Origin of the German Theatre—Hans Sachs—Gryphius—The age of Gottsched— Wretched Imitation of the French—Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller—Review of their Works—Their influence on Chivalrous Dramas, Affecting Dramas, and Family Pictures—Prospect for Futurity.
In its cultivated state, the German theatre is much younger than any of those of which we hare already spoken, and we are not therefore to wonder if the store of our literature in valuable original works, in this department, is also much more scanty.
Little more than half a century ago, German literature was in point of talent at the very lowest ebb; at that time, however, greater exertions first began to be made, and the Germans have since advanced with gigantic strides. And if Dramatic Art has not been cultivated with the same success, and I may add with the same zeal, as other branches, the cause must perhaps be attributed to a number of unfavourable circumstances rather than to any want of talents.
The rude beginnings of the stage are with us as old as with other countries [Footnote: The first mention of the mysteries or religious representations in Germany, with which I am acquainted, is to be found in the Eulenspiegel. In the 13th History, we may see this merry, but somewhat disgusting trick, of the celebrated buffoon: "How Eulenspiegel made a play in the Easter fair, in which the priest and his maid-servant fought with the boors." Eulenspiegel is stated to have lived towards the middle of the fourteenth century, but the book cannot be placed farther back than the beginning of the fifteenth.]. The oldest drama which we have in manuscript is the production of one Hans Rosenpluet, a native of Nuremberg, about the middle of the fifteenth century. He was followed by two fruitful writers born in the same imperial city, Hans Sachs and Ayrer. Among the works of Hans Sachs we find, besides merry carnival plays, a great multitude of tragedies, comedies, histories both spiritual and temporal, where the prologue and epilogue are always spoken by the herald. The latter, it appears, were all acted without any theatrical apparatus, not by players, but by respectable citizens, as an allowable relaxation for the mind. The carnival plays are somewhat coarse, but not unfrequently extremely droll, as the jokes in general are; they often run out into the wildest farce, and, inspired by mirth and drollery, leave far behind the narrow bounds of the world of reality. In all these plays the composition is respectable, and without round-about goes at once to the point: all the characters, from God the Father downwards, state at once in the clearest terms what they have at heart, and the reasons which have caused them to make their appearance; they resemble those figures in old pictures who have written labels placed in their mouths, to aid the defective expression of the attitudes. In form they approach most nearly to what was elsewhere called Moralities; allegorical personages are frequent in them. These sketches of a dramatic art yet in its infancy, are feebly but not falsely drawn; and if only we had continued to proceed in the same path, we should have produced something better and more characteristic than the fruits of the seventeenth century.
In the first half of this century, poetry left the sphere of common life, to which it had so long been confined, and fell into the hands of the learned. Opiz, who may be considered as the founder of its modern form, translated several tragedies from the ancients into verse, and composed pastoral operas after the manner of the Italians; but I know not whether he wrote anything expressly for the stage. He was followed by Andreas Gryphius, who may be styled our first dramatic writer. He possessed a certain extent of erudition in his particular department, as is proved by several of his imitations and translations; a piece from the French, one from the Italian, a tragedy from the Flemish of Vondel; lastly, a farce called Peter Squenz, an extension of the burlesque tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, in The Midsummer Night's Dream of Shakspeare. The latter was then almost unknown beyond his own island; the learned Morhof, who wrote in the last half of the seventeenth century, confesses that he had never seen Shakspeare's works, though he was very well acquainted with Ben Jonson. Even about the middle of the last century, a writer of repute in his days, and not without merit, has in one of his treatises instituted a comparison between Shakspeare and Andreas Gryphius, the whole resemblance consisting in this, that Gryphius, like Shakspeare, was also fond of calling up the spirits of the departed. He seems rather to have had Vondel, the Fleming, before his eyes, a writer still highly celebrated by his countrymen, and universally called by them, the great Vondel, while Gryphius himself has been consigned to oblivion. Unfortunately the metre in Gryphius's plays is the Alexandrine; the form, however, is not so confined as that of the French at an after period; the scene sometimes changes, and the interludes, partly musical, partly allegorical, bear some resemblance to the English masques. In other respects, Gryphius possessed little theatrical skill, and I do not even know if his pieces were ever actually brought out on the stage. The tragedies of Lohenstein, who in his day may be styled the Marino of our literature, in their structure resemble those of Gryphius; but, not to mention their other faults, they are of such an immeasurable length as to set all ideas of representation at defiance.
The pitiful condition of the theatre in Germany at the end of the seventeenth and during the first third part of the eighteenth century, wherever there was any other stage than that of puppet-shows and mountebanks, corresponded exactly to that of the other branches of our literature. We have a standard for this wretchedness, in the fact that Gottsched actually once passed for the restorer of our literature; Gottsched, whose writings resemble the watery beverage, which was then usually recommended to convalescent patients, from an idea that they could bear nothing stronger, which, however, did but still more enfeeble their stomachs. Gottsched, among his other labours, composed a great deal for the theatre; connected with a certain Madam Neuber, who was at the head of a company of players in Leipsic, he discarded Punch (Hanswurst), whom they buried solemnly with great triumph. I can easily conceive that the extemporaneous part of Punch, of which we may even yet form some notion from the puppet-shows, was not always very skilfully filled up, and that many platitudes were occasionally uttered by him; but still, on the whole, Punch had certainly more sense in his little finger than Gottsched in his whole body. Punch, as an allegorical personage, is immortal; and however strong the belief in his death may be, in some grave office-bearer or other he still pops up unexpectedly upon us almost every day.
Gottsched and his school now inundated the German theatre, which, under the influence of these insipid and diffuse translations from the French, was hereafter to become regular. Heads of a better description began to labour for the stage; but, instead of bringing forth really original works, they contented themselves with producing wretched imitations; and the reputation of the French theatre was so great, that from it was borrowed the most contemptible mannerism no less than the fruits of a better taste. Thus, for example, Gellert still composed pastoral plays after bad French models, in which shepherds and shepherdesses, with rose- red and apple-green ribands, uttered all manner of insipid compliments to one another.
Besides the versions of French comedies, others, translated from the Danish of Holberg, were acted with great applause. This writer has certainly great merit. His pictures of manners possess great local truth; his exhibitions of depravity, folly, and stupidity, are searching and complete; in strength of comic motives and situations he is not defective; only he does not show much invention in his intrigues. The execution runs out too much into breadth. The Danes speak in the highest terms of the delicacy of his jokes in their own language; but to our present taste the vulgarity of his tone is revolting, though in the low sphere in which he moves, and amidst incessant storms of cudgellings, it may be natural enough. Attempts have lately been made to revive his works, but seldom with any great success. As his principal merit consists in his characterization, which certainly borders somewhat on caricature, he requires good comic actors to represent him with advantage.
A few plays of that time, in the manners of our own country, by Gellert and Elias Schlegel, are not without merit; only they have this error, that in drawing folly and stupidity the same wearisomeness has crept into their picture which is inseparable from them in real life.
In tragedies, properly so called, after French models, the first who were in any degree successful were Elias Schlegel, and afterwards Cronegk and Weisse. I know not whether their labours, if translated into good French verse, would then appear as frigid as they now do in German. It is insufferable to us to read verses of an ell long, in which the style seldom rises above watery prose; for a true poetic language was not formed in German until a subsequent period. The Alexandrine, which in no language can be a good metre, is doubly stiff and heavy in ours. Long after our poetry had again begun to take a higher flight, Gotter, in his translation of French tragedies, made the last attempt to ennoble the Alexandrine and procure its re-admission into Tragedy, and, it appears to me, proved by his example that we must for ever renounce the idea. It serves admirably, however, for a parody of the stilted style of false tragical emphasis; its use, too, is much to be recommended in some kinds of Comedy, especially in small afterpieces. Those earlier tragedies, after the French model, notwithstanding the uncommon applause they met with in their day, show how little hope there is of any progress of art in the way of slavish imitation. Even a form, narrow in itself, when it has been established under the influence of a national way of thinking, has still some significance; but when it is blindly taken on trust in other countries, it becomes altogether a Spanish mantle.
Thus bad translations of French comedies, with pieces from Holberg, and afterwards from Goldoni, and with a few imitations of a public nature, and without any peculiar spirit, constituted the whole repertory of our stage, till at last Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller, successively appeared and redeemed the German theatre from its long-continued mediocrity.
Lessing, indeed, in his early dramatic labours, did homage to the spirit of his age. His youthful comedies are rather insignificant; they do not already announce the great mind who was afterwards to form an epoch in so many departments of literature. He sketched several tragedies after the French rules, and executed several scenes in Alexandrines, but has succeeded with none: it would appear that he had not the requisite facility for so difficult a metre. Even his Miss Sara Sampson is a familiar tragedy in the lachrymose and creeping style, in which we evidently see that he had George Barnwell before his eyes as a model. In the year 1767, his connexion with a company of actors in Hamburgh, and the editorship of a periodical paper dedicated to theatrical criticism, gave him an opportunity of considering more closely into the nature and requisitions of theatrical composition. In this paper he displayed much wit and acuteness; his bold, nay, (considering the opinions then prevalent,) his hazardous attacks were especially successful in overthrowing the usurpation of French taste in Tragedy. With such success were his labours attended, that, shortly after the publication of his Dramaturgie, translations of French tragedies, and German tragedies modelled after them, disappeared altogether from the stage. He was the first who spoke with warmth of Shakspeare, and paved the way for his reception in Germany. But his lingering faith in Aristotle, with the influence which Diderot's writings had had on him, produced a strange compound in his theory of the dramatic art. He did not understand the rights of poetical imitation, and demanded not only in dialogue, but everywhere else also, a naked copy of nature, just as if this were in general allowable, or even possible in the fine arts. His attack on the Alexandrine was just, but, on the other hand, he wished to, and was only too successful in abolishing all versification: for it is to this that we must impute the incredible deficiency of our actors in getting by heart and delivering verse. Even yet they cannot habituate themselves to it. He was thus also indirectly the cause of the insipid affectation of nature of our Dramatic writers, which a general use of versification would, in some degree, have restrained.
Lessing, by his own confession, was no poet, and the few dramas which he produced in his riper years were the slow result of great labour. Minna van Barnhelm is a true comedy of the refined class; in point of form it holds a middle place between the French and English style; the spirit of the invention, however, and the social tone portrayed in it, are peculiarly German. Every thing is even locally determined; and the allusions to the memorable events of the Seven Years War contributed not a little to the extraordinary success which this comedy obtained at the time. In the serious part the expression of feeling is not free from affectation, and the difficulties of the two lovers are carried even to a painful height. The comic secondary figures are drawn with much drollery and humour, and bear a genuine German stamp.
Emilia Galotti was still more admired than Minna von Barnhelm, but hardly, I think, with justice. Its plan, perhaps, has been better considered, and worked out with still greater diligence; but Minna von Barnhelm answers better to the genuine idea of Comedy than Emilia Galotti to that of Tragedy. Lessing's theory of the Dramatic Art would, it is easily conceived, have much less of prejudicial influence on a demi- prosaic species than upon one which must inevitably sink when it does not take the highest flight. He was now too well acquainted with the world to fall again into the drawling, lachrymose, and sermonizing tone which prevails in his Miss Sara Sampson throughout. On the other hand, his sound sense, notwithstanding all his admiration of Diderot, preserved him from his declamatory and emphatical style, which owes its chief effect to breaks and marks of interrogation. But as in the dialogue he resolutely rejected all poetical elevation, he did not escape this fault without falling into another. He introduced into Tragedy the cool and close observation of Comedy; in Emilia Galotti the passions are rather acutely and wittily characterized than eloquently expressed. Under a belief that the drama is most powerful when it exhibits faithful copies of what we know, and comes nearest home to ourselves, he has disguised, under fictitious names, modern European circumstances, and the manners of the day, an event imperishably recorded in the history of the world, a famous deed of the rough old Roman virtue—the murder of Virginia by her father. Virginia is converted into a Countess Galotti, Virginius into Count Odoardo, an Italian prince takes the place of Appius Claudius, and a chamberlain that of the unblushing minister of his lusts, &c. It is not properly a familiar tragedy, but a court tragedy in the conversational tone, to which in some parts the sword of state and the hat under the arm as essentially belong as to many French tragedies. Lessing wished to transplant into the renownless circle of the principality of Massa Carara the violent injustice of the Decemvir's inevitable tyranny; but as by taking a few steps we can extricate ourselves from so petty a territory, so, after a slight consideration, we can easily escape from the assumption so laboriously planned by the poet; on which, however, the necessity of the catastrophe wholly rests. The visible care with which he has assigned a motive for every thing, invites to a closer examination, in which we are little likely to be interrupted by any of the magical illusions of imagination: and in such examination the want of internal connectedness cannot escape detection, however much of thought and reflection the outward structure of a drama may display.
It is singular enough, that of all the dramatical works of Lessing, the last, Nathan der Weise, which he wrote when his zeal for the improvement of the German theatre had nearly cooled, and, as he says, merely with a view to laugh at theologists, should be the most conformable to the genuine rules of art. A remarkable tale of Boccacio is wrought up with a number of inventions, which, however wonderful, are yet not improbable, if the circumstances of the times are considered; the fictitious persons are grouped round a real and famous character, the great Saladin, who is drawn with historical truth; the crusades in the background, the scene at Jerusalem, the meeting of persons of various nations and religions on this Oriental soil,—all this gives to the work a romantic air, and with the thoughts, foreign to the age in question, which for the sake of his philosophical views the poet has interspersed, forms a contrast somewhat hazardous indeed, but yet exceedingly attractive. The form is freer and more comprehensive than in Lessing's other pieces; it is very nearly that of a drama of Shakspeare. He has also returned here to the use of versification, which he had formerly rejected; not indeed of the Alexandrine, for the discarding of which from the serious drama we are in every respect indebted to him, but the rhymeless Iambic. The verses in Nathan are indeed often harsh and carelessly laboured, but truly dialogical; and the advantageous influence of versification becomes at once apparent upon comparing the tone of the present piece with the prose of the others. Had not the development of the truths which Lessing had particularly at heart demanded so much of repose, had there been more of rapid motion in the action, the piece would certainly have pleased also on the stage. That Lessing, with all his independence of mind, was still in his dramatical principles influenced in some measure by the general inclination and tastes of his age, I infer from this, that the imitators of Nathan were very few as compared with those of Emilia Galotti. Among the striking imitations of the latter style, I will merely mention the Julius van Tarent.
Engel must be regarded as a disciple of Lessing. His small after- pieces in the manner of Lessing are perfectly insignificant; but his treatise on imitation (Mimik) shows the point to which the theory of his master leads. This book contains many useful observations on the first elements of the language of gesture: the grand error of the author is, that he considered it a complete system of mimicry or imitation, though it only treats of the expression of the passions, and does not contain a syllable on the subject of exhibition of character. Moreover, in his histrionic art he has not given a place to the ideas of tragic comic; and it may easily be supposed that he rejects ideality of every kind [Footnote: Among other strange things Engel says, that as the language of Euripides, the latest, and in his opinion the most perfect of the Greek tragedians has less elevation than that of his predecessors, it is probable that, had the Greeks carried Tragedy to further perfection, they would have proceeded a step farther: the next step forward would have been to discard verse altogether. So totally ignorant was Engel of the spirit of Grecian art. This approach to the tone of common life, which certainly may be traced in Euripides, is the very indication of the decline and impending fall of Tragedy: but even in Comedy the Greeks never could bring themselves to make use of prose.], and merely requires a bare copy of nature.
The nearer I draw to the present times the more I wish to be general in my observations, and to avoid entering into a minute criticism of works of living writers with part of whom I have been, or still am, in relations of personal friendship or hostility. Of the dramatic career, however, of Goethe and Schiller, two writers of whom our nation is justly proud, and whose intimate society has frequently enabled me to correct and enlarge my own ideas of art, I may speak with the frankness that is worthy of their great and disinterested labours. The errors which, under the influence of erroneous principles, they at first gave rise to, are either already, or soon will be, sunk in oblivion, even because from their very mistakes they contrived to advance towards greater purity and perfectness; their works will live, and in them, to say the least, we have the foundation of a dramatic school at once essentially German, and governed by genuine principles of art.
Scarcely had Goethe, in his Werther, published as it were a declaration of the rights of feeling in opposition to the tyranny of social relations, when, by the example which he set in Gotz von Berlichingen, he protested against the arbitrary rules which had hitherto fettered dramatic poetry. In this play we see not an imitation of Shakspeare, but the inspiration excited in a kindred mind by a creative genius. In the dialogue, he put in practice Lessing's principles of nature, only with greater boldness; for in it he rejected not only versification and all embellishments, but also disregarded the laws of written language to a degree of licence which had never been ventured upon before. He avoided all poetical circumlocutions; the picture was to be the very thing itself; and thus he sounded in our ears the tone of a remote age in a degree illusory enough for those at least who had never learned from historical monuments the very language in which our ancestors themselves spoke. Most movingly has he expressed the old German cordiality: the situations which are sketched with a few rapid strokes are irresistibly powerful; the whole conveys a great historical meaning, for it represents the conflict between a departing and a coming age; between a century of rude but vigorous independence, and one of political tameness. In this composition the poet never seems to have had an eye to its representation on the stage; rather does he appear, in his youthful arrogance, to have scorned it for its insufficiency.
It seems, in general, to have been the grand object of Goethe to express his genius in his works, and to give new poetical animation to his age; as to form, he was indifferent about it, though, for the most part, he preferred the dramatic. At the same time he was a warm friend of the theatre, and sometimes condescended even to comply with its demands as settled by custom and the existing taste; as, for instance, in his Clavigo, a familiar tragedy in Lessing's manner. Besides other defects of this piece, the fifth act does not correspond with the rest. In the four first acts Goethe adhered pretty closely to the story of Beaumarchais, but he invented the catastrophe; and when we observe that it strongly reminds the reader of Ophelia's burial, and the meeting of Hamlet and Laertes at her grave, we have said enough to convey an idea how strong a contrast it forms to the tone and colouring of the rest. In Stella Goethe has taken nearly the same liberty with the story of Count von Gleichen which Lessing did with that of Virginia, but his labours were still more unsuccessful; the trait of the times of the Crusades on which he founded his play is affecting, true-hearted, and even edifying; but Stella can only flatter the sentimentality of superficial feeling.
At a later period he endeavoured to effect a reconciliation between his own views of art and the common dramatic forms, even the very lowest, in all of which almost he has made at least a single attempt. In Iphigenia, he attempted to express the spirit of Ancient Tragedy, according to his conceptions of it, with regard especially to repose, perspicuity, and ideality. With the same simplicity, flexibility, and noble elegance, he composed his Tasso, in which he has availed himself of an historical anecdote to embody in a general significance the contrast between a court and a poet's life. Egmont again is a romantic and historical drama, the style of which steers a middle course between his first manner in Gotz, and the form of Shakspeare. Erwin und Elmire and Claudine von Villabella, if I may say so, are ideal operettes, which breathe so lightly and airily that, with the accompaniments of music and acting, they would be in danger of becoming heavy and prosaic; in these pieces the noble and sustained style of the dialogue in Tasso is diversified with the most tender songs. Jery und Bately is a charming natural picture of Swiss manners, and in the spirit and form of the best French operettes; Scherz List und Bache again is a true opera buffa, full of Italian Lazzi. Die Mitschuldigen is a comedy of common life in rhyme, and after the French rules. Goethe carried his condescension so far that he even wrote a continuation of an after-piece of Florian's; and his taste was so impartial that he even translated several of Voltaire's tragedies for the German stage. Goethe's words and rhythm no doubt have always golden resonance, but still we cannot praise these pieces as successful translations; and indeed it would be matter of regret if that had succeeded which ought never to have been attempted. To banish these unprofitable productions from the German soil, it is not necessary to call in the aid of Lessing's Dramaturgie; Goethe's own masterly parody on French Tragedy in some scenes of Esther, will do this much more amusingly and effectually.
Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit (The Triumph of Sensibility) is a highly ingenious satire of Goethe's own imitators, and inclines to the arbitrary comic, and the fancifully symbolical of Aristophanes, but a modest Aristophanes in good company and at court. At a much earlier period Goethe had, in some of his merry tales and carnival plays, completely appropriated the manner of our honest Hans Sachs.
In all these transformations we distinctly recognize the same free and powerful poetical spirit, to which we may safely apply the Homeric lines on Proteus:
All' aetoi protista leon genet' aeugeneios— Pineto d' aegron aedor, kai dendreon uphipertaelon. Odyss. lib. iv
A lion now, he curls a surgy mane; Here from our strict embrace a stream he glides, And last, sublime his stately growth he rears, A tree, and well-dissembled foliage wears.—POPE. [Footnote: I have here quoted the translation of Pope, though nothing can well be more vapid and more unlike the original, which is literally, "First, he became a lion with a huge mane—and then flowing water; and a tree with lofty foliage."—It would not, perhaps, be advisable to recur to our earliest mode of classical translation, line for line, and nearly word for word; but when German Literature shall be better known in England, it will be seen from the masterly versions of Voss and Schlegel, that without diluting by idle epithets one line into three, as in the above example, it is still possible to combine fidelity with spirit. The German translation quoted by Mr. Schlegel runs, Erstlich ward er ein Leu mit furchterlich rollender Mahne, Floss dann als Wasser dahin, und rauscht' als Baum in den Wolken. —TRANS.]
To the youthful epoch belongs his Faust, a work which was early planned, though not published till a late period, and which even in its latest shape is still a fragment, and from its very nature perhaps must always remain so. It is hard to say whether we are here more lost in astonishment at the heights which the poet frequently reaches, or seized with giddiness at the depths which he lays open to our sight. But this is not the place to express the whole of our admiration of this labyrinthine and boundless work, the peculiar creation of Goethe; we hare merely to consider it in a dramatic point of view. The marvellous popular story of Faustus is a subject peculiarly adapted for the stage; and the Marionette play, from which Goethe, after Lessing [Footnote: Lessing has borrowed the only scene of his sketch which he has published, (Faustus summoning the evil spirits in order to select the nimblest for his servant,) from the old piece which bears the showy title: Infelix Prudentia, or Doctor Joannes Faustus. In England Marlow had long ago written a Faustus, but unfortunately it is not printed in Dodsley's Collection.], took the first idea of a drama, satisfies our expectation even in the meagre scenes and sorry words of ignorant puppet-showmen. Goethe's work, which in some points adheres closely to the tradition, but leaves it entirely in others, purposely runs out in all directions beyond the dimensions of the theatre. In many scenes the action stands quite still, and they consist wholly of long soliloquies, or conversations, delineating Faustus' internal conditions and dispositions, and the development of his reflections on the insufficiency of human knowledge, and the unsatisfactory lot of human nature; other scenes, though in themselves extremely ingenious and significant, nevertheless, in regard to the progress of the action, possess an accidental appearance; many again, while they are in the conception theatrically effective, are but slightly sketched,—rhapsodical fragments without beginning or end, in which the poet opens for a moment a surprising prospect, and then immediately drops the curtain again: whereas in the truly dramatic poem, intended to carry the spectators along with it, the separate parts must be fashioned after the figure of the whole, so that we may say, each scene may have its exposition, its intrigue, and winding up. Some scenes, full of the highest energy and overpowering pathos, for example, the murder of Valentine, and Margaret and Faustus in the dungeon, prove that the poet was a complete master of stage effect, and that he merely sacrificed it for the sake of more comprehensive views. He makes frequent demands on the imagination of his readers; nay, he compels them, by way of background for his flying groups, to supply immense moveable pictures, and such as no theatrical art is capable of bringing before the eye. To represent the Faustus of Goethe, we must possess Faustus' magic staff, and his formulas of conjuration. And yet with all this unsuitableness for outward representation, very much may be learned from this wonderful work, with regard both to plan and execution. In a prologue, which was probably composed at a later period, the poet explains how, if true to his genius, he could not accommodate himself to the demands of a mixed multitude of spectators, and writes in some measure a farewell letter to the theatre.
All must allow that Goethe possesses dramatic talent in a very high degree, but not indeed much theatrical talent. He is much more anxious to effect his object by tender development than by rapid external motion; even the mild grace of his harmonious mind prevented him from aiming at strong demagogic effect. Iphigenia in Taurus possesses, it is true, more affinity to the Greek spirit than perhaps any other work of the moderns composed before Goethe's; but is not so much an ancient tragedy as a reflected image of one, a musical echo: the violent catastrophes of the latter appear here in the distance only as recollections, and all is softly dissolved within the mind. The deepest and most moving pathos is to be found in Egmont, but in the conclusion this tragedy also is removed from the external world into the domain of an ideal soul-music.
That with this direction of his poetical career to the purest expression of his inspired imagining, without regard to any other object, and with the universality of his artistic studies, Goethe should not have had that decided influence on the shape of our theatre which, if he had chosen to dedicate himself exclusively and immediately to it, he might have exercised, is easily conceivable.
In the mean time, shortly after Goethe's first appearance, the attempt had been made to bring Shakspeare on our stage. The effort was a great and extraordinary one. Actors still alive acquired their first laurels in this wholly novel kind of exhibition, and Schroder, perhaps, in some of the most celebrated tragic and comic parts, attained to the same perfection for which Garrick had been idolized. As a whole, however, no one piece appeared in a very perfect shape; most of them were in heavy prose translations, and frequently mere extracts, with disfiguring alterations, were exhibited. The separate characters and situations had been hit to a certain degree of success, but the sense of his composition was often missed.
In this state of things Schiller made his appearance, a man endowed with all the qualifications necessary to produce at once a strong effect on the multitude, and on nobler minds. He composed his earliest works while very young, and unacquainted with that world which he attempted to paint; and although a genius independent and boldly daring, he was nevertheless influenced in various ways by the models which he saw in the already mentioned pieces of Lessing, by the earlier labours of Goethe, and in Shakspeare, so far as he could understand him without an acquaintance with the original.
In this way were produced the works of his youth:—Die Rauber, Cabale und Liebe, and Fiesco. The first, wild and horrible as it was, produced so powerful an effect as even to turn the heads of youthful enthusiasts. The defective imitation here of Shakspeare is not to be mistaken: Francis Moor is a prosaical Richard III., ennobled by none of the properties which in the latter mingle admiration with aversion. Cabale und Liebe can hardly affect us by its extravagant sentimentality, but it tortures us by the most painful impressions. Fiesco is in design the most perverted, in effect the feeblest.
So noble a mind could not long persevere in such mistaken courses, though they gained him applauses which might have rendered the continuance of his blindness excusable. He had in his own case experienced the dangers of an undisciplined spirit and an ungovernable defiance of all constraining authority, and therefore, with incredible diligence and a sort of passion, he gave himself up to artistic discipline. The work which marks this new epoch is Don Carlos. In parts we observe a greater depth in the delineation of character; yet the old and tumid extravagance is not altogether lost, but merely clothed with choicer forms. In the situations there is much of pathetic power, the plot is complicated even to epigrammatic subtlety; but of such value in the eyes of the poet were his dearly purchased reflections on human nature and social institutions, that, instead of expressing them by the progress of the action, he exhibited them with circumstantial fulness, and made his characters philosophize more or less on themselves and others, and by that means swelled his work to a size quite incompatible with theatrical limits.
Historical and philosophical studies seemed now, to the ultimate profit of his art, to have seduced the poet for a time from his poetical career, to which he returned with a riper mind, enriched with varied knowledge, and truly enlightened at last with respect to his own aims and means. He now applied himself exclusively to Historical Tragedy, and endeavoured, by divesting himself of his personality, to rise to a truly objective representation. In Wallenstein he has adhered so conscientiously to historical truth, that he could not wholly master his materials, an event of no great historical extent is spun out into two plays, with prologue in some degree didactical. In form he has closely followed Shakspeare; only that he might not make too large a demand on the imagination of the spectators, he has endeavoured to confine the changes of place and time within narrower limits. He also tied himself down to a more sustained observance of tragical dignity, and has brought forward no persons of mean condition, or at least did not allow them to speak in their natural tone, and banished into the prelude the mere people, here represented by the army, though Shakspeare introduced them with such vividness and truth into the very midst of the great public events. The loves of Thekla and Max Piccolomini form, it is true, properly an episode, and bear the stamp of an age very different from that depicted in the rest of the work; but it affords an opportunity for the most affecting scenes, and is conceived with equal tenderness and dignity.
Maria Stuart is planned and executed with more artistic skill, and also with greater depth and breadth. All is wisely weighed; we may censure particular parts as offensive: the quarrel for instance, between the two Queens, the wild fury of Mortimer's passion, &c.; but it is hardly possible to take any thing away without involving the whole in confusion. The piece cannot fail of effect; the last moments of Mary are truly worthy of a queen; religious impressions are employed with becoming earnestness; only from the care, perhaps superfluous, to exercise, after Mary's death, poetical justice on Elizabeth, the spectator is dismissed rather cooled and indifferent.
With such a wonderful subject as the Maid of Orleans, Schiller thought himself entitled to take greater liberties. The plot is looser; the scene with Montgomery, an epic intermixture, is at variance with the general tone; in the singular and inconceivable appearance of the black knight, the object of the poet is ambiguous; in the character of Talbot, and many other parts, Schiller has entered into an unsuccessful competition with Shakspeare; and I know not but the colouring employed, which is not so brilliant as might be imagined, is an equivalent for the severer pathos which has been sacrificed to it. The history of the Maid of Orleans, even to its details, is generally known; her high mission was believed by herself and generally by her contemporaries, and produced the most extraordinary effects. The marvel might, therefore, have been represented by the poet, even though the sceptical spirit of his contemporaries should have deterred him from giving it out for real; and the real ignominious martyrdom of this betrayed and abandoned heroine would have agitated us more deeply than the gaudy and rose-coloured one which, in contradiction to history, Schiller has invented for her. Shakspeare's picture, though partial from national prejudice, still possesses much more historical truth and profundity. However, the German piece will ever remain as a generous attempt to vindicate the honour of a name deformed by impudent ridicule; and its dazzling effect, strengthened by the rich ornateness of the language, deservedly gained for it on the stage the most eminent success.
Least of all am I disposed to approve of the principles which Schiller followed in The Bride of Messina, and which he openly avows in his preface. The examination of them, however, would lead me too far into the province of theory. It was intended to be a tragedy, at once ancient in its form, but romantic in substance. A story altogether fictitious is kept in a costume so indefinite and so devoid of all intrinsic probability, that the picture is neither truly ideal nor truly natural, neither mythological nor historical. The romantic poetry seeks indeed to blend together the most remote objects, but it cannot admit of combining incompatible things; the way of thinking of the people represented cannot be at once Pagan and Christian. I will not complain of him for borrowing openly as he has done; the whole is principally composed of two ingredients, the story of Eteocles and Polynices, who, notwithstanding the mediation of their mother Jocaste, contend for the sole possession of the throne, and of the brothers, in the Zwillingen van Klinger, and in Julius von Tarent, impelled to fratricide by rivalry in love. In the introduction of the choruses also, though they possess much lyrical sublimity and many beauties, the spirit of the ancients has been totally mistaken; as each of the hostile brothers has a chorus attached to his, the one contending against the other, they both cease to be a true chorus; that is, the voice of human sympathy and contemplation elevated above all personal considerations.
Schiller's last work, Wilhelm Tell, is, in my opinion, also his best. Here he has returned to the poetry of history; the manner in which he has handled his subject, is true, cordial, and when we consider Schiller's ignorance of Swiss nature and manners, wonderful in point of local truth. It is true he had here a noble source to draw from in the speaking pictures of the immortal John Muller. This soul-kindling picture of old German manners, piety, and true heroism, might have merited, as a solemn celebration of Swiss freedom, five hundred years after its foundation, to have been exhibited, in view of Tell's chapel on the banks of the lake of Lucerne, in the open air, and with the Alps for a background.
Schiller was carried off by an untimely death in the fulness of mental maturity; up to the last moment his health, which had long been undermined, was made to yield to his powerful will, and completely exhausted in the pursuit of most praiseworthy objects. How much might he not have still performed had he lived to dedicate himself exclusively to the theatre, and with every work attained a higher mastery in his art! He was, in the genuine sense of the word, a virtuous artist; with parity of mind he worshipped the true and the beautiful, and to his indefatigable, efforts to attain them his own existence was the sacrifice; he was, moreover, far removed from that petty self-love and jealousy but too common even among artists of excellence.
Great original minds in Germany have always been followed by a host of imitators, and hence both Goethe and Schiller have been the occasion, without any fault of theirs, of a number of defective and degenerate productions being brought on our stage.
Gotz van Berlichingen was followed by quite a flood of chivalrous plays, in which there was nothing historical but the names and other external circumstances, nothing chivalrous but the helmets, bucklers, and swords, and nothing of old German honesty but the supposed rudeness: the sentiments were as modern as they were vulgar. From chivalry-pieces they became true cavalry-pieces, which certainly deserved to be acted by horses rather than by men. To all those who in some measure appeal to the imagination by superficial allusions to former times, may be applied what I said of one of the most admired of them:
Mit Harsthornern, und Burgen, uud Harnischen, pranget Johanna; Traun! mir gefiele das Stuck, waren nicht Worte dabey. [Footnote: With trumpets, and donjons, and helmets, Johanna parades it. It would certainly please were but the words all away.—ED.]
The next place in the public favour has been held by the Family Picture and the Affecting Drama, two secondary species. From the charge of encouraging these both by precept and example Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller (the two last by their earliest compositions Stella, Glavigo, Die Geschwister, Cabale und Liebe), cannot be acquitted. I will name no one, but merely suppose that two writers of some talent and theatrical knowledge had dedicated themselves to these species, that they had both mistaken the essence of dramatic poetry, and laid down to themselves a pretended moral aim; but that the one saw morality under the narrow guise of economy, and the other in that of sensibility: what sort of fruits would thus be put forth, and how would the applause of the multitude finally decide between these two competitors?
The family picture is intended to portray the every-day course of the middle ranks of society. The extraordinary events which are produced by intrigue are consequently banished from it: to cover this want of motion, the writer has recourse to a characterization wholly individual, and capable of receiving vividness from a practised player, but attaches itself to external peculiarities just as a bad portrait-painter endeavours to attain a resemblance by noticing every pit of small-pox and wart, and peculiar dress and cravat-tie: the motives and situations are sometimes humorous and droll, but never truly diverting, as the serious and prosaical aim which is always kept in view completely prevents this. The rapid determinations of Comedy generally end before the family life begins, by which all is fixed in every-day habits. To make economy poetical is impossible: the dramatic family painter will be able to say as little of a fortunate and tranquil domestic establishment, as the historian can of a state in possession of external and internal tranquillity. He is therefore driven to interest us by painting with painful accuracy the torments and the penury of domestic life—chagrins experienced in the honest exercise of duty, in the education of children, interminable dissensions between husband and wife, the bad conduct of servants, and, above all things, the cares of earning a daily subsistence. The spectators understand these pictures but too well, for every man knows where the shoe pinches; it may be very salutary for them to have, in presence of the stage, to run over weekly in thought the relation between their expenditure and income; but surely they will hardly derive from it elevation of mind or recreation, for they do but find again on the stage the very same thing which they have at home from morning to night.
The sentimental poet, again, contrives to lighten their heart. His general doctrine amounts properly to this, that what is called a good heart atones for all errors and extravagances, and that, with respect to virtue, we are not to insist so strictly on principles. Do but allow, he seems to say to his spectators, free scope to your natural impulses; see how well it becomes my naive girls, when they voluntarily and without reserve confess every thing. If he only knows how to corrupt by means of effeminate emotions—rather sensual than moral, but at the close contrives, by the introduction of some generous benefactor, who showers out his liberality with open hands, to make all things pretty even, he then marvellously delights the vitiated hearts of his audience: they feel as if they had themselves done noble actions, without, however, putting their hands in their own pockets—all is drawn from the purse of the generous poet. In the long run, therefore, the affecting species can hardly fail to gain a victory over the economical; and this has actually been the case in Germany. But what in these dramas is painted to us not only as natural and allowable, but even as moral and dignified, is strange beyond all thought, and the seduction, consequently, is much more dangerous than that of the licentious Comedy, for this very reason, that it does not disgust us by external indecency, but steals into unguarded minds, and selects the most sacred names for a disguise.
The poetical as well as moral decline of taste in our time has been attended with this consequence, that the most popular writers for the stage, regardless of the opinion of good judges, and of true repute, seek only for momentary applause; while others, who have both higher aims, keep both the former in view, cannot prevail on themselves to comply with the demands of the multitude, and when they do compose dramatically, have no regard to the stage. Hence they are defective in the theatrical part of art, which can only be attained in perfection by practice and experience.
The repertory of our stage, therefore, exhibits, in its miserable wealth, a motley assemblage of chivalrous pieces, family pictures, and sentimental dramas, which are occasionally, though seldom, varied by works in a grander and higher style by Shakspeare and Schiller. In this state of things, translations and imitations of foreign novelties, and especially of the French after-pieces and operettes, are indispensable. From the worthlessness of the separate works, nothing but the fleeting charm of novelty is sought for in theatrical entertainment, to the great injury of the histrionic art, as a number of insignificant parts must be got by heart in the most hurried manner, to be immediately forgotten [Footnote: To this must be added, by way of rendering the vulgarity of our theatre almost incurable, the radically depraved disposition of every thing having any reference to the theatre. The companies of actors ought to be under the management of intelligent judges and persons practised in the dramatic art, and not themselves players. Engel presided for a time over the Berlin theatre, and eye-witnesses universally assert that he succeeded in giving it a great elevation. What Goethe has effected in the management of the theatre of Weimar, in a small town, and with small means, is known to all good theatrical judges in Germany. Rare talents he can neither create nor reward, but he accustoms the actors to order and discipline, to which they are generally altogether disinclined, and thereby gives to his representations a unity and harmony which we do not witness on larger theatres, where every individual plays as his own fancy prompts him. The little correctness with which their parts are got by heart, and the imperfection of their oral delivery, I have elsewhere censured. I have heard verses mutilated by a celebrated player in a manner which would at Paris be considered unpardonable in a beginner. It is a fact, that in a certain theatre, when they were under the melancholy necessity of representing a piece in verse they wrote out the parts as prose, that the players might not be disturbed in their darling but stupid affectation of nature, by observation of the quantity. How many "periwig-pated fellows" (as Shakspeare called such people), must we suffer, who imagine they are affording the public an enjoyment, when they straddle along the boards with their awkward persons, considering the words which the poet has given them to repeat merely as a necessary evil. Our players are less anxious to please than the French. By the creation of standing national theatres as they are called, by which in several capitals people suppose that they have accomplished wonders, and are likely to improve the histrionic art, they have on the contrary put a complete end to all competition. They bestow on the players exclusive privileges—they secure their salaries for life; having now nothing to dread from more accomplished rivals, and being independent of the fluctuating favour of the spectators, the only concern of the actors is to enjoy their places, like so many benefices, in the most convenient manner. Hence the national theatres have become true hospitals for languor and laziness. The question of Hamlet with respect to the players—"Do they grow rusty?" will never become obsolete; it must, alas! be always answered in the affirmative. The actor, from the ambiguous position in which he lives (which, in the nature of things, cannot well be altered), must possess a certain extravagant enthusiasm for his art, if he is to gain any extraordinary repute. He cannot be too passionately alive to noisy applause, reputation, and every brilliant reward which may crown his efforts to please. The present moment is his kingdom, time is his most dangerous enemy, as there is nothing durable in his exhibition. Whenever he is filled with the tradesman-like anxiety of securing a moderate maintenance for himself, his wife, and children, there is an end of all improvement. We do not mean to say that the old age of deserving artists ought not to be provided for. But to those players who from age, illness, or other accidents, have lost their qualifications for acting, we ought to give pensions to induce them to leave off instead of continuing to play. In general, we ought not to put it into the heads of the players that they are such important and indispensable personages. Nothing is more rare than a truly great player; but nothing is more common than the qualifications for filling characters in the manner we generally see them filled; of this we may be convinced in every amateur theatre among tolerably educated people. Finally, the relation which subsists with us between the managers of theatres and writers, is also as detrimental as possible. In France and England, the author of a piece has a certain share of the profits of each representation; this procures for him a permanent income, whenever any of his pieces are so successful as to keep their place on the theatre. Again, if the piece is unsuccessful, he receives nothing. In Germany, the managers of theatres pay a certain sum beforehand, and at their own risk, for the manuscripts which they receive. They may thus be very considerable losers; and on the other hand, if the piece is extraordinarily successful, the author is not suitably rewarded.
The Author is under a mistake with respect to the reward which falls to the share of the dramatic writer in England. He has not a part of the profits of each representation. If the play runs three nights, it brings him in as much as if it were to run three thousand nights.—TRANS.] The labours of the poets who do not write immediately for the theatre take every variety of direction: in this, as in other departments, may be observed the ferment of ideas that has brought on our literature in foreign countries the reproach of a chaotic anarchy, in which, however, the striving after a higher aim as yet unreached is sufficiently visible.
The more profound study of Aesthetics has among the Germans, by nature a speculative rather than a practical people, led to this consequence, that works of art, and tragedies more especially, have been executed on abstract theories, more or less misunderstood. It was natural that these tragedies should produce no effect on the theatre; nay, they are, in general, unsuited for representation, and wholly devoid of any inner principle of life.
Others again, with true feeling for it, have, as it were, appropriated the very spirit of the ancient tragedians, and sought for the most suitable means of accommodating the simple and pure forms of ancient art to the present constitution of our stage.
Men truly distinguished for their talents have attached themselves to the romantic drama, but in it they have generally adopted a latitude which is not really allowable, except in a romance, wholly disregarding the compression which the dramatic form necessarily requires. Or they have seized only the musically fanciful and picturesquely sportive side of the Spanish dramas, without their thorough keeping, their energetical power, and their theatrical effect.
What path shall we now enter? Shall we endeavour to accustom ourselves again to the French form of Tragedy, which has been so long banished? Repeated experience of it has proved that, however modified in the translation and representation, for even in the hands of a Goethe or a Schiller some modification is indispensable, it can never be very successful. The genuine imitation of Greek Tragedy has far more affinity to our national ways of thinking; but it is beyond the comprehension of the multitude, and, like the contemplation of ancient statues, can never be more than an acquired artistic enjoyment for a few highly cultivated minds.
In Comedy, Lessing has already pointed out the difficulty of introducing national manners which are not provincial, inasmuch as with us the tone of social life is not modelled after a common central standard. If we wish pure comedies, I would strongly recommend the use of rhyme; with the more artificial form they might, perhaps, gradually assume also a peculiarity of substance.
To me, however, it appears that this is not the most urgent want: let us first bring to perfection the serious and higher species, in a manner worthy of the German character. Now here, it appears to me, that our taste inclines altogether to the romantic. What most attracts the multitude in our half-sentimental, half-humorous dramas, which one moment transport us to Peru, and the next to Kamschatka, and soon after into the times of chivalry, while the sentiments are all modern and lachrymose, is invariably a certain sprinkling of the romantic, which we recognize even in the most insipid magical operas. The true significance of this species was lost with us before it was properly found; the fancy has passed with the inventors of such chimeras, and the views of the plays are sometimes wiser than those of their authors. In a hundred play-bills the name "romantic" is profaned, by being lavished on rude and monstrous abortions; let us therefore be permitted to elevate it, by criticism and history, again to its true import. We have lately endeavoured in many ways to revive the remains of our old national poetry. These may afford the poet a foundation for the wonderful festival-play; but the most dignified species of the romantic is the historical.
In this field the most glorious laurels may yet be reaped by dramatic poets who are willing to emulate Goethe and Schiller. Only let our historical drama be in reality and thoroughly national; let it not attach itself to the life and adventures of single knights and petty princes, who exercised no influence on the fortunes of the whole nation. Let it, at the same time, be truly historical, drawn from a profound knowledge, and transporting us back to the great olden time. In this mirror let the poet enable us to see, while we take deep shame to ourselves for what we are, what the Germans were in former times, and what they must again be. Let him impress it strongly on our hearts, that, if we do not consider the lessons of history better than we have hitherto done, we Germans—we, formerly the greatest and most illustrious nation of Europe, whose freely- elected prince was willingly acknowledged the head of all Christendom—are in danger of disappearing altogether from the list of independent nations. The higher ranks, by their predilection for foreign manners, by their fondness for exotic literature, which, transplanted from its natural climate into hot-houses, can only yield a miserable fruit, have long alienated themselves from the body of the people; still longer, even for three centuries, at least, has internal dissension wasted our noblest energies in civil wars, whose ruinous consequences are now first beginning to disclose themselves. May all who have an opportunity of influencing the public mind exert themselves to extinguish at last the old misunderstandings, and to rally, as round a consecrated banner, all the well-disposed objects of reverence, which, unfortunately, have been too long deserted, but by faithful attachment to which our forefathers acquired so much happiness and renown, and to let them feel their indestructible unity as Germans! What a glorious picture is furnished by our history, from the most remote times, the wars with the Romans, down to the establishment of the German Empire! Then the chivalrous and brilliant era of the House of Hohenstaufen! and lastly, of greater political importance, and more nearly concerning ourselves, the House of Hapsburg, with its many princes and heroes. What a field for a poet, who, like Shakspeare, could discern the poetical aspect of the great events of the world! But, alas, so little interest do we Germans take in events truly important to our nation, that its greatest achievements still lack even a fitting historical record.