that it possessed in him a dramatic poet of the first rank. Grillparzer was no mere Epigone of the classic period, but a poet who, by a rare assimilation of the strength of the Greeks, the imaginative depth of German classicism and the delicacy and grace of the Spaniards, had opened up new paths for the higher dramatic poetry of Europe.
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