Anatol

Over the last few days I’ve reread Schnitzler’s play Anatol, to get ready for the Aurora Theater production which we’re planning to see.

I don’t think I’ve looked at the play since my twenties. If I remember correctly, I was actually looking for a copy of Reigen (meaning Round Dance, but best known in English as La Ronde after the movie version), which I’d seen a production of, and while I was browsing through some used-book store or other, I came across the Modern Library edition of some of Schnitzler’s plays, including Anatol. Some time later I came across a wonderful little book of the published letters between an experienced actress and a young man just starting out, in which she writes about the art of acting in comedy, and she uses the last scene of Anatol as the basis for many of her examples, so I was glad to have a copy of the play handy.

Still, I don’t remember thinking much of the play when I was younger. My recollection is that I thought it was arch and facile, going after paradoxes and contradictions for easy laughs at the expense of believable characterization.

Oh my. Well, what can I say, I was in my twenties and didn’t understand much about human nature yet. On rereading it, I find that the paradoxes and contradictions in the play seem very true to me of how people actually are. Just not true of the way we think we are when we’re in our twenties. The way Schnitzler pokes fun at Anatol’s self-imposed delusions — with affection and understanding, perhaps, but unsparingly all the same — reminds me a lot now of Chekhov and Ibsen. (I know, I know, Ibsen??? But in my middle age I have come to think of both of them as two of the greatest comic playwrights ever.) The director of Anatol, Barbara Oliver, directed the sharpest and at the same time the funniest Uncle Vanya I think I’ve ever seen a few years ago, so I’m expecting that she’ll do right by Schnitzler, too, and I’m greatly looking forward to the play. (Later: Whoops. Ms. Oliver was in that production but did not direct it. I’m getting forgetful in my advancing age, I fear. That doesn’t change the fact that Barbara Oliver is a longtime favorite director of mine and Dave’s.)

I was struck by how similar Anatol is in structure and theme to the musical Company. Anatol has no story; it’s just a series of seven vignettes, each showing Anatol’s relationship with a different woman. Taken all together, they’re a shrewd and funny and rather sad portrait of a man who is completely deluded about love, who wallows in his illusions about it and refuses to give them up even when it should be obvious that they are not serving him well. As a result, even though he thinks of himself as an expert on love and the human heart, he’s completely barricaded himself off from any genuine love in his life.

One considerable difference is that in Company Bobby eventually comes to see through the lies he tells himself and makes a psychological breakthrough — and it’s by far the least convincing part of the story. Anatol gets to the end of his play having not learned a thing; the only real difference between the first scene of the play and the last is that at the end Anatol has gotten himself into a much bigger mess than he ever has before. Yet I find the ending of Anatol very satisfying, at least in the reading of it, and after seeing the show several times I still find the ending of Company a real letdown.

But I’ve never seen Anatol staged before, so I’ll have to see how I think it works once I’ve seen it in performance.

Curiously, Anatol has much more in common with Company than it does with The Gay Life, AKA The High Life, the 1950s musical that was ostensibly based on it. I’ve never seen the show and I don’t have a copy of its book, so everything I know about the story is from a couple of synopses I’ve read. But it looks like they basically threw out the play, threw out most of the characters, threw out everything the play is about, and replaced it all with a rather trite, sentimental story about a playboy who is in the end reformed by an innocent young woman who loves him. Blech. Why bother with the pretense of adapting a play if you’re going to throw out everything but your central character? And not even really keeping him, just keeping his name and changing the essence of his personality. I’ve got the original cast album, too, but I haven’t listened to it much. There’s one song I like a lot, “Something You Never Had Before,” but the rest of the score has always seemed rather lame and false to me.

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