Arthur Schnitzler and his Medical Drama Professor Bernhardi

Judith Beniston is Assistant Professor of German at University College London. Here she writes about the play that inspired The Doctor

Arthur Schnitzler was in every sense a Viennese writer. He was born in the city in 1862 and it remained his home until his death in 1931. The topography of Vienna and its distinctive landmarks feature prominently in his writings, together with a broad cross-section of its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century inhabitants. Other labels that one might attach to Schnitzler are less neat. He was a doctor-writer, ultimately choosing a literary over a medical career but unmistakably influenced by his medical training. And, as he put it in December 1914, he was ‘a Jew, an Austrian, a German’. Like the hyphenated compound ‘doctor-writer’, these juxtapositions speak of complex and perhaps conflicted private and public identities.

The Schnitzlers were a medical family. Arthur’s maternal grandfather had been a doctor; his father, Johann Schnitzler, was an eminent laryngologist; his brother, Julius, became a surgeon; and his sister, Gisela, married her father’s successor, Markus Hajek, whose patients were to include Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka. It was taken for granted that Arthur would study medicine, and he duly qualified in 1885, subsequently becoming his father’s assistant. However, hospital medicine exacerbated his tendency to hypochondria and he was never entirely committed to it or to medical research. Having started to publish poems and short prose in the 1880s, he wanted to be a professional writer, and after his father’s death in 1893 he resigned his post. 

As a doctor-writer Schnitzler brought a distinctive skill set to his literary work. Training in rational, evidence-based diagnosis can be applied to both literary characters and broader social ills, and writing medical case histories encourages clarity of expression and scrupulous attention to detail. As he admitted in his posthumously published autobiography, My Youth in Vienna, he was far more interested in afflictions of the mind than in those of the body, an interest rooted ‘not so much in medicine proper as in their poetic or literary character’. Indeed, the idea that literary diagnoses can be as insightful as medical ones was acknowledged by Freud, who in 1922 described Schnitzler as his Doppelgänger, a literary double who had achieved through intuition what he, Freud, had accomplished through painstaking clinical research. 

In his early work, Schnitzler directed his diagnostic gaze primarily towards the private sphere and its social regulation. Plays and stories depict love relationships and erotic encounters that frequently cut across the boundaries of social class, notably in his breakthrough play Liebelei (1896; most recently adapted by David Harrower as Sweet Nothings) and in the scandalous sexual daisy chain Reigen (1900, known internationally as La Ronde and notably adapted by David Hare as The Blue Room).

Professor Bernhardi, completed in 1912, confounded expectations. The play has no love interest, one female character (in a minor role) and only one moment of dramatic action. At the end of Act I, the title figure, a Jewish doctor, denies a Catholic priest access to a patient who is dying of sepsis following a botched abortion; the following four acts explore the political and institutional fallout of that action. The play not only explores what it means to be an Austrian and a Jew but also asks whether medicine can be the basis of a rational, humanist world-view within which biography is irrelevant, and answers by depicting an institution torn apart by racial and religious difference, by anti-Semitism, careerism and political intrigue.

Although there are elements of Johann Schnitzler’s biography in his son’s play – like Bernhardi he co-founded a charitably funded hospital in 1872 – the depiction of Viennese public life is more reflective of the early twentieth century, when Professor Bernhardi took shape. By then parliamentary liberalism was a spent force, overwhelmed by the rise of radical mass parties on the right and left, and by the resulting climate of intolerance and intransigence; political opportunism was rife; political language was often divisive and intemperate; and anti-Semitism permeated public life. Resolving in 1909 to continue writing ‘doctors play’, Schnitzler noted in his diary that he could work into it ‘a lot of his disgust’ at contemporary public image for text

Professor Bernhardi is not, however, a straightforward ‘state-of-the-nation’ play. Schnitzler was too much of an individualist and saw too many complexities to write unequivocally in the service of any political cause. His title figure insists that he merely did what he believed to be right in a particular circumstance and rejects all attempts to politicize his case. In his obstinacy, Bernhardi becomes comic – indeed, Schnitzler privately termed the play a ‘comedy of character’. Attempts to read Professor Bernhardi as a state-of-the-nation play are also frustrated by Schnitzler’s refusal to use illness as a metaphor. Unlike in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1882) – another ‘doctor play’ with which Professor Bernhardi has often been compared – where the contaminated water source is a rather obvious metaphor for political corruption, the many references to syphilis in Professor Bernhardi never become symptoms of broader social malaise, and the young woman dying of sepsis – the word literally means putrefaction –  remains an individual case, not a symbol of ‘something rotten in the state of Austria’.

Professor Bernhardi may stop short of being a state-of-the-nation play, but the Viennese censor recognized the potential and refused to licence it for performance, with documentation subsequently released citing Schnitzler’s unflattering depiction of Austrian public life as the main reason. The play was first performed not in Vienna but in Berlin, on 28 November 1912. Schnitzler’s cause, like that of his title figure, was taken up, in parliament and in the press, by liberal and left-wing groups. The irony was not lost on Schnitzler. In a letter of October 1913 he admitted somewhat sheepishly: ‘it has always been in my nature not to walk in step with others, even when I find myself sharing the path with friends’. Despite their efforts, the Viennese premiere had to wait until 21 December 1918, by which point what it meant to be Austrian had radically changed. As Schnitzler remarked in his diary: ‘Very gratifying – but somewhat costly: it has taken a World War and a Revolution to make this production possible’.

The Doctor | 10 Aug - 28 Sep

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