Arthur Schnitzler: Papers shed light on playwright who inspired Freud and Kubrick

His plays were the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, David Hare's The Blue Room and Tom Stoppard's Dalliance, but outside Austria and Germany, the name Arthur Schnitzler is not instantly recognisable.

But now, more than 75 years after his death, a collection of the Jewish playwright's unpublished letters and draft manuscripts are going on public display for the first time in an exhibition at King's College London.

The exhibition, which opened yesterday and runs until 26 July, is made up of material drawn from a vast archive of material rescued from destruction by the Nazis after the playwright's death in 1931. Schnitzler's estranged wife, Olga, had asked a Cambridge student studying in his home city of Vienna, Eric Blackall, to arrange for the papers to be sent to the English university.

During his lifetime, Schnitzler was renowned for the sexual frankness of his writing, which led his friends to describe him teasingly as "a pornographer". Adolf Hitler cited his work as an example of "Jewish filth".

The writer had started visiting prostitutes at the age of 16 and was a notorious ladies' man, for several years keeping a log of every orgasm he achieved. But he was also famed for his outspoken attacks against anti-Semitism – the Cambridge archive contains correspondence from the Zionist founder, Theodor Herzl, who urged Schnitzler to move to Palestine and become "the leading playwright of the Jewish state".

The exhibition's curator, Lorenzo Bellettini, said: "He's very well known [in his homeland] but, indirectly, so much has been produced in the English language based on Schnitzler. Schnitzler himself is not very well known outside Austria and Germany. What this exhibition wishes to offer is an overview of the plethora of his literary legacy which is never shown."

Since the early 20th century, Schnitzler's plays have been adapted for the screen. His 1895 play Liebelei (Flirtation) was also adapted by Stoppard as Dalliance in 1986. Kubrick then turned Schnitzler's late novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story) into his last film, starring the then real-life couple Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise as a New York husband and wife torn apart by jealousy.

Before that, the best-known screen adaptation of Schnitzler's work was Ophuls's La Ronde of 1950, based on the 1897 play Reigen, about a chain of sexual encounters set against the backdrop of a syphilis epidemic in decadent Viennese society. When it was first performed in 1921, the theatre was closed by police and following a six-day obscenity trial, Schnitzler decided it should not be staged again.

Born in Vienna in 1862, the son of a prominent laryngologist, Schnitzler studied medicine to please his father, but soon turned to his real passion, writing. By 1900 he was firmly established as one of the avant garde group of writers known as Jung Wien (Young Vienna).

Although the playwright never met Sigmund Freud, the Viennese psychologist described Schnitzler as his "doppelgänger" and famously wrote in a letter to the author: "I have gained the impression that you have learnt through intuition – though actually as a result of sensitive introspection – everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons."

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