Franz Seraphicus Grillparzer (January 15, 1791 – January 21, 1872), an Austrian dramatic poet, was born in Vienna.
His father, severe, pedantic, and a staunch upholder of the liberal traditions of the reign of Joseph II
, was an advocate
of some standing; his mother, a nervous, high-strung woman, belonged to the well-known musical family of Sonnleithner. After a desultory education, Grillparzer entered the University of Vienna
in 1807 as a student of jurisprudence
; but two years later his father died, leaving the family in difficult circumstances, and Franz, the eldest son, was obliged to turn to private tutoring. In 1813 he received an appointment in the court library, but as this was unpaid, after some months he accepted a clerkship that offered more solid prospects in the Lower Austrian
revenue administration. Through the influence of Count Stadion
, the minister of finance, he was appointed poet to the Hofburgtheater in 1818, and promoted to the Hofkammer (exchequer). In 1832 he became director of the archives of that department. In 1856 he retired from the civil service with the title of Hofrat. Grillparzer had little capacity for an official career and regarded his position merely as a means of independence.
Early works up to Das goldene Vlies
In 1817 the first performances of his tragedy The Ancestress
) made him famous, but before this he had written a long tragedy in iambics
, Blanca von Castilien
(1807-1809), modeled on Friedrich von Schiller
's Don Carlos
; and the promising dramatic fragments Spartacus
and Alfred der Grosse
(1809). The Ancestress
is a gruesome fate-tragedy in the trochaic
measure of the Spanish drama
, already made popular by Adolf Müllner
in his Schuld
; but Grillparzer's work is a play of real poetic beauties, and reveals an instinct for dramatic
as opposed to merely theatrical
effect, which distinguishes it from other fate-dramas of the day. Unfortunately, its success led to the poet being classed for the best part of his life with playwrights like Müllner and Houwald
. The Ancestress
was followed by Sappho
(1818), a drama of a very different type; in the classic spirit of Goethe
's Torquato Tasso
, Grillparzer unrolled the tragedy of poetic genius, the renunciation of earthly happiness imposed upon the poet by his higher mission.
In 1821, Grillparzer completed his The Golden Fleece (Das goldene Vlies) trilogy, a project that had been interrupted in 1819 when his depressed mother committed suicide, and by Grillparzer's subsequent visit to Italy. The trilogy opens with a one-act prelude, Der Gastfreund, then depicts, in The Argonauts (Die Argonauten) Jason's adventures in his quest for the Fleece. Medea, a tragedy of classic proportions, contains the culminating events of the story of Medea, which had been so often dramatized before. The theme is similar to that of Sappho, but on a larger scale; it is again the tragedy of the heart's desire, the conflict of the simple happy life with that sinister power, be it genius or ambition, which upsets the equilibrium of life. The end is bitter disillusionment, the only consolation renunciation. Medea, her revenge stilled, her children dead, bears the fatal Fleece back to Delphi, while Jason is left to realize the nothingness of human striving and earthly happiness.
For his historical tragedy König Ottokars Glück und Ende
(1823, but owing to difficulties with the censor
, not performed until February 19
), Grillparzer chose the conflict of Otakar II of Bohemia
with Rudolph I of Germany
. With an almost modern realism he reproduced the medieval setting of the play, at the same time not losing sight of the needs of the theatre; through Ottokar's fall, Grillparzer again preached the futility of endeavour and the vanity of worldly greatness. A second historical tragedy, Ein treuer Diener seines Herrn
(1826, performed 1828), attempted to embody a more heroic gospel; but the subject of the superhuman self-effacement of Bankbanus
before Duke Otto of Meran
proved too uncompromising an illustration of Kant
's categorical imperative of duty to be palatable in the theatre.
With these historical tragedies began the darkest ten years in the poet's life. They brought him into conflict with the Austrian censor - a conflict which grated on Grillparzer's sensitive soul, and was aggravated by his own position as a servant of the state. In 1826, he paid a visit to Goethe in Weimar, and was able to compare the enlightened conditions which prevailed in the little Saxon duchy with the intellectual thraldom of Vienna.
To these troubles were added personal worries. In the winter of 1820-1821, he had met and fallen in love with Katharina Fröhlich (1801-1879), but whether owing to a presentiment of mutual incompatibility, or merely owing to Grillparzer's conviction that life had no happiness in store for him, he shrank from marriage. Whatever the cause may have been, the poet was plunged into an abyss of misery and despair to which his diary bears heartrending witness; his sufferings found poetic expression in the fine cycle of poems bearing the significant title Tristia ex Ponto (1835).
Slip into depression
Still, during this time, Grillparzer completed two of his greatest dramas, Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen
(1831) and Der Traum, ein Leben
(1834). The earlier play dramatizes the story of Hero and Leander
, as a love-tragedy full of poetic expression and with an insight into character motivation that predated the psychological dramas of Ibsen
. The poetic influence of Lope de Vega
and Pedro Calderón de la Barca
is also felt. Der Traum, ein Leben
, Grillparzer's technical masterpiece, is in form perhaps even more Spanish; it is also more of what Goethe called a confession. The aspirations of Rustan, an ambitious young peasant, are shadowed forth in the hero's dream, which takes up nearly three acts of the play; ultimately Rustan awakens from his nightmare to realize the truth of Grillparzer's own pessimistic doctrine that all earthly ambitions and aspirations are vanity; the only true happiness is contentment with one's lot and inner peace.
Der Traum, ein Leben was the first of Grillparzer's dramas which did not end tragically, and in 1838 he produced his only comedy, Weh dem, der lügt. But Weh dem, der lügt, in spite of its humour of situation, its sparkling dialogue and the originality of its idea - namely, that the hero wins by invariably telling the truth, where his enemies invariably expect him to lie - was too strange to meet with approval in its day. Its premiere on March 6, 1838 was a failure. This was a severe blow to the poet, who turned his back forever on the German theatre.
Later life and final masterpieces
In 1836, Grillparzer paid a visit to Paris
, in 1843 to Athens
. Then came the Revolution which struck off the intellectual fetters under which Grillparzer and his contemporaries had groaned in Austria, but the liberation came too late for him. Honors were heaped upon him; he was made a member of the Academy of Sciences; Heinrich Laube
, as director of the Burgtheater
, reinstated his plays on the repertory; in 1861, he was elected to the Austrian Herrenhaus
; his eightieth birthday was a national festival, and when he died in Vienna, on the January 21
, the mourning of the Austrian people was universal. With the exception of a beautiful fragment, Esther
(1861), Grillparzer published no more dramatic poetry after the fiasco of Weh dem, der lügt
, but at his death three completed tragedies were found among his papers. Of these, The Jewess of Toledo
(Die Jüdin von Toledo
, written in 1851), an admirable adaptation from the Spanish, has won a permanent place in the German classical repertory; Ein Bruderzwist in Habsburg
is a powerful historical tragedy and Libussa
is perhaps the most mature, as it is certainly the deepest, of all Grillparzer's dramas; the latter two plays prove how much was lost by the poets divorce from the theatre.
Although Grillparzer was essentially a dramatist, his lyric poetry is in the intensity of its personal note hardly inferior to Lenau's; and the bitterness of his later years found vent in biting and stinging epigrams that spared few of his greater contemporaries. As a prose writer, he has left one powerful short story, Der arme Spielmann (1848), and a volume of critical studies on the Spanish drama, which shows how completely he had succeeded in identifying himself with the Spanish point of view.
Grillparzer's brooding, unbalanced temperament, his lack of will-power, his pessimistic renunciation and the bitterness which his self-imposed martyrdom produced in him, made him peculiarly adapted to express the mood of Austria in the epoch of intellectual thraldom that lay between the Napoleonic wars and the Revolution of 1848; his poetry reflects exactly the spirit of his people under the Metternich regime, and there is a deep truth behind the description of Der Traum, ein Leben as the Austrian Faust. His fame was in accordance with the general tenor of his life; even in Austria a true understanding for his genius was late in coming, and not until the centenary of 1891 did the German-speaking world realize that it possessed in him a dramatic poet of the first rank; in other words, that Grillparzer was no mere Epigone of the classic period, but a poet who, by a rare assimilation of the strength of the Greeks, the imaginative depth of German classicism and the delicacy and grace of the Spaniards, had opened up new paths for the higher dramatic poetry of Europe.
- Blanca von Castilien (1807-1809)
- Spartacus (1809)
- Alfred der Grosse (1809)
- Die Ahnfrau (1817)
- Sappho (1818)
- Das goldene Vlies (1821), trilogy consisting of
- Der Gastfreund
- Die Argonauten
- König Ottokars Glück und Ende (The Fortune and Fall of King Ottokar, 1823)
- Ein treuer Diener seines Herrn (1826)
- Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (1831)
- Der Traum, ein Leben (1834)
- Tristia ex Ponto (1835)
- Weh dem, der lügt (1838)
- Libussa (1847; perf.1874)
- Der arme Spielmann (1848)
- Ein Bruderzwist im Hause Habsburg (1848; perf.1872)
- Esther (1848; perf.1861)
- Die Jüdin von Toledo (The Jewess of Toledo, 1851; perf. Prague 1872)