Anatol Again

Dave and I took advantage of a discount offer on tickets and went back to see Anatol at the Aurora again. We both liked the play even better the second time. The performances were even stronger, sharper, and funnier than before. Also, we got to see the play from the opposite side of the stage (the Aurora has a thrust stage, with the audience on three sides), so we could see everything from a different angle — great fun, so thank you, ye gods of seat assignment. The Aurora has been one of my favorite companies since their days playing in a large room at the Berkeley City Club, and this production was no exception.

I gather from the comments I’ve seen on Goldstar and elsewhere that this hasn’t been a popular production. I’ve seen comments and a couple of reviews that complain that the central character isn’t likable and that makes the play itself impossible to enjoy — an attitude I totally do not understand. It seems to me that liking a character and being interested in what happens to the character are two different and to some extent even independent things.

Some of what I’ve read also suggests that some people are assuming that Anatol is supposed to be sympathetic and was regarded as sympathetic by nineteenth-century audiences, which is just wrong. If you cringe frequently at what Anatol says and does, then you’re getting the play, and you’re getting it in more or less the same way that its contemporary audiences got it; you’re just not getting that you get it.

One reviewer seemed to think that Anatol was a success originally because of its frankness about sex, but that our changing attitudes toward woman have dated the play and made it impossible now to approve of Anatol’s womanizing. That’s not quite right; there were plenty of plays in the nineteenth century that were every bit as frank about sex — really, many that were far more so. So many, in fact, that the theater had a reputation as not being quite a nice place for really respectable people.

However, in a typical nineteenth-century play, after the audience had had its fill of racy fun, the last scene would show conventional virtue triumphing. What was shocking about Anatol wasn’t the frankness about sex but the lack of explicit moral judgment. Anatol is presented for our examination and amusement, not as a simple theatrical type, neither as a single-minded villain nor as a shallow buffoon, but as a complicated psychological portrait with a few good points along with all his many bad points. If the final scene were replaced by one in which Anatol either shoots himself in despair or is forever reformed by the true love of a good, pure woman, the play would have looked a lot like a hundred others. But Schnitzler neither reforms nor kills off Anatol at the end of the play, just leaves him to continue on his self-deluded way, and some in the audience in those days found the absence of a firm moral judgment to be unsettling. Looks like some still do.

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