in which he died, he continued to produce dramatic works, they spread over a great space, and we may therefore suppose that he did not write with the same haste as Lope; he had sufficient leisure to consider his plans maturely, which, without doubt, he has done. In the execution, he could not fail from his extensive practice to acquire great readiness.
In this almost incalculable exuberance of production, we find nothing thrown out at random; all is finished in masterly perfection, agreeably to established and consistent principles, and with the most profound artistic views. This cannot be denied even by those who would confound the pure and high style of the romantic drama with mannerism, and consider these bold flights of poetry, on the extreme boundaries of the conceivable, as aberrations in art. For Calderon has every where converted that into matter what passed with his predecessors for form;–nothing less than the noblest and most exquisite excellence could satisfy him. And this is why he repeats himself in many expressions, images, comparisons, nay, even in many plays of situation; for he was too rich to be under the necessity of borrowing from himself, much less from others. The effect on the stage is with Calderon the first and last thing; but this consideration, which is generally felt by others as a restraint, is with him a positive end. I know of no dramatist equally skilled in converting effect into poetry, who is at once so sensibly vigorous and so ethereal.
His dramas divide themselves into four principal classes: compositions on sacred subjects taken from scripture and legends; historical; mythological, or founded upon other fictitious materials; and finally, pictures of social life in modern manners.
The pieces founded on the history of his own country are historical only in the more limited acceptation. The earlier periods of Spanish history have often been felt and portrayed by Calderon with the greatest truth; but, in general, he had too decided, I might almost say, too burning a predilection for his own nation, to enter into the peculiarities of another; at best he could have portrayed what verges towards the sun, the South and the East; but classical antiquity, as well as the North of Europe, were altogether foreign to his conception. Materials of this description he has therefore taken in a perfectly fanciful sense: generally the Greek mythology became in his hands a delightful tale, and the Roman history a majestic hyperbole.
His sacred compositions must, however, in some degree, be ranked as historical; for although surrounded with rich fiction, as is always the case in Calderon, they nevertheless in general express the character of Biblical or legendary story with great fidelity. They are distinguished, however, from the other historical pieces by the frequent prominency of a significant allegory, and by the religious enthusiasm with which the poet, in the spiritual acts designed for the celebration of the festival of Corpus Christi, the _Autos_ exhibits the universe as it were, under an allegorical representation in the purple flames of love. In this last class he was most admired by his contemporaries, and here also he himself set the highest value on his labours. But without having read, at least, one of them in a truly poetical translation, my auditors could not form the slightest idea of them; while the due consideration of these _Autos_ would demand a difficult investigation into the admissibility of allegory into dramatical composition. I shall therefore confine myself to those of his dramas which are no allegorical. The characterization of these I shall be very far from exhausting; I can merely exhibit a few of their more general features.
Of the great multitude of ingenious and acute writers, who were then tempted by the dazzling splendour of the theatrical career to write for the stage, the greater part were mere imitators of Calderon; a few only deserve to be named along with him, as Don Agustin Moreto, Don Franzisco de Roxas, Don Antonio de Solis, the acute and eloquent historian of the conquest of Mexico, &c. The dramatic literature of the Spaniards can even boast of a royal poet, Philip IV., the great patron and admirer [Footnote: This monarch seems, in reality, to have had a relish for the peculiar excellence of his favourite poet, whom he considered as the brightest ornament of his court. He was so prepossessed in favour of the national drama, that he forbade the introduction into Spain of the Italian opera, which was then in general favour at the different European courts: an example which deserves to be held up to the German Princes, who have hitherto, from indifference towards every thing national, and partiality for every thing foreign, done all in their power to discourage the German poets.] of Calderon, to whom several anonymous pieces, with the epigraph _de un ingenio de esta corte_, are ascribed. All the writers of that day wrote in a kindred spirit; they formed a true school of art. Many of them have peculiar excellences, but Calderon in boldness, fulness, and profundity, soars beyond them all; in him the romantic drama of the Spaniards attained the summit of perfection.
We shall endeavour to give a feeble idea of the spirit and form of these compositions, which differ so widely from every other European production. For this purpose, however, we must enter in some measure into the character of the Spanish poetry in general, and those historical circumstances by which it has been determined.
The beginnings of the Spanish poetry are extremely simple: its two fundamental forms were the romaunt and the song, and in these original national melodies we everywhere fancy we hear the accompaniment of the guitar. The romaunt, which is half Arabian in its origin, was at first a simple heroic tale; afterwards it became a very artificial species, adapted to various uses, but in which the picturesque ingredient always predominated even to the most brilliant luxuriance of colouring. The song again, almost destitute of imagery, expressed tender feelings in ingenious turns; it extends its sportiveness to the very limits where the self- meditation, which endeavours to transfuse an inexpressible disposition of mind into thought, wings again the thought to dreamlike intimations. The forms of the song were diversified by the introduction into poetry of what in music is effected by variation. The rich properties of the Spanish language however could not fully develop themselves in these species of poetry, which were rather tender and infantine than elevated. Hence towards the beginning of the sixteenth century they adapted the more comprehensive forms of Italian poetry, _Ottave Terzine_, _Canzoni_, _Sonetti_; and the Castilian language, the proudest daughter of the Latin, was then first enabled to display her whole power in dignity, beautiful boldness, and splendour of imagery. The Spanish with its guttural sounds, and frequent termination with consonants, is less soft than the Italian; but its tones are, if possible, more fuller and deeper, and fill the ear with a pure metallic resonance. It had not altogether lost the rough strength and heartiness of the Gothic, when Oriental intermixtures gave it a wonderful degree of sublimity, and elevated its poetry, intoxicated as it were with aromatic fragrances, far above all the scrupulous moderation of the sober West.
The stream of poetical inspiration, swelled by every proud consciousness, increased with the growing fame in arms of this once so free and heroic nation. The Spaniards played a glorious part in the events of the middle ages, a part but too much forgotten by the envious ingratitude of modern times. They were then the forlorn out-posts of Europe; they lay on their Pyrenean peninsula as in a camp, exposed without foreign assistance to the incessant eruptions of the Arabians, but always ready for renewed conflicts. The founding of their Christian kingdom, through centuries of conflicts, from the time when the descendants of the Goths driven before the Moors into the mountains of the North first left their protecting shelter for the war of freedom and independence, down to the complete expulsion of the Arabian invaders, was one long adventure of chivalry; nay, the preservation of Christianity itself in the face of so powerful a foe seems the wondrous work of more than mortal guidance. Accustomed to fight at the same time for liberty and religion, the Spaniard clung to his faith with a fiery zeal, as an acquisition purchased by the costly expenditure of noble blood. These consolations of a holy worship were to him the rewards of heroic exertion; in every church he saw as it were a trophy of his forefathers’ bravery. Ready to shed the last drop of his blood in the cause of his God and his King; tenderly sensitive of his honour; proud, yet humble in the presence of all that is sacred and holy; serious, temperate, and modest was the old Castilian: and yet forsooth some are found to scoff at a noble and a loyal race because even at the plough they were lothe to lay aside the beloved sword, the instrument of their high vocation of patriotism and liberty.
This love of war, and spirit of enterprise, which so many circumstances had thus served to keep alive among their subjects, the monarchs of Spain made use of, at the close of the fifteenth and throughout the sixteenth century, in an attempt to obtain universal monarchy; and while the arms of the Spaniard were thus employed to effect the subjugation of other nations, he was himself deprived of his own political freedom. The faithless and tyrannical policy of Philip II. has unmeritedly drawn down on the whole nation the hatred of foreigners. In Italy, Macchiavelism was not confined to the Princes and Republican leaders; it was the universal character; all ranks were infected with the same love of artifice and fraud. But in Spain it must be laid to the charge of the Government alone, and even the religious persecutions in that country seldom or never proceeded from the outbreakings of a universal popular fury. The Spaniard never presumed to question the conduct of his spiritual and worldly superiors, and carried on their wars of aggression and ambition with the same fidelity and bravery which he had formerly displayed in his own wars of self-defence and patriotism. Personal glory, and a mistaken religious zeal, blinded him with respect to the justice of his cause. Enterprises before unexampled, were eagerly undertaken, and successfully achieved; a newly discovered world beyond the ocean was conquered by a handful of bold adventurers; individual instances of cruelty and avarice may have stained the splendour of resolute heroism, but the mass of the nation was uninfected by its contagion. Nowhere did the spirit of chivalry so long outlive its political existence as in Spain. Long after the internal prosperity, as well as the foreign influence of the nation, had fatally declined under the ruinous errors of the Second Philip, this spirit propagated itself even to the most flourishing period of their literature, and plainly imprinted upon it an indelible stamp. Here, in all their dazzling features, but associated with far higher mental culture, the middle ages were, as it were, renewed–those times when princes and nobles loved to indite the lays of love and bravery, and when, with hearts devoted equally to their lady-love and the Holy Sepulchre, knights joyfully exposed themselves to the dangers and hardships of pilgrimage to the Land of Promise, and when even a lion-hearted king touched the lute to tender sounds of amorous lamentation. The poets of Spain were not, as in most other countries of Europe, courtiers or scholars, or engaged in some peaceful art or other; of noble birth for the most part, they also led a warlike life. The union of the sword and the pen, and the exercise of arms and the nobler mental arts, was their watch-word. Garcilaso, one of the founders of Spanish poetry under Charles V., was a descendant of the Yncas of Peru, and in Africa, still accompanied by his agreeable muse, fell before the walls of Tunis: Camoëns, the Portuguese, sailed as a soldier to the remotest Indies, in the track of the glorious Adventurer whose discoveries he celebrated: Don Alonso de Ercilla composed his _Araucana_ in the midst of warfare with revolted savages, in a tent at the foot of the Cordilleras, or in wildernesses yet untrodden by men, or in a storm-tossed vessel on the restless ocean; Cervantes purchased, with the loss of an arm, and a long slavery in Algiers, the honour of having fought, as a common soldier, in the battle of Lepanto, under the illustrious John of Austria; Lope de Vega, among other adventures, survived the misfortunes of the Invincible Armada; Calderon served several campaigns in Flanders and in Italy, and discharged the warlike duties of a knight of Santiago until he entered holy orders, and thus gave external evidence that religion was the ruling motive of his life.
If a feeling of religion, a loyal heroism, honour, and love, be the foundation of romantic poetry, it could not fail to attain to its highest development in Spain, where its birth and growth were cherished by the most friendly auspices. The fancy of the Spaniards, like their active powers, was bold and venturesome; no mental adventure seemed too hazardous for it to essay. The popular predilection for surpassing marvels had already shown itself in its chivalrous romaunts. And so they wished also to see the wonderful on the stage; when, therefore, their poets, standing on the lofty eminence of a highly polished state of art and society, gave it the requisite form, breathed into it a musical soul, and refined its beautiful hues and fragrance from all corporeal grossness, there arose, from the very contrast of the matter and the form, an irresistible fascination. Amid the harmony of the most varied metre, the elegance of fanciful allusions, and that splendour of imagery and simile which no other language than their own could hope to furnish, combined with inventions ever new, and almost always pre-eminently ingenious, the spectators perceived in imagination a faint refulgence of the former greatness of their nation which had measured the whole world with its victories. The most distant zones were called upon to contribute, for the gratification of the mother country, the treasures of fancy as well as of nature, and on the dominions of this poetry, as on that of Charles V., the sun may truly be said never to set.
Even those plays of Calderon which, cast in modern manners, descend the most to the tone of common life, still fascinate us by a sort of fanciful magic, and cannot be considered in the same light with the ordinary run of comedies. Of those of Shakspeare, we have seen that they are always composed of two dissimilar elements: the comic, which, in so far as comic imitation requires the observance of local conditions, is true to English manners; and the romantic, which, as the native soil was not sufficiently poetical for it, is invariably transplanted to a foreign scene. In Spain, on the other hand, the national costume of that day still admitted of an ideal exhibition. This would not indeed have been possible, had Calderon introduced us into the interior of domestic life, where want and habit generally reduce all things to every-day narrowness. His comedies, like those of the ancients, end with marriages; but how different is all that precedes! With them the most immoral means are set in motion for the gratification of sensual passions and selfish views, human beings with their mental powers stand opposed to each other as mere physical beings, endeavouring to spy out and to expose their mutual weaknesses. Calderon, it is true, also represents to us his principal characters of both sexes carried away by the first ebullitions of youth, and in its unwavering pursuit of the honours and pleasures of life; but the aim after which they strive, and in the prosecution of which every thing else kicks the beam, is never in their minds confounded with any other good. Honour, love, and jealousy, are uniformly the motives out of which, by their dangerous but noble conflict, the plot arises, and is not purposely complicated by knavish trickery and deception. Honour is always an ideal principle; for it rests, as I have elsewhere shown, on that higher morality which consecrates principles without regard to consequences. It may sink down to a mere conventional observance of social opinions or prejudices, to a mere instrument of vanity, but even when so disfigured we may still recognize in it some faint feature of a sublime idea. I know no apter symbol of tender sensibility of honour as portrayed by Calderon, than the fable of the ermine, which is said to prize so highly the whiteness of its fur, that rather than stain it in flight, it at once yields itself up to the hunters and death. This sense of honour is equally powerful in the female characters; it rules over love, which is only allowed a place beside it, but not above it. According to the sentiments of Calderon’s dramas, the honour of woman consists in loving only one man of pure and spotless honour, and loving him with perfect purity, free from all ambiguous homage which encroaches too closely on the severe dignity of woman. Love requires inviolable secrecy till a lawful union permits it to be publicly declared. This secrecy secures it from the poisonous intermixture of vanity, which might plume itself with pretensions or boasts of a confessed preference; it gives it the appearance of a vow, which from its mystery is the more sacredly observed. This morality does not, it is true, condemn cunning and dissimulation if employed in the cause of love, and in so far as the rights of honour may be said to be infringed; but nevertheless the most delicate consideration is observed in the conflict with other duties,– with the obligations, for instance, of friendship. Moreover, a power of jealousy, always alive and often breaking out into fearful violence,–not, like that of the East, a jealousy of possession,–but one watchful of the slightest emotions of the heart and its most imperceptible demonstrations serves to ennoble love, as this feeling, whenever it is not absolutely exclusive, ceases to be itself. The perplexity to which the mental conflict of all these motives gives rise, frequently ends in nothing, and in such cases the catastrophe is truly comic; sometimes, however, it takes a tragic turn, and then honour becomes a hostile destiny for all who cannot satisfy its requisitions without sacrificing either their happiness or their innocence.
These are the dramas of a higher kind, which by foreigners are called Pieces of Intrigue, but by Spaniards, from the dress in which they are acted, Comedies of Cloak and Sword (_Comedias de Capa y Espada_). They have commonly no other burlesque part than that of the merry valet, known by the name of the _Gracioso_. This valet serves chiefly to parody the ideal motives from which his master acts, and this he frequently does with much wit and grace. Seldom is he with his artifices employed as an efficient lever in establishing the intrigue, in which we rather admire the wit of accident than of contrivance. Other pieces are called _Comedias de figuron_; all the figures, with one exception, are usually the same as those in the former class, and this one is always drawn in caricature, and occupies a prominent place in the composition. To many of Calderon’s dramas we cannot refuse the name of pieces of character, although we cannot look for very delicate characterization from the poets of a nation in which vehemence of passion and exaltation of fancy neither leave sufficient leisure nor sufficient coolness for prying observation.
Another class of his pieces is called by Calderon himself festal dramas (_fiestas_). They were destined for representation at court on solemn occasions; and though they require the theatrical pomp of frequent change of decoration and visible wonders, and though music also is often introduced into them, still we may call them poetical operas, that is, dramas which, by the mere splendour of poetry, perform what in the opera can only be attained by the machinery, the music, and the dancing. Here the poet gives himself wholly up to the boldest flights of fancy, and his creations hardly seem to touch the earth.
The mind of Calderon, however, is most distinctly expressed in the pieces on religious subjects. Love he paints merely in its most general features; he but speaks her technical poetical language. Religion is his peculiar love, the heart of his heart. For religion alone he excites the most overpowering emotions, which penetrate into the inmost recesses of the soul. He did not wish, it would seem, to do the same for mere worldly events. However turbid they may be in themselves to him, such is the religious medium through which he views them, they are all cleared up and perfectly bright. Blessed man! he had escaped from the wild labyrinths of doubt into the stronghold of belief; from thence, with undisturbed tranquillity of soul, he beheld and portrayed the storms of the world; to him human life was no longer a dark riddle. Even his tears reflect the image of heaven, like dew-drops on a flower in the sun. His poetry, whatever its apparent object, is a never-ending hymn of joy on the majesty of the creation; he celebrates the productions of nature and human art with an astonishment always joyful and always new, as if he saw them for the first time in an unworn festal splendour. It is the first awaking of Adam, and an eloquence withal, a skill of expression, and a thorough insight into the most mysterious affinities of nature, such as high mental culture and mature contemplation can alone bestow. When he compares the most remote objects, the greatest and the smallest, stars and flowers, the sense of all his metaphors is the mutual attraction subsisting between created things by virtue of their common origin, and this delightful harmony and unity of the world again is merely a refulgence of the eternal all-embracing love.
Calderon was still flourishing at the time when other countries of Europe began to manifest a strong inclination for that mannerism of taste in the arts, and those prosaic views in literature, which in the eighteenth century obtained such universal dominion. He is consequently to be considered as the last summit of romantic poetry. All its magnificence is lavished in his writings, as in fireworks the most brilliant and rarest combinations of colours, the most dazzling of fiery showers and circles are usually reserved for the last explosion.
The Spanish theatre continued for nearly a century after Calderon to be cultivated in the same spirit. All, however, that was produced in that period is but an echo of previous productions, and nothing new and truly peculiar appeared such as deserves to be named after Calderon. After him a great barrenness is perceptible. Now and then attempts were made to produce regular tragedies, that is to say, after the French model. Even the declamatory drama of Diderot found imitators. I remember reading a Spanish play, which had for its object the abolition of the torture. The exhilaration to be expected from such a work may be easily conceived. A few Spaniards, apostates from the old national taste, extol highly the prosaical and moral dramas of Moratin; but we see no reason for seeking in Spain what we have as good, or, more correctly speaking, equally bad at home. The theatrical audience has for the most part preserved itself tolerably exempt from all such foreign influences; a few years ago when a _bel esprit_ undertook to reduce a justly admired piece of Moreto (_El Pareceido en la Corte_,) to a conformity with the three unities, the pit at Madrid were thrown into such a commotion that the players could only appease them by announcing the piece for the next day in its genuine shape.
When in any country external circumstances, such, for instance, as the influence of the clergy, the oppression of the censorship, and even the jealous vigilance of the people in the maintenance of their old national customs, oppose the introduction of what in neighbouring states passes for a progress in mental culture, it frequently happens that clever description of heads will feel an undue longing for the forbidden fruit, and first begin to admire some artistic depravity, when it has elsewhere ceased to be fashionable. In particular ages certain mental maladies are so universally epidemic that a nation can never be secure from infection till it has been innoculated with it. With respect, however, to the fatal enlightenment of the last generation, the Spaniards it would appear have come off with the chicken-pox, while in the features of other nations the disfiguring variolous scars are but too visible. Living nearly in an insular situation, Spaniards have slept through the eighteenth century, and how in the main could they have applied their time better? Should the Spanish poetry ever again awake in old Europe, or in the New World, it would certainly have a step to make, from instinct to consciousness. What the Spaniards have hitherto loved from innate inclination, they must learn to reverence on clear principles, and, undismayed at the criticism to which it has in the mean time been exposed, proceed to fresh creations in the spirit of their greatest poets.
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 _Götz 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 _Götz_, 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 Bätely_ 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 fürchterlich rollender Mähne, 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 Schröder, 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 Raüber_, _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 Müller. 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.
_Götz 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 Harsthörnern, und Burgen, uud Harnischen, pranget Johanna; Traun! mir gefiele das Stück, wären 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 _naïve_ 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.