THEATER SYMPTOMS: Plays and Writings on Drama is the mother lode for Robert Musil aficionados, a vital piece of the author’s canon. Containing the major play The Utopians, other dramatic material and fragments, and Musil’s theater criticism, much of it translated into English for the first time, this anthology shows Musil to be a writer of far greater range than is often assumed.
Musil was likely the most sheerly intelligent of modernist writers (which is not to say the most talented). His work entrances with its combination of rigor and passion (“precision and soul,” as he put it), yet it is also marked by significant lacunae. His magnum opus The Man Without Qualities, two sections of which were published in 1930 and 1933, was left unfinished at the author’s death in 1942. How to square that massive achievement with Musil’s equally brilliant, but radically different, earlier works, such as The Confusions of Young Törless (1906), a novella, or Unions (1911), a collection of stories? Above all, how to reconcile Musil’s deep engagement with sociological and political theorizing with his spiritual and aesthetic yearnings? Most of Musil’s contemporaries fell on one side or the other of this dichotomy: Hermann Broch tended toward the sociological, for example, while Thomas Mann embraced the aesthetic. Musil is one of the very few to have attempted to straddle this line, and for that reason alone his work is immensely valuable.
The heart of this new anthology is Musil’s massive drama The Utopians, only the second English translation and a crucial piece of the Musil oeuvre. Published in 1921, it is a dense, hyper-concentrated work, presenting a handful of characters who are battered by each other’s intellects and passions (not to mention their own) over the course of a few days. There is the calm professor Thomas, his sensible wife Maria, her flighty sister Regina, and the infatuated rake Anselm, who has seduced Regina away from her husband Josef. The characters combine and recombine, at times seeming closer to archetypes than real persons, yet filled with such emotion that the play never reads as dry. It is, however, overwhelming: without the release valve of the essayistic digressions and relaxed pacing of a novel, The Utopians never lets up in intensity over its 185 dense pages, which would likely take four hours to perform. Thomas’s dry aloofness and Anselm’s inflamed capriciousness give shape to their long speeches, but it is Regina’s raw desperation (she has never gotten over the suicide of a youthful lover) and Maria’s enigmatic stoicism that hold the play together.
Like Joyce’s 1918 play Exiles, The Utopians bears all the markers of a prodigious prose stylist entering a new formal space with drastically different and unfamiliar rules. Unlike Exiles, it is neither early nor slight: Musil was a decade on from the success of Young Törless when he wrote The Utopians and already deep into exploring the landscape that would grow into The Man Without Qualities.
During Musil’s lifetime, The Utopians was only produced in bastardized and disowned form in 1929. It has since had a handful of more reverent productions. In her superb introduction, editor and translator Genese Grill cites the assessment of Burton Pike, one of Musil’s most esteemed translators, that The Utopians “may one day be considered his finest work. It contains in distilled form, and with the greater strength of a distillation, much of the important elements of [The Man Without Qualities] as well as many of its subordinate concerns.” I cannot go as far as Pike does: The Utopians is essential Musil, but it ultimately fails to be dramatic, trying to stretch the form further than it can go, at least on stage, while on the page it lacks the glorious panoramic vision of Musil’s fiction. Yet The Utopians accomplishes things none of his other works manage to achieve, and thus is entirely worthy of our attention.
Theater Symptoms is also valuable for gathering and translating Musil’s theoretical writings on theater. These writings make clear that, unlike literature, Viennese theater (and theater more generally) was an industry, shaped around personalities and group events. And this fact explains Musil’s disappointment, his conviction that contemporary theater failed to realize its potential and was, for the most part, inferior to previous dramatic traditions. In Musil’s view, the trite statements being made by modern dramatists were ultimately less interesting than the profound processes channeled by the best actors:
Entangled, precisely in the way that the strongest, the least simple-minded intellects among us are, in five-thousand-years of never-ending considerations, at the mercy of countless consequences, the immediate or distant effects of every possible position, sometimes nothing is more redemptive than to bid the intellect be silent and to remember that one, as body, as thing, is as unaccountable, unique, and absolute as a wandering cloud or the arc that has been drawn in the air by a hawk.
Though not as bitter as Thomas Bernhard, whose later attacks on the Austrian theater scene are memorably captured in his 1984 novel Woodcutters, Musil has little patience for the pseudo-profundities and inflated clichés of most of the plays he discusses. More than Bernhard, though, he believes in the immense potential and beauty of the theater as an art form, and the writings collected here thus offer a unique opportunity to see Musil’s philosophical-spiritual concerns focused on the mass culture of his day.
Though often caricatured as a rationalist, Musil realized the necessity of the spiritual and the power of the ineffable, as Grill has ably discussed in her excellent 2012 monograph The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man Without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality. The overwhelming social critique of the first published half of The Man Without Qualities is balanced in its unfinished second half by an increasing attention to what Musil terms the “other condition,” a hoped-for removal from the overbearing contingencies of our politics and culture, an emancipation from the tired vocabulary and metaphors that bombard us daily. Yet Musil was also deeply skeptical of vacuous cod-Nietzschean mysticism, which rejects rational thought only to make room for its own tyrannical solipsism. This syndrome was best depicted in the absurd prophet Meingast, Musil’s vicious portrait of charismatic pseudoscientist and antisemite Ludwig Klages. Yet rationalism too frequently ignores the urge to such mysticism, the human instincts and passions that inform it, and portraying this contradiction was Musil’s most vexing challenge to himself and his readers.
Musil rejects any easy sublimity; the naked Romantic soul had become, for him, a shopworn illusion. Instead, his gestures toward the “other condition” pick up on hints offered in the greatest art, such as the work of Shakespeare:
The word as formed air: and at the same time, an enormous creative force; this has always been for me the most astonishing aspect of the effect of this great writer. I have the feeling, when I tune my ear to Shakespeare like this — I think, one mustn’t think now about the thing, but must enter in somewhere through a word […] and then Shakespeare’s word-world appears, and along with the word, the world.
Musil’s theater writings reveal his intense engagement with those sub-rational forces that guide us, biologically and spiritually. His capacity to be truly moved is unceasing, as is his insistence that raw dramatic potential should not be cheapened through exploitation of received sentiments and secondhand ideas. From the reviews collected here, we see that the theater of Musil’s time was predominantly anti-realistic, allegorical, or symbolic, and suffered under the weight of its constant grasp for universals (real or imagined): capitalized concepts like Soul, Love, Death, and Power. (Such concepts are, of course, always capitalized in German.)
Musil’s willful remoteness, his determination to stand apart from passing trends and certainly from any and all fashion, produces a paradox in his work. While The Man Without Qualities clearly portrays prewar Austria with the benefit of bitter hindsight, the influence of the interwar period is sublimated throughout, rarely manifesting explicitly. This essential anthology surfaces some of the contemporaneity Musil steadfastly attempted to elude, and consequently it offers unique and vital insights into Musil’s oeuvre.
As with her previous translations of Musil’s writing (published in two volumes by Contra Mundum in 2015 and 2019), Grill brings great skill and finesse to Musil’s prose. She is possibly the most graceful English translator Musil has had, her lyrical efforts emphasizing how far from his rationalist caricature the author truly was. In his more theoretical moments, Musil’s abstract imagery can overwhelm and oppress, but Grill manages to deftly capture his playfulness, particularly in the satirical farce Vinzenz and the Mistress of Important Men (1923), which lacks the philosophical heft of The Utopians but flows better as a drama.
I also must compliment Grill’s superb, judicious footnotes, which provide contemporary context without overwhelming the reader. Her knowledge of Musil’s work is magisterial, and her provision of biographical detail is succinct and revealing. Would that all such collections meet the standard Grill sets here, as both translator and editor. She and Contra Mundum deserve the highest plaudits.