by Arthur Schnitzler. Since this play was originally written in German (its title was Der Reigen) I’m not sure why the common English title is in French. This play, dating from 1900 and set in fin de siècle Vienna, examines the (hetero)sexual relations across social classes in ten interwoven scenes. Each scene has two sections, pre-coital/seduction and post-coital. The two are separated by a set of dashed lines. In the original production, the orchestra played a waltz, which censorious critics denounced as an attempt to arouse the audience by mimicking the rhythm of the sex act. I’m not sure how modern productions would negotiate the passage of time — possibly with a light cue.
Each scene is played by two actors, a man and a woman, and they form a chain, so that the first scene is between the Prostitute and the Soldier, the next between the Soldier and the Maid, the third between the Maid and the Young Gentleman, and so on. The scenes work their way though the social layers until we have the Actress and the Count, followed by the Count and the Prostitute again, so that we go full circle. The characters have names, but the script names them by their position, which suggests something of the social commentary of the play. I find that the overwhelming message is that people are cruel and maniupulative in their pursuit of sex, regardless of gender, although men are implicated more than women.
It is important to note that this is not a play about sexually transmitted disease, and I think any attempt to direct it as such would be doomed to heavy-handed soapboxing. Instead, we are treated to some true awkward situations — once the passion wears off, where are we left? He realizes it would never work out, she realizes nothing can be gained from him, and they part ways with insincere promises to see each other again.
There is a modernization of the play by David Hare called The Blue Room, which is meant to be played by two actors doing all the roles (originally starring Nicole Kidman). I haven’t read it, but I think it could be interesting. Schnitzler, shocked by the negative reaction the play received in Vienna, wrote that he hoped it would never be performed again. Of course, he also wrote that it was not a play to be performed in its own time, but rather could serve as a window into the social life of Vienna a hundred years later. So here we are, 100 years later, and it does provide an interesting window to the past.
The play’s main strength and weakness is its rigid structure. Each scene is quite nice in and of itself, but the play’s message might be too simplistic when all the scenes are put together. It would take a deft director to make this work without making the audience hate itself, go into denial, and turn its brain off. The writing is too charming, funny, and true to allow that to happen.