When the actress takes off her corset and invites the poet to kneel down beside her to pray, he expresses his devotion by grabbing her in his arms. It turns out all right. She wasn’t praying to God anyway, but for the poet to seduce her, which he promptly does.
That’s as close to dealing with faith as Arthur Schnitlzer’s La Ronde gets. Or does it?
If the pickings for aficionados of irreverent holiday fare seem slim in town during this year’s run-up to Christmas, try to catch this scene and nine more that constitute La Ronde.
It’s the justly famous sexual round robin by Sigmund Freund’s good friend Dr. Arthur Schnitzler. Ably acted by students of the Yale School of Drama, the loveless sexual encounters in turn-of-the-century Vienna feature a prostitute, soldier, parlor maid, actress, young gentleman, up the social ladder. Performances are at the University Theater Tuesday through this Thursday night at 8 p.m.
Each of these characters engages in two sexual encounters so that the love or lovelessness is passed along among all social classes. Critics excoriated Schnitzler that what his play passed along was the promotion of syphilis across the social classes.
So perhaps it was not surprising that the work was greeted with a six-day trial in 1903, then banned and withdrawn for 20 years.
How easy it would have been for Schnitzler to include in his circle of sex that makes the world go ‘round a man of the cloth. A randy Viennese rabbi or horny priest would have made an easy satirical target.
Yet Schnitzler refrained from doing so. I think he was after bigger game.
Except for the scene mentioned above and an occasional “Jesus!” exclamation, faith is absent from this play. Indeed it’s a kind of clinical diagnosis of the misfirings of lust and relationship and the ways both men and women romanticize or rationalize the animal instincts.
Had Freud been a playwright, he might have written a work very much like La Ronde.
Many productions of La Ronde are done for the laughs. That’s not the case here, especially in the first act. Men want release and women want to be worshipped. So it goes, with the underwear and orgasms flying.
In the second act’s scenes with the poet and the actress, played ably by Will Connolly and Liz Wisan, the silliness of taking sex too seriously makes for a more enjoyably ride.
The danger of Schnitzler’s much-copied round of vignettes is that its episodic structure and ensemble acting are such that we don’t get to know or sufficiently care about a protagonist. There’s no building of traditional dramatic tension.
However what struck this reviewer in the Yale students’ work was a mounting tension from a different source: a growing anomie or sense of melancholy, the post-coital tristesse, if you will, accelerating from episode to episode. By the end it is spread across society, and therefore calling for a societal response.
The response that filled the vacuum for many in the actual Austria and German of the early 20th century turned out to be nothing genuinely spiritual, but the non-answer of fascism.
However the need for genuine human connection—so ably underlined in this production by its absence—is another way to describe the vacuum that is also the basis of faith. The lovely waltz music and dancing that end the play, as it began, suggests that another answer to the ole vacuum is art. Yet if that’s the case, beware.
So maybe the raunchiness of La Ronde and the ethereality of the Christmas story are not so unrelated after all.
The play is directed by Jesse Jou. The last performance is Thursday. For tickets, and more background on the show, click here.