Although known principally for his modernist masterpiece, The Man without Qualities, Robert Musil (1880–1942) was also a playwright and drama critic. As an observer and researcher of the psychology of aesthetic experience, a student of anthropology and mysticism, and a writer who sometimes practiced the art of literature like an essayist and scientific experimenter, Musil saw in theater the ideal testing ground for questions about perception, reality, and the effects of ritual practices like formal variation, repetition, and the suspension of normal consciousness.
In the theater of the fraught period between the two world wars, Musil recognized a crisis that was symptomatic of larger social, political, and aesthetic problems. In seeing Art as a social and cultural stimulus, he leveled piercing critiques at the commodification and conformism of the Culture Industry of his time. In contrast to its mostly shallow entertainment, Musil saw the potential of theater as a force that could inspire viewers toward an existential shattering of received ideas and a renewal of “motivated” existence.
With Theater Symptoms, readers encounter Musil the dramatist and theoretician of theater, adding a creative and critical voice to the discourse surrounding Modernism. Theater Symptoms includes translations of Musil’s plays; a selection of play fragments; exacting diagnoses of drama, including a utopian vision of theater; and commentaries on the state of drama in the early 20th Century. Musil’s reviews of Stanislavsky’s Moscow troupe, cabaret performances of Yvette Guilbert, productions of Strindberg, Schnitzler, Chekhov, and others, reveal Musil to be a perceptive and visionary analyst of what theater was and what it could be.
Theater Symptoms constitutes not only the first collected volume in English of Musil’s finished and unfinished plays, but a large body of work concerning itself with the symptoms of and possible cures for the dangerous decline, not only of theater or art, but also, in Musil’s view, of social relations: a descent from an ethical-aesthetic and “motivated” conduct of life to that of an uncritical, insensate, and consumer-driven society.
This is the third volume of Musil’s writings translated by Genese Grill and published by Contra Mundum Press.
Robert Musil, Theater Symptoms: Plays & Writings on Drama (2020)
Translated by Genese Grill
FORTHCOMING NOVEMBER 2020
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