On 7th January 1897, Arthur Schnitzler wrote a letter to the literary critic and theatre director Otto Brahm stressing that he had never composed something so unperformable than his actual work that initially carried the title Liebesreigen and was later abbreviated to Reigen (Hands Around). Brahm soon replied with the verdict that Hands Around was not even meant for printing. The latter proved to be true for the German literary world for more than three decades due to censorship. Only in 1931, Schnitzler’s German publisher Samuel Fischer agreed to make the play, a text that had become if not a popular, yet an infamous object for parody, fully accessible to the German public. Austrian readers officially had the text at hand in 1903 as censorship was less strict in Austria at the time. Nevertheless, the text soon caught the attention and fierce opposition of the authorities in Austria.
The performance of Hands Around provoked even more drastically reactions and critical responses, reaching from legal bans to bursting violence and anti-Semitic attacks against Schnitzler, than the printed version of Schnitzler’s play. There is, arguably, no other dramatic work that shares a similar fate with Arthur Schnitzler’s Hands Around. Its first performance took place in 1920 at Berlin’s Kleine Schauspielhaus, even though it was officially banned. One year later, this circle of scenes that unearths main features of the human psyche, was staged in Vienna, interrupted by the so-called ‘Reigen scandal’. Reactions and misconceptions of the play were so radical and severe that Schnitzler himself decided to prohibit its performance in 1922. Only thirty years ago, the ban to perform the play was lifted.
The history around Schnitzler’s ten amorous dialogues is far more dramatic than the plot of the play itself. In a way, its dramatis personae seem to reject drama and tragedy completely. The play is set in Vienna’s society of the 1890s. Sexual encounters and a dialogue, if not language more generally, travel through the different layers of society. At first glance, contradictions of word and body criticise the specious ideology of love and marriage that is prospering in Viennese society. Paradoxically speaking, the play is “repeating the unrepeatable” (Richard Alewyn). If Schnitzler’s Hands Around was an opera lines like “Tell me, do you love me?” and “Have you ever loved anyone as much as me?” would form the refrain of every encounter – encounters between the whore and the soldier, the soldier and the parlour maid, the parlour maid and the young gentleman continuing up to the count who finally pairs up with the whore again. Thus, the ten scenes of the play are closely intertwined with each other. After every encounter, one partner of the lovers is replaced by his or her next sweetheart.
The play reaches far beyond criticising the mechanical repetition of norms though. Consequently, the adaption presented by the international theatre company [Foreign Affairs] removes the story line of Schnitzler’s Hands Around from time to reveal deeper layers of the text. It takes the play out of its historical and political setting. This draws attention to the dramatic structure of the play, its poetic process and, above all, the actors’ behaviour. The show A Night of Affairs – What do you really know about the person you’re sleeping with? is directed by Trine Garrett and Camila França who are closely working with the Meisner technique. The American actor and co-founder of Group Theater Sanford Meisner developed an acting technique that focuses on an actor’s impulses, intuition and emotions rather than working through his or her mind.
One of the most important exercises composed by Meisner is called Repetition exercise. Two actors are forced into the moment to act truthfully by observing themselves and reacting to their partner’s actions and emotions. In this way, the acting technique not only coincides with one of the main topics of the play, but also is a truly Schnitzlerean approach. The adaption is based on a creative process that corresponds to the way Arthur Schnitzler, who was both dramatist and medical practitioner, worked himself. It was Sigmund Freud who wrote in an admiring letter to Schnitzler: “So habe ich den Eindruck gewonnen, daß Sie durch Intuition – eigentlich aber in Folge feiner Selbstwahrnehmung – alles das wissen, was ich in mühseliger Arbeit an anderen Menschen aufgedeckt habe.” (“I have gained the impression that you have learned through intuition – though actually as a result of sensitive introspection – everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons.” (Sigmund Freud, Briefe 1873-1939, ed. by Ernst L. Freud, (Frankfurt/M: S. Fischer Verlag, 1960), p. 249f))
Moreover, the production aims not to judge its characters. Similar to Thomas Arslan’s film Der schöne Tag (A fine day), the show does not provide a psychological analysis of a character or patterns of interpretation but focuses on the person. This, effectively, endows every spectator with more freedom. At the same time, it gives the audience more to do. A Night of Affairs, presenting a web of sexual affairs, does not convey an overall message. The spectator becomes part of the ongoing dialogue on stage. At least, when he notices that what is universal in humanity, his own condition, forms the centre of affairs and is staged by the cast.
The adaptation, intertwined with pieces from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, music by the Sunwrae Ensemble and a choreography by Erica Chestnut, does not lack the paradoxical. Repeating sexual encounters ten times in different constellations and social settings, the production is set up to be a sensational one-night stand that lives up to the moment.
A Night of Affairs will be presented on 23rd August 2012 at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, at 8pm.