The Kennedy Center

Franz Grillparzer


An Austrian poet, b. at Vienna, 15 January, 1791, d. 21 January, 1872. After desultory schooling at home and at the gymnasium he entered the university to study law and philosophy. His tastes, however, were more for literature and music, and at the age of sixteen, under Schiller's influence, he tried his hand at dramatic composition. In 1813, he entered the civil service in the customs department, but his official life was anything but happy. Throughout his career, he had to submit to the ill-will and distrust of his superiors, and the interference of a rigid censorship. His rise was very slow; repeatedly preferment was denied him and he never got beyond the position of director of the Hofkammerarchiv, to which he was promoted in 1832. His application in 1834 for the directorship of the university library was rejected; he was thus compelled to retain his uncongenial position until 1856, when he retired with a pension and the title Hofrat. Repeatedly he sought distraction in travel. In 1819, prostrated by the shock caused by his mother's suicide, he obtained a furlough and visited Italy, travelling unofficially in the retinue of the Empress. While in Rome he wrote the well-known poem on the ruins of the Campo Vacino, which gave offence to the Catholic party and drew upon the poet the censure of the emperor. This unfortunate affair was largely responsible for the setbacks which Grillparzer subsequently experienced in his official career. In 1826 he visited Germany, and ten years later Paris and London. Another journey was made to Greece and the Orient in 1843, followed by a second visit to Germany in 1847. Subsequently he could not be induced again to leave Vienna.
If the poet's public career was full of disappointment, his private life was equally unhappy. He had several love affairs, but the attachment of his life was to the handsome and accomplished Katharina Frohlich, to whom he was betrothed in 1821. Each of the lovers possessed unyielding personality, and though the engagement was not formally broken, they were never married. In 1849, Grillparzer took up his abode with the Frohlich sisters, and in their house he spent his remaining years. When his comedy, "Weh dem, der lugt" had been rudely hissed by the Viennese public, the poet in despair and anger withdrew from the stage and henceforth in strictest seclusion. The recognition and honours that finally came to him left him unmoved. In 1871, the enthusiasm with which his eightieth birthday was celebrated throughout Germany and Austria proved that at last his greatness was recognized. When he died the next year, he was accorded a public funeral.
Grillparzer's earliest drama, "Blanka von Kastilien" (1807), was written whighe was still a student. The play that first made him famous was "Die Ahnfrau" (The Ancestress), performed in 1817. It is one of the so-called fate-tragedies, in such vogue at the time, and, though crude and full of horrors, it shows unmistakable signs of dramatic power. In his next drama, "Sappho" (1818), the poet turned to ancient Greece for inspiration and took for his theme the legendary love of the famous Greek poetess for Phaon. This tragedy was received with enthusiasm, and translated into several foreign languages. To this day it has remained Grillparzer's most popular play. It was followed in 1821 by the trilogy "Das goldene Vliess" a dramatization of the story of Jason and Medea. It has three parts: "Der Gastfreund" (the Guestfriend), a kind of prologue, "Die Argonauten", and "Medea". By many critics this trilogy is regarded as the poet's greatest work; on the stage, however, it was not as successful as his former plays. After this he turned to history for his subjects. "Konig Ottokars Cluck und Ende" (King Ottokars Fortune and End) presents in dramatic form the downfall of the Bohemian kingdom and the rise of the House of Hapsburg. An episode from Hungarian history is treated in "Ein treuer Diener seines Herrn" (a faithful Servant of his Lord) (1828) -- a drama which glorifies the spirit of self-sacrificing loyalty. For his next effort the poet again turned to Greece and produced one of his most finished dramas in "Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen" (1831) (The Waves of the Sea and of Love), its theme is the story of the love of Hero and Leander. With the exquisite dream-play "Der Traum ein Leben" (1831) (Dream is Life) Grillparzer again won a popular success. Its title suggests the influence of Calderon's "La Vida es Sueno", but the plot was suggested by Voltaire's story "Le Blanc et le Noir". In 1838 appeared the poet's only attempt at comedy, "Weh dean, der lugt" (Woe to him who Lies). Its failure caused his retirement from the stage, and with the exception of the beautiful fragments, "Esther", which appeared in 1863, the poet's later dramas were not published until after his death. They are: "Ein Bruderzwist im Hause Habsburg", treating a theme from Austrian history, "Die Judin von Toledo", based on a pity of Lope de Vega, and "Libussa", the subject of which is the legendary story of the foundation of Prague.
Grillparzer also wrote critical essays and studies especially on the Spanish theatre, of which he was a great admirer. He is also the author of two prose-stories, "Das Kloster bei Sendomir" and "Der arme Spielmann". His Iyric poems are as a rule too intellectual, they lack the emotional quality which a true lyric should possess. He excels in epigram. His autobiography which he brought down to the year 1886, is invaluable for a study of his life. But his title to fame rests on his dramas. As a dramatic poet he stands in the front rank of German writers, by the side of Schiller and Kleist. His complete works have been edited by August Sauer (Stuttgart, 1892-93, 5th ed., 20 vols.), M. Necker (Leipzig, 1903, 16 vols.), Alfred Klaar (Berlin, 1903, 16 vols.), Albert Zipper (Leipzig, 1903, 6 vols.), Minor (Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1903), W. Eichner (Berlin, 1904, 20 vols.). A critical selection was edited by Rudolf Franz (Leipzig and Vienna 1903-05, 5 vols.). His letters and diaries were edited by Carl Glossy and A. Sauer (Stuttgart and Berlin, 1903, 2 vols).
Franz Grillparzer