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Theater Symptoms by Robert Musil: An Excerpt from the Preface

By Genese Grill.

Robert Musil, Theater Symptoms, translated by Genese Grill (Contra Mundum Press, 2020)

Robert Musil’s plays and writings on drama bring us closer to Musil, the man, living in his particular milieu and time. When he throws his hat into the ring of the Viennese theater world with his two extraordinary plays, The Utopians, and Vinzenz and the Mistress of Important Men, he is participating in the melee in a way that seems almost uncharacteristic for our picture of the aloof, self-exiled, and eventually politically-exiled and serious author of The Man Without Qualities. When we read his witty and sardonic reviews of contemporary theater productions, we feel his excitement, his irritation, his frustration, and his competitive edge. We share his despair over the scarcity of meaningful and transformative art and are surprised by his utopian visions for a way forward.

Musil’s plays, theater reviews, and writings on theater were written between 1921 and 1929. Musil, whom we think of as quintessentially Viennese, was born in Klagenfurt, in what was then Austro-Hungary; he had grown up in Brno (now a city in the Czech Republic) and had studied (philosophy, psychology, mathematics, and physics) in Berlin. Although the Austrian empire had been dismantled at the end of World War I, creating separate Bohemian states, their inter-relationships were still strong, as evidenced by the fact that Musil wrote theater reviews about Viennese productions (sometimes starring or directed by Hungarians or Czechs) for two newspapers in Prague.

Musil’s successful 1906 debut, The Confusions of Young Törleβ, had been followed by his more experimental collection, Unions (1911). In the same year, he married Martha Marcovaldi, a widow and divorcée and the mother of two children, beginning a relationship that would be a prime support and inspiration for his literary work for three decades. In 1914, before participating in World War I as a soldier and also editor of the army newspaper, Musil had been a reviewer for Der Neue Rundschau in Berlin, introducing the reading public to Franz Kafka and Robert Walser. Ideas for his novel, The Man Without Qualities, were already proliferating in notes and drafts and related fiction projects at the same time as he was writing The Utopians (from 1908–1921). Even after the publication of the first part of the novel in 1930, Musil considered the play his major work. In 1924, he published his collection of stories, Three Women.

But in 1921 he is 41 years old. He is a critic of the feuilleton writers — those witty, casual, elegant scribblers who fill the pages of the Viennese newspapers. And he is one of them himself. The first volume of his great novel would not appear for 9 more years. He is struggling to make a living, to prove himself as a writer, to find his place among or above the throng; he is both inside and outside his era.

In these writings, we see the innovations of the time through his own eyes, as if we were seeing them ourselves: Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater, the Yiddish troupes, the Jessner staircase and other Expressionist innovations in stage design. We experience the stirring atmosphere of Weimar Berlin and the burgeoning Viennese café society, with its dilletantes, playwrights, positivists, sexologists, anthropologists, musicologists, con-artists, and nymphomaniacs. Its bohemians and its Bohemians. We sense the fallout of Russian revolutionary activity — exiled aristocracy and the foreshadowing of bloody, internecine party struggles; hear the grumbling agitation of the workers’ movements and the rattling of militaristic sabers. We even glimpse the “young people of Christian-Aryan worldview” who break up a controversial production of Schnitzler’s La Ronde, with “Nibelungen-brass-knuckle-rings in their pockets.”[1]

We sense the still-echoing shocks of World War I — palpable in the wounded bodies of soldiers, in the shattered idealism of a generation. We take the temperature of the encroachment of advertising, the cinema, and the commodification of the “culture industry.” Psychoanalysis, Relativity, the “New Woman,” jazz music, “Primitivism,” Cubism, Dada, and Cabaret are all here — some strands initiated before the war and some after — seen through Musil’s exceptionally clear eyes.

And since this is a moment in between, when many of the personages, cultural artifacts, and ideas of the old world still linger, as relics and ghosts of the pre-war period, we see Musil looking backward too, trying to understand what happened to art, to education, to society, and why; trying to salvage what is precious and to re-evaluate those values that no longer serve.

This is a pregnant moment. About to give birth to horrors. All the people who animate the reviews will have their lives turned upside down in what seems like the blink of an eye. Many, who in Musil’s reviews exhibit extraordinary verve and spirit, will perish in concentration camps in the next decade. Others, like Musil himself, will go into exile and find their creative and personal lives in shambles. Others still will collaborate with Nazism or with the Communist totalitarian regime.

Musil is advocating in these writings for an intellectual and emotional aliveness, a freedom and openness — in artistic and ethical experimentation — which the coming era would brutally crush. Perhaps we are at the juncture of a similar moment even now. Hopefully not. May his words, in any case, written with such urgency and passion on the eve of catastrophe, remind us of the important role of art as irreducible aesthetic and ethical experience.

[1] Theater Symptoms, 83.


Photo credit Suzanne Levine

Genese Grill is a writer, translator, scholar, and artist. Her latest translation of Robert Musil’s writing, Theater Symptoms: Plays and Writings on Drama, will be published by Contra Mundum Press on December 8th. She is the author previously of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s “The Man without Qualities”: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012) and translator of two other collections of Musil’s writing, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015) and Unions (Contra Mundum, 2018). Her literary essays, translator introductions, and scholarly writing have appeared in The Georgia Review, Numero Cinq, Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics, The Missouri Review, The Rupture, On the Seawall, and elsewhere. She was the winner of the 2015 Edward J. Smith Editor’s Award for Non-fiction and a MacDowell Fellow. She lives in an 1840’s farmhouse in rural Vermont, where she is trying to write a novel about anachronistic aesthetes and ecological anarchists.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 30th, 2020.