Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Franz Grillparzer
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|Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi→|
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GRILLPARZER, Franz (1791-1872), a distinguished German dramatist, was born in Vienna on the 15th January 1791. His father, a respectable advocate, destined him for his own profession ; but on the conclusion of his legal studies, in 1811, Grillparzer became a tutor in a noble family, and two years afterwards accepted a subordinate post in the civil service. He rose slowly in his profession, but in 1833 was made director of the archives in the court chamber (Hofkammer). He retired in 1856, receiving the title of Hofrath, a title which was replaced in 1861 by the higher one of Reichsrath. In 1847 he was made a member of the Academy of Sciences. From early youth he displayed a strong literary impulse. He devoted especial attention to the Spanish drama, and nearly all his writings bear marks of the influence of Calderon. When he began to write, the German stage was dominated by the wild plays of Werner, Müllner, and other authors of the so-called “ fate-tragedies.” His first play, Die Ahnfrau (The Ancestress), published in 1816, was penetrated by their spirit. A lady, who has been slain by her husband for infidelity, is doomed to visit “ the glimpses of the moon” till her house is extinguished, and this end is reached in the tragedy amid scenes of violence and horror. Some of Grillparzer's admirers draw a sharp distinction between this play and the works with which it is usually classed, and in doing so they follow his own example. But its general character is exactly similar to that of Werner's dramas ; it only differs from them in containing individual passages of much force and beauty. It at once became extremely popular, and Grillparzer was encouraged to write a second tragedy, Sappho (1819), the most artistically finished of his productions. An Italian rendering of this play fell into the hands of Lord Byron, who, although the translation was very bad, expressed his conviction that the author's name would be held in reverence by posterity. It is full of the aspiration of the Romantic school, but its form is classic, and its chastened style presents a striking contrast to the noise and fury of the Ahnfrau. The problem of the play has some resemblance to that of Goethe's Torquato Tasso, for in both we find the struggles of a poetic nature which is unable to reconcile itself to the conditions of the actual world. Grillparzer's conceptions are not so clearly defined as Goethe's, nor is his diction so varied and harmonious ; but the play has the stamp of genius, and ranks as one of the best of those works in which an attempt has been made to combine the passion and sentiment of modern life with the simplicity and grace of ancient masterpieces. Another and more ambitious work in the classic style was Das goldene Vlies (The Golden Fleece), a trilogy published in 1822. Of its three parts the greatest is Medea, which some critics consider his highest achievement. There is delicate art in the delineation of the mingled fascination and repulsion which Medea and Jason feel for each other, and when at last repulsion becomes the dominant force, the dramatist gives splendid utterance to the rage of the disappointed wife and mother. In Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (Waves of the Sea and of Love), which appeared in 1840, Grillparzer again formed his work on classic models ; but in this instance his feeling is so distinctly modern that it does not find adequate expression in his carefully measured verse. The subject is the story of Hero and Leander, and it has never been more happily treated than in some passages, which, however, are marked rather by lyrical than dramatic qualities.
In 1825 Grillparzer published König Ottokar's Glück und Ende (King Ottocar's Fortune and End). It appealed strongly to the patriotic sympathies of Vienna, dealing as it does with one of the proudest periods of Austrian history,—the time of Rudolf I., the founder of the house of Hapsburg. In a harsh criticism of Grillparzer, which appeared in the Foreign Review in 1829, and is now included in his Miscellanies, Mr Carlyle said that Schiller's Piccolomini differed from Ottokar as “ a living rose [differs] from a mass of dead rose leaves, or even of broken Italian gumflowers.” This judgment has not been confirmed by later criticism. It cannot, indeed, be said that the materials of the play are welded into a compact whole, but the characters are vigorously conceived, and there is a fine dramatic contrast between the brilliant, restless, and unscrupulous Ottocar and the calm, upright, and ultimately triumphant Rudolf. Another historical play, Ein treuer Diener seines Herrn (A faithful Servant of his Lord), appeared in 1830, and brought down upon the author a storm of abuse from the liberals, who accused him of servility. On the other hand, the play displeased the court, and its representation was stopped. It hardly deserved to be made the subject of so much contention, for it is one of the least powerful of Grillparzer's later dramas. A more pleasing work was the dramatic study Der Traum, ein Leben (The Dream, a Life), which is to some extent a direct imitation of Calderon, and has something of his brilliance and charm. In the same year in which this was issued (1840) Grillparzer published Wehe dem der lügt (Woe to him who Lies), a comedy. It was so badly received that he wrote no more for the stage. Several dramatic fragments, however, composed at a later time, appeared among his posthumous writings.
Grillparzer was a lyrical as well as a dramatic poet. He used to say that all his lyrics were written for the purpose of obtaining relief from feelings by which he happened to be oppressed. The same thing was said of himself by Goethe ; but Goethe's emotion in passing into verse was purified and generalized ; Grillparzer's remained for the most part strictly personal, and rarely touches the deepest sympathies. He is more successful in epigram, in which he often gives sharp expression to a keen, biting humour. He wrote also several prose tales, one of which, Der Spielmann (The Musician), is marked by delicate and graceful fancy. His autobiography, which was written in 1853 and brings down the narrative of his life to 1836, is a model of clear, simple, and elegant prose ; and it throws much interesting light both on his personal character and on the tendencies of his time. Among his posthumous writings are many fragments of literary, philosophic, and political criticism, all of them indicating a strong and independent spirit, not invariably just, but distinct, penetrating, and suggestive. It is characteristic of him that he expresses extreme dislike of Hegel's philosophy on the ground that its terms are unintelligible. On the other hand, he gives evidence of careful and sympathetic study of Kant. Of modern literary critics Gervinus was most repugnant to him, mainly because of the tendency of this writer to attribute moral aims to authors who created solely for art's sake. He rather maliciously says that Gervinus had one advantage and one disadvantage in writing his history of German Literature,—the advantage of common sense, the disadvantage of knowing nothing of his subject.
Of a quiet contemplative nature, Grillparzer shunned general society. He never married. To a stranger he seemed cold and distant, but in conversation with any one he liked his real disposition revealed itself ; his manner became animated, his eyes brightened, and a sarcastic but not ill-natured smile would play upon his lips. It was one of his sayings that the art of writing poetry can neither be taught nor learned, but he also held that inspiration will not visit a poet who neglects to make himself master of his subject. Hence before writing a play he worked hard, striving to comprehend the spirit of the age he wished to represent. He was exceedingly fond of travel, and at different times visited all the leading European countries. After 1840, when his solitary comedy was rejected by the public, he almost passed from the memory of his contemporaries. Fortunately for him, Heinrich Laube, an admirer of his genius, settled in Vienna in 1849 as artistic director of the court theatre. By and by Laube reintroduced on the stage some of the forgotten works, and their success was immediate and profound. To his own surprise, Grillparzer became the most popular author of the day ; he was ranked with Goethe and Schiller, and lauded as the national poet of Austria. On the eightieth anniversary of his birthday all classes from the court downwards united to do him honour ; never, probably, did Vienna exert herself so much to prove her respect for a private citizen. He died on the 21st January 1872, and was buried with an amount of ceremony that surpassed even the pomp displayed at Klopstock's funeral. A monument of him has recently been erected at Baden, near Vienna.
After his death an admirable edition of his works, in ten volumes, was issued by Heinrich Laube and J. Weilen. There are several English renderings of Sappho, and Medea has also been translated. For biographical and critical notices see Kuh, Zwei Dichter Oesterreichs (Pesth, 1872); Betty Paoli, Grillparzer und seine Werke (Stuttgart, 1875); and Gottschall, “ Franz Grillparzer,” and “ Franz Grillparzers Nachlass,” in Unsere Zeit for 1872 and 1873.