Franz Grillparzer

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Franz Grillparzer

Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872) is generally considered to be Austria's greatest playwright. His plays are well-written dramas of sentiment and psychological conflict, which often express a resigned attitude toward the problems of life.

At the beginning of the 19th century Austrian literature was not very far advanced in comparison with the literature of northern and western Germany. This may be attributed in part to the strictness of state censorship and a reluctance to support or encourage talented writers. Whatever the reasons, Austrian literature had remained largely unaffected by such developments as the Enlightenment or philosophical romanticism. The Austrian stage tended toward popular farces or old-fashioned bombastic tragedies. Although Franz Grillparzer was not without some talented predecessors in the Austrian drama, he was the first Austrian playwright fully to assimilate contemporaneous developments in German literature and to write plays equal to those being written in Germany itself.

Grillparzer was born in Vienna on Jan. 15, 1791. His father was an unsuccessful lawyer whose fortunes were ruined by Napoleon's invasion, and his mother came from the Viennese upper bourgeoisie. Franz studied law at the University of Vienna from 1807 to 1811. He became a government official in 1813 and eventually became imperial librarian. He was to remain in the state employment throughout his literary career, a fact which complicated his relationship to the government censors.

Grillparzer is said to have been generally unimpressive in personality and appearance. His quiet manner, however, served to conceal a number of inner conflicts, some of which were thought to originate in a disinclination to assert his will. His customary response to serious problems in life was generally an attitude of submission or resignation, rather than any decision to challenge the situation.

Career as a Dramatist

The theme of moral helplessness and the necessity for submission to fate can be noted in Grillparzer's first successful drama, Die Ahnfrau (1817; The Ancestress). He had earlier written a derivative tragedy, Blanka von Kastilien, which had never been staged, but the first performance of his Ahnfrau produced an immediate success. The "Ancestress" is a castle ghost who represents a curse on the Borotin family. Jaromir (who, unknown even to himself, is the son of old Count Borotin) returns to the family castle as an outlaw, kills his father, commits incest with his sister, and brings about her death and his own. In the end the curse is thus fulfilled, but it is also terminated with the extinction of the family, and the spirit of the Ancestress is permitted to rest at last. The dominant theme of the play is the helplessness of individuals before the evil forces of destiny. Although it was strongly influenced by the German Schicksalstragödie (fate-tragedy) of Zacharias Werner and his followers, the general effect of Grillparzer's play is one of freshness and originality.

Following his initial success, Grillparzer wrote Sappho (1818), which concerns the Greek poetess's renunciation of human love, and the ambitious trilogy, Das goldne Vliess (1820; The Golden Fleece). This trilogy retells the Greek story of Jason, who voyages to Colchis and returns with both the magical golden fleece and the barbarian queen, Medea. Medea proves socially unacceptable in Greece, however, and Jason is finally estranged from her. But Medea avenges herself by burning down the palace where she is staying and killing her children to spite their father. In the concluding scene she lectures Jason on the futility of human life. Like many of Grillparzer's works, this trilogy reflects the author's attitude of helplessness toward fate.

Grillparzer's success led to his appointment as court dramatist. His next play, however, which dealt with sensitive matters of Austrian history, created difficulties with the censors. König Ottokars Glück und Ende (King Ottokar's Fortune and End) was finally performed in 1825. Ottokar, the medieval king of Bohemia, had dreams of great conquests but was finally undone by destiny and Rudolf von Hapsburg, founder of the Austrian imperial dynasty. Ottokar is shown as a Napoleonic character whose pride is the ultimate cause of his fall.

In 1826 Grillparzer traveled to Germany, where he met the poet J. W. von Goethe in Weimar. On returning to Vienna he continued to write plays, of which the most important are Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (1831; The Waves of Love and the Sea), a retelling of the classical love story of Hero and Leander, and Der Traum ein Leben (1834, The Dream as a Life), inspired by the Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderón. An ambitious young man has a dream in which hollow success is followed by disaster, and this persuades him to stay at home. In the conclusion he declares: "There is only one happiness in this life, calm inner peace and a heart free of guilt. Greatness is dangerous, and fame is an empty play."

Later Years

Grillparzer's last play to be performed was the comedy Weh dem, der lügt (1838; Woe to Him Who Lies). Although now recognized as a good play, it was then a complete failure. Embittered, the author withdrew from the scene as an active playwright. In his remaining years he wrote only three plays, which were not published until after his death. One of these, Libussa, was a mythical drama about the founding of Prague. Other literary works of his later life are two short stories and essays in dramatic theory and criticism, especially on the Spanish theater. Throughout his life Grillparzer also composed several volumes of lyric poetry.

The final years of Grillparzer's life remained outwardly uneventful. Although long engaged, he never married. He traveled to Greece in 1843 and revisited Germany in 1847. He remained a librarian until 1856, when he was retired on a pension. Toward the end of his life he gained some measure of recognition as a major dramatist. He died in Vienna on Jan. 21, 1872.

Further Reading

The best general study of Grillparzer is Douglas Yates, Franz Grillparzer: A Critical Biography (1946). Edward John Williamson, Grillparzer's Attitude towards Romanticism (1910), places him in the context of intellectual history, while Gustav Pollak, Franz Grillparzer and the Austrian Drama (1907), views him against the background of his national literary traditions. A more specialized study, concentrating on Libussa, is Gisela Stein, The Inspiration Motif in the Works of Franz Grillparzer (1955). An interesting experiment in comparative literature is Norbert Fuerst, The Victorian Age of German Literature: Eight Essays (1966), which compares Grillparzer's period with the English literature of his time.

Additional Sources

Fink, Humbert, Franz Grillparzer, Innsbruck: Pinguin, 1990. □

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Austrian dramatist; b. Vienna, Jan. 15, 1791; d. there, Jan. 21, 1872. Grillparzer studied law at the University of Vienna, and during that time he wrote his first drama, Blanka von Kastilien (180709). He entered civil service (1813), advanced to the directorship of the imperial archives (1832), and was pensioned in 1856. Although many circumstances in Grillparzer's life (official displeasure over his historical plays, for example) gave reason for his persistent melancholy, much of Grillparzer's suffering was self-caused by his hypochondria and fear of involvement in life. Die Ahnfrau (1817), a fate tragedy, made Grillparzer famous, but his first great drama was Sappho (1818). Written in classical Goethean style, it states clearly the thesis that the poet must be "un-committed." Even in such "thesis" plays, however, Grillparzer was fascinated by psychological nuances. If this interest weakened his thesis, it helped shape him into a very modern poet; his plays mark the beginning of the psychological drama in Austria and fully support his reputation as one of the greatest of the Austrian playwrights.

Das goldene Vliess (1821), a powerful trilogy, treats a theme of which Grillparzer never tiredthat man upsets not only his own inner equilibrium but that of his environment when he aspires to a status that is not his due. This anti-Faust, quietistic attitude is portrayed quite clearly in Der Traum ein Leben (1834). Two tragedies, König Ottokars Glück und Ende (1826) and Ein treuer Diener seines Herrn (1826), based on Austrian history, provoked governmental censorship. In Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (1831), a dramatization of the Hero and Leander love tragedy, Grillparzer's dramatic style reached its high point. Weh dem, der lügt (1838) was Grillparzer's only comedy. Its failure when produced caused him to withdraw from play-writing.

After his death, his three greatest works were found among his papers: Libussa, Ein Bruderzwist in Habsburg, and Die Jüdin von Toledo. Bruderzwist is a historical drama; in it Rudolf II (15521612) attempts to preserve

the Habsburg Empire through highly conservative politics, a policy of inaction. The effect of his failure, telescoped magnificently in the fifth act, is the chaos of the Thirty Years' War. Grillparzer's best prose piece is Der arme Spielmann (1847).

Bibliography: Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. a. sauer et al. (Vienna 1909), 43 v. to date; Sämtliche Werke: Ausgewählte Briefe, Gespräche, Berichte, ed. p. frank and c. pÖrnbacher, 4 v. (Munich 1960). Trans. a. burkhard of Medea (3d ed. Yarmouth Port, Mass. 1956); King Ottocar: His Rise and Fall (1962); and Hero and Leander (1962). j. nadler, Franz Grillparzer (Vaduz 1948). a. burkhard, Franz Grillparzer in England and America (pa. New York 1961). c. d. bernd, ed., Franz Grillparzer's "Der arme spielmann" (Camden East 1988). c. h. munschen, Franz Grillparzer (Regensburg 1960). w. c. reeve, The Federfuchser and Penpusher from Lessing to Grillparzer: A Study Focused on Grillparzer's "Ein Bruderzwist in Habsburg" (Montreal 1995). i. f. roe, Franz Grillparzer: A Century of Criticism (Camden East 1995). e. wagner, An Analysis of Franz Grillparzer's Dramas: Fate, Guilt, and Tragedy (Lewiston 1992).

[c. b. giordano]

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Franz Grillparzer (fränts grĬl´pärtsər), 1791–1872, Austrian dramatist. His work combines German classicism and exuberant lyricism. Considered Austria's greatest playwright, he wrote Der Traum: ein Leben (1817–34, tr. A Dream is Life, 1946), which influenced Hauptmann and Maeterlinck; a trilogy, Das goldene Vliess (1822, tr. The Guest-Friend, The Argonauts, Medea, 1942); the historical tragedy König Ottokars Glück und Ende (1825, tr. King Ottocar, His Rise and Fall, 1938); the lyric tragedy Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (1831, tr. Hero and Leander, 1938); Libussa (1844, tr. 1941); and Die Jüdin von Toledo (1855, tr. The Jewess of Toledo, 1953). Grillparzer was also a master of lyric poetry and prose. His finely wrought novella, Der arme Spielmann (1844, tr. The Poor Minstrel, 1915) contains autobiographical elements.

See studies by F. E. Coenen (1951), G. A. Wells (1969), and W. E. Yates (1972).