Composers and their stage works 

The Blue Room

Freely adapted from La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler

David Hare

It was never Schnitzler's intention that his loose series of sexual scenes, Reigen, should be publicly performed. When he wrote them in 1900, the author called them "completely unprintable" and intended only that they should be "read among friends". It was no surprise when the eventual première of the work was closed down by the police in Vienna in 1921 . Similarly, the actors in its first Berlin production the same year had to endure a six-day trial on charges of obscenity.

For years the sketches enjoyed an underground reputation. In 1923, when Schnitzler was sixty-one, a performance was given in a private house in London, again for friends only, with members of the Bloomsbury group joining cheerfully in the proceedings. Virginia Woolf was moved to complain in a letter that "the audience felt simply as if a real copulation were going on in the room and tried to talk to drown the very realistic groans made by Partridge! It was a great relief when Marjorie sang hymns."

It was only when Max Ophüls made his famous film in 1950 that the work escaped its provocative reputation and became associated instead with a certain kind of enchantment. The film, set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, brings out all the wistfulness and elegance of the subject matter. It boasts one of the most formidable casts in French cinema with Gerard Philipe, Danielle Darrieux, Jean-Louis Barrault and Simone Signoret appearing, among others. Few people knew the original work well enough to notice that Ophüls had, in fact, adapted the text with extreme freedom, even introducing a figure - not in Schnitzler - of the allseeing ringmaster, superbly played by Anton Walbrook. ("What am I in the story? I am in short any of you. I am the incarnation of your desire to know everything.)

After the success of the film, the play became better known as La Ronde. For myself, I first heard of it when my father told me that only when I was grown up would he allow me to see what he called his favourite film of all time. Since 1981, when the theatrical rights fell temporarily out of copyright, there have been a good many stage versions, and in many different languages. Some of them choose, as The Blue Room does, to re-set the play in a contemporary world. Mine is also not the first version to allocate the ten parts to just two actors.

Over the years audiences have continued to argue about whether the idea of the sexual daisy-chain that is at the centre of Schnitzler's conception is profound or over-neat. Whichever, it is wonderfully malleable. When I have put plays by Chekhov, Brecht and Pirandello into English, I have never considered anything but a fairly strict fidelity to the original. But when Sam Mendes asked me to adapt Schnitzler, I instinctively chose to follow Ophüls's example, licensed by the knowledge that the author himself never put the material into a form where he foresaw it being performed.

The hundred years that have followed the writing of Reigen have seen a supposed upheaval both in social attitudes and in sexual morals. But the fascination of the work is that its treatment seems hardly dated at all. Schnitzler was not only Freud's almost exact contemporary. He was also, like Freud, like Chekhov, a doctor.

His essential subject is the gulf between what we imagine, what we remember and what we actually experience. You have to wait years (in fact for Marcel Proust to stop partygoing and get on with his great novel) before you find a European author having the prescience to chart this treacherous, twentieth-century territory of projection and desire with as much longing and insight as Schnitzler.

David Hare July 1998