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."
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 on Franz Grillparzer
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 Biography Sources
Fink, Humbert, Franz Grillparzer, Innsbruck: Pinguin, 1990.