Cambridge University Library stages first public play in its 600-year history

Performance marked the launch of digital edition of Arthur Schnitzler's works and archive

Cambridge University Library (UL) hosted its first ever public performance on April 25 when The Great Wurstel, a one-act burlesque comedy using human marionettes by the Modernist writer Arthur Schnitzler (pictured), was performed in the Rare Books Reading Room.

The sell-out performance marked the launch of a major new digital edition of works by Schnitzler – who inspired Freud and Kubrick among many others. The edition, hosted by the UL and resulting from a collaboration of UK scholars with German colleagues (from the Universities of Wuppertal and Trier) is being made freely available online to scholars, historians and the public at large.

Saved from destruction by the Nazis and transported under diplomatic seal to Cambridge University Library in the 1930s, the rescue of Schnitzler’s archive is as dramatic as any fiction he committed to paper.

Now, more than 80 years after they were spirited out of Austria under the noses of Nazis intent on burning and destroying Jewish cultural works, the country’s most famous playwright has been recognised by becoming the first writer to ever have his work staged at Cambridge University Library’s iconic Giles Gilbert Scott building.

He is perhaps best known outside of Austria as the author of his 1926 novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story), which was adapted by the legendary Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut. While The Great Wurstel is less well-known, it certainly deserves more attention.

This is believed to be the first time the play has been staged in English.

The producer and co-director of the Library performance was Dr Annja Neumann, a Research Associate of the Schnitzler Digital Edition Project at the Department of German and Dutch, and lead editor for the puppet-play cycle Marionetten of which The Great Wurstel is part.

Neumann’s vision to stage Schnitzler’s dramatic experiment in close proximity to the original papers was enthusiastically supported by an interdisciplinary team of students and professionals, particularly translator and co-director Ada Günther, co-director Ritika Biswas and a dynamic team of student producers and actors, in collaboration with the UL.

"Schnitzler’s human puppet play The Great Wurstel explores what it means to be human in a world which is controlled by machines and mechanistic behaviour. Bringing the physicality of Schnitzler’s comedy to the UL, with its 600-year history, not only gave us the unique opportunity to unlock the ways in which we unconsciously play-act in institutions but also enabled us to explore the roots of human comedy and questions which remain highly topical in a digital age when we are engaging with the ‘humanness’ of machines.

"Schnitzler's human puppets deeply unsettle the boundaries between real life and the theatrical world as well as human and machine. And it was exhilarating to experience how the constant boundary crossings in the reading room increasingly unsettled the audience over the course of the performance.”

Dr Annja Neumann

Professor Andrew Webber, Professor of Modern German and Comparative Culture in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Principal Investigator of the Edition Project, said: “Staging The Great Wurstel at the UL is a fantastic example of the potential of combining archival research with public engagement and making the material of scholarship available in an accessible and lively way. Playing a cameo role in the drama (a puppet Death who unveils himself as a Wurstel figure, a kind of Mr Punch) was certainly a learning experience for me as researcher!”

“The archive at Cambridge University Library is a treasure of modernist literary culture and the launch of the Digital Critical Edition means that the notes and drafts for many of Schnitzler’s key works are made available to everyone for the very first time. Our project exploits the potential of these archives through the advanced possibilities of the digital.”

Professor Andrew Webber speaking at the launch of the Digital Edition at Cambridge University Library on April 25, 2019.

Professor Andrew Webber speaking at the launch of the Digital Edition at Cambridge University Library

"It speaks directly to the work of the Cambridge Digital Humanities Project where colleagues across the University’s Faculties are experimenting with technology to advance scholarship in Cambridge and around the world.”

Despite the adaptations of his work by Kubrick, Tom Stoppard (Dalliance and Undiscovered Country) and David Hare (The Blue Room), the literary achievements of Schnitzler remain relatively under-celebrated outside Austria and Germany.

 “Schnitzler is a really important writer who is not read as much as he should be in the English-speaking world, in comparison to writers of the same period like Kafka or Stefan Zweig, for example,” added Professor Webber. “It’s hard to say why not – he did really important, innovative work and was able to weave together experimental and more traditional modes of writing in a way that was distinctive and of real cultural historical significance.”

Dr Neumann added: “The play we staged is seen as one of the most radical of his dramatic experiments, where he reviewed his own work and parodied it, but also examined the general status of theatre in the early 1900s. The archival research I have been doing has enabled me to put a spotlight on the genesis of his play in a way that has crucially informed the UK premiere of this work in close proximity to the archive.”

Puppets from Paul Brann’s performance of Schnitzler’s Gallant Cassian (Marionetten cycle). Courtesy of the Munich Stadtmuseum.

Puppets from Paul Brann’s performance of Schnitzler’s Gallant Cassian (Marionetten cycle). Courtesy of the Munich Stadtmuseum.

The production of the play was also an experiment with cultural space, transforming the quiet and studious Rare Books Reading Room into the site of physical spectacle that is the Prater, the rumbustious Viennese amusement park ca. 1900. Much of the cultural and textual critical research that is associated with the edition is also focused on questions of space and time in Schnitzler’s work.

Schnitzler has particular status as a critical chronicler of a space (the city of Vienna) in its relation to a particular time – the first decades of the twentieth century, when the city saw a remarkable efflorescence of cultural and intellectual activity. An upcoming special number of the journal, Austrian Studies, with the title Placing Schnitzler, co-edited by Professor Webber and Co-I, Dr Judith Beniston (UCL), explores these questions in the light of the editorial work being undertaken in the UK, Germany and Austria.

The question of cultural space has opened up fascinating avenues of research, often prompted in unanticipated ways by archival finds. One such was the discovery of a version of the orgiastic masked ball scenario in Traumnovelle in manuscript drafts for the earlier drama, Das weite Land, the basis for Stoppard’s Undiscovered Country. Professor Webber has undertaken a new reading of this play, and in particular its relationship to Jewish identity, based upon a drawing found in another part of the manuscript.

Drs Beniston and Neumann have also explored new perspectives on the entanglement of medical ethics with institutional and national politics and the anti-Semitism of early twentieth-century Austria in the play, Professor Bernhardi, with a particular focus on the questions of mise-en-scène (the arrangement of props and scenery on the stage and in film).

Cultural space also provides the focus of an additional, interactive resource developed as part of the UK project by filmmaker Dr Frederick Baker (Cambridge/Vienna).

The Schnitzler:Story:Spheres, which will soon be accessible through the UL’s digital portal for the Schnitzler edition, uses 360-degree photographic technology to explore the associations of spaces that had particular importance for Schnitzler’s life and works.

University Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner speaking at the launch of the Digital Edition.

University Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner speaking at the launch of the Digital Edition.

The panoramic views of such locations of spectacle and performance as the anatomy theatre (Schnitzler trained and initially practised as a doctor), Vienna’s Imperial Burgtheater (where several of Schnitzler’s dramas were premiered) and the puppet-theatre at the Prater (the scene for The Great Wurstel) become spaces of discovery.

By clicking on embedded hotspots, users can explore the spaces in question for Schnitzler’s writing and its cultural context through text, image and film material, including links to pages from the archive and to the rich new resources of the digital edition.