The Oxford German Play- Reigen

Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford Playhouse


(in German with English surtitles)

It was bold – and teasing – of The Oxford German Play to mount a staging of Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen (widely known as La Ronde), one of the most provocative plays of the early 20th century.

One would be tempted to term it Expressionist, were it not that Reigen, along with Frank Wedekind’s preceding Spring Awakening, actually predated the Expressionist upsurge of the 1900s, 1910s and 1920s, typified by characters like Georg Kaiser and Oskar Kokoschka (a playwright as well as a painter). The content of both is as searing as a garish Kandinsky or Kokoschka canvas. It cuts to the quick.

Both plays are about sexuality, and even to an extent influenced Sigmund Freud’s thinking on that subject. Wedekind’s theme is that – to this day - unmentionable subject of teenage sex, and pulls no punches. Masturbation, homosexuality, oppression and penetration amounting to teen rape, plus the lure of suicide all figure in his ground-breaking drama (1891), only recently made into an opera. Schnitzler’s characters in Reigen (1897) are all – bar one – adults; but it is no less cutting for that.

Schnitzler (1862-1931) was an innovator: one of the first, if not THE first, to import into German literature the revolutionary ‘stream of consciousness’ approach typified by James Joyce in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. A short story, even vignette, writer in his twenties, Schnitzler imported this terse idea into Reigen: it divides into ten scenes, all intriguingly interrelated. Like a novella writer, he knew, as did Mann and Musil, what would work in a compressed format, and what not.   

original script

A 1900 print of Reigen when 200 copies were printed.

By © H.-P.Haack - Sammlung Viktor Achter → Antiquariat Ahnert Berlin → Sammlung H.-P.Haack, Foto © H.-P.Haack → Antiquariat Dr. Haack Leipzig → Deutsches Buch- u. Schriftmuseum der Deutschen Bücherei Leipzig., CC BY 3.0,

Here in Reigen he presents us with ten compact scenes. Just as Harold Pinter would make certain of his innovative, structurally inspired plays run backwards in time, so Schnitzler offers us ten short snippets, glimpses of everyday life, or at least a novelist’s view of it. He invents ten characters, from different social classes, moral outlooks, background and class, and pairs them off scene by scene. One person from each sequence continues over to the next, so in scene 1 A meets B, next B chances on C, then C seduces D, then D penetrates E, and so on.

It was pretty daring then, and still seems so now. The reason it got the hackles up of polite Viennese society – newspaper editors, the smart theatregoers and vox pop as a whole – when it was premiered not in 1897 (the year it was completed), but in 1920 in Berlin and 1921 in Vienna was that it’s really, tantalisingly, unremittingly, sexy – you might say sex-obsessed. The characters have all, not unreasonably, not only been bedding somebody (all heterosexual in the script and at the premiere), but been two-timing someone else – not necessarily just their spouse. 

One of the opening characters is a comely Prostitute (Lias-Alexis Hildebrandt), the other a Soldier. Later on a maid is mated with a toff. Definitely upstairs meets below stairs. The pre-First World War private (Ruth Eichinger), dallying with the lady of the night, was one of the most convincing,    Partly because of profound, thoughtful Director Louise Mayer-Jacquelin’s neatly judged casting.

There is such an air of the risqué, of the do-not-mention, of the ambivalent and ambiguous, a bit like Joel Gray’s mocking m/c in Cabaret, and of the unspeakable about Reigen - the title (‘circles’) means, roughly, ‘musical chairs’ – that it’s easy to imagine these characters changing sexes.


Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) 

Several versions with a cross-dressing or gay treatment have been made, including on film or as a Musical, in the past century since. Eichinger’s Soldier was arousing precisely because she was a travesti, like an operatic mezzo playing a lusty young chap (Cherubino, Octavian, Oscar), with all the sexual frissons that entails.  Could this be the one Lesbian scene? No, but the girl-woos-girl feel was ticklish and titillating.

Reigen is not just a joyous – though poignant – Cage aux Folles-like romp. Schnitzler’s text was given to us in almost immaculate High German or Viennese accents: not surprisingly, given the cast were not just German Society members, but hailed from Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, Linz, Berlin –and even Sheffield.

We don’t end up liking Linus Ubl’s lecherous Young Man when he fondles Philip Schimpf’s shy, apprehensive, indeed outraged, Parlour Maid (an hilarious bit of un-camp cross-dressing). We seem pretty close to child abuse when Schimpf doubles as the errant Husband who wants to have it off with a sweet young girl, an inexperienced Studentenmädchen (Steph Spreadborough). ‘Sag mir, mein Kind’, he says. Fifteen to seventeen year olds were fair game in the 1890s.

Hence Reigen amounts to a kind of dance of death (Saint Saëns’ Danse macabre is the apt musical Leitmotif, alongside Brahms’s Wiegenlied, Mozart and the ultra-Expressionist Kurt Weill), just as Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen was. It, too, had to wait some 15 years before being staged - in 1906 - by the risk-taking Berlin Director Max Reinhardt.

Aging, coital inadequacy, premature ejaculation, vulnerability, over-optimism and nostalgia are all explored in Reigen, just as the susceptibility of youth and lost innocence are exposed in its Springtime predecessor, and the social divide looms large in Schnitzler’s series of intricately observed, intimate situations - albeit not the racial divide (then Jewishness, perhaps, rather than colour).

Interestingly, Schnitzler was known for other plays – the landmark Dictionary of Modern European Literature (Columbia University Press/OUP 1947) gives Der einsame Weg (The Lonely Way, 1903, staged 1915) and Das weite Land (The Vast Domain, 1911, staged 1923) higher billing than Reigen.

But there’s no doubting this provoking, probing, daring stagework is one thing this outwardly august, rather sombre-looking playwright will always be remembered for. It’s thanks to stagings like Mayer-Jacquelin’s, treated with some expressive props and a commendable simplicity (plus a lot of funniness and wit), that by putting the text up front scored an undoubted hit with the substantially student audience at Oxford Playhouse’s Burton Taylor studio theatre. For them, this pithy take on Reigen was patently a hit. And they were right.

Roderic Dunnett


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