On January 15, 1791 Franz Grillparzer was born in Vienna, Austria. He was a writer who is chiefly known for his dramas. He devoted especial attention to the Spanish drama, and nearly all his writings bear marks of the influence of Calderón. He also wrote the oration for Ludwig van Beethoven’s funeral. His father, E. J. Grillparzer, was a severe pedant and a staunch upholder of the liberal traditions of the reign of Joseph II, and was an advocate of some standing. His mother, Anna Franziska, was a nervous, highly-strung woman, daughter of Christoph Sonnleithner, sister to Joseph and Ignaz, aunt to Leopold.
His father destined Grillparzer for the legal profession, and, after a desultory education, he entered the University of Vienna in 1807 as a student of jurisprudence. From 1807 to 1809, Grillparzer wrote a long tragedy in iambics, Blanca von Castilien, modeled on Schiller’s Don Carlos. He also produced the dramatic fragments Spartacus and Alfred der Grosse (1809). In 1809, his father died leaving the family in difficult circumstances. After obtaining his degree from the university in 1811, Franz first became a private tutor for a noble family; then in 1813, he entered the civil service as a clerk at the Imperial and Royal Hofkammer (Exchequer) in Austria.
When Grillparzer began to write, the German stage was dominated by the wild plays of Werner, Müllner, and other authors of the so-called “fate-tragedies.” Grillparzer’s play The Ancestress (Die Ahnfrau in German), published in 1816, was penetrated by their spirit. It is a gruesome fate-tragedy in the trochaic measure of the Spanish drama, already made popular by Müllner in his Schuld. A lady, who has been slain by her husband for infidelity, is doomed to visit “the glimpses of the moon” until her house is extinguished, and this end is reached in the tragedy amid scenes of violence and horror. Its general character is similar to that of Werner’s dramas; it only differs from them in containing individual passages of much force and beauty. It reveals an instinct for dramatic as opposed to merely theatrical effect, which distinguishes it from other fate-dramas of the day. Its success led to the poet being classed for the best part of his life with playwrights like Müllner and Houwald. In 1817, the first performances of The Ancestress made Grillparzer famous.
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. 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 Ancestress.
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.
In 1821, he unsuccessfully applied to the position of scribe at the Imperial Library, and later that same year, he was relocated to the Ministry of Finance. In 1832, he became director of the archives at the Imperial and Royal Hofkammer, a position he held until his retirement in 1856. Grillparzer had little capacity for an official career and regarded his position merely as a means of independence.
Also in 1821, Grillparzer completed his The Golden Fleece 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. 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. 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. The end is bitter disillusionment; the only consolation renunciation. Some critics consider Medea Grillparzer’s highest achievement.
For his historical tragedy King Ottokar’s Fortune and End (König Ottokars Glück und Ende, 1823, but owing to difficulties with the censor, not performed until February 19, 1825), Grillparzer chose the conflict of Otakar II of Bohemia with Rudolph I of Germany. It appealed strongly to the patriotic sympathies of Vienna, dealing as it does with one of the proudest periods of Austrian history, the founding of the House of Habsburg. 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. It cannot 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 Ottokar and the calm, upright, and ultimately triumphant Rudolf. Through Ottokar’s fall, it is controversially argued that Grillparzer again preached the futility of endeavour and the vanity of worldly greatness.
A second historical tragedy, A faithful Servant of his Lord (Ein treuer Diener seines Herrn, 1826, performed 1828), attempted to embody a more heroic gospel; but the subject of the superhuman self-effacement of Bancbanus before Duke Otto of Meran proved too uncompromising an illustration of Kant’s categorical imperative of duty to be palatable in the theatre. It 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 presentation 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.
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, 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 heart-rending witness; his sufferings found poetic expression in the cycle of poems bearing the significant title Tristia ex Ponto (1835).
Still, during this time, Grillparzer completed two of his greatest dramas, Waves of the Sea and of Love (Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen, 1831) and The Dream, a Life (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 work again is formed on classic models, but in this instance his feeling is so distinctly modern that it does not find adequate expression in Grillparzer’s carefully measured verse. The subject has never been more happily treated than in some passages, which, however, are marked rather by lyrical than dramatic qualities. The poetic influence of Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca is felt.
The Dream, a Life, 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. It was the first of Grillparzer’s dramas which did not end tragically.
In 1838 Grillparzer produced his only comedy, Woe to him who lies (Weh dem, der lügt). But Woe to him who lies, in spite of its humor 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 première on March 6, 1838, was a failure. This was a severe blow to the poet, who turned his back forever on the German theatre.
In 1836, Grillparzer paid a visit to Paris and London, in 1843 to Athens and Constantinople. 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 into 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 January 21, 1872, the mourning of the Austrian people was universal. He was buried with an amount of ceremony that surpassed even the pomp displayed at Klopstock’s funeral. He was originally buried in the Währinger Cemetery in Vienna, now known as Schubertpark. He now lies at Hietzing Cemetery.
From early youth, Grillparzer had displayed a strong literary impulse. He devoted especial attention to the Spanish drama, and nearly all his writings bear marks of the influence of Calderón. 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.
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, his admirer Heinrich Laube settled in Vienna in 1849 as artistic director of the court theatre. By and by Laube reintroduced on the stage some of Grillparzer’s 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 honor; never, probably, did Vienna exert herself so much to prove her respect for a private citizen.
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 poet’s divorce from the theatre.
Outside Austria, the modern American reader is perhaps most familiar with Grillparzer via disparaging references to him in the popular John Irving novel The World According to Garp (1978). The book features a story within a story entitled The Pension Grillparzer.
Austria’s first stamp to portray Franz Grillparzer was a 20+20-groschen semi-postal release issued on September 12, 1931 (Scott #B94). Scott #489 was released on February 10, 1947, to mark the 75th anniversary of Grillparzer’s death. The 18-groschen stamp was recess-printed in red brown ink, comb-perforated 14½ x 13¾. A photogravure version of the same design and denomination was released on June 14, 1947, with the same perforation gauge in two variations. Type I has a lighter frame and thicker denomination and is colored lilac brown (Scott #490) while Type II features a darker frame and thinner values in violet brown (Scott #490i). Two additional Austrian stamps depict Grillparzer — Scott #915 was issued on January 21, 1972, and Scott #1525 marking the bicentennial of his birth was released on January 14, 1991.