History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Early German 18th
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) was the primary initiator of German theatre with two comedies: "Der Freigeist" (The freethinker, 1749) and "Die alte Jungfer" (The young scholar, 1748). In these early comedies, "the characters, situations, intrigues, and technique were derived by Lessing in the main from his reading of the French 'Théâtre Italien', Regnard, Marivaux, Destouches, and Holberg. Curiously enough, the influence of Molière is hardly discernible" (Calvin, 1909 p 227).
"The freethinker”..."is an indirect attack upon those people in Lessing’s time who regarded freethinking as an unforgivable heresy, but it is more a straightforward apology for free thought than an assault on the narrow-mindedness of religious bigots. This shift in emphasis has a very real bearing upon the tone of the comedy that results. The humor, which had formerly been a matter of primary interest, has now become of secondary importance. The characters are first made basically admirable. Then their noble qualities are expressed in exaggerated forms which seem ridiculous to the outside world. The point of the action is not to reform the characters, who are in no need of conversion, but to bring out the true excellence of their natures, which has been hidden under a deceptive exterior...The main plot of The Freethinker is concerned with Theophan’s attempts to gain Adrast’s friendship. Adrast is poor, as freethinkers in a religious community are apt to be. Theophan tries to reach the agnostic’s heart through his pocketbook. Theophan wishes his generosity to be anonymous, but Adrast ultimately learns the identity of his benefactor and imagines that Theophan is motivated by revenge, not kindliness. Theophan is furious at having his actions misinterpreted, completely loses all self-control, and tells Adrast what he honestly thinks of his selfishness. Then, for the first time, Adrast is willing to listen because, for the first time, he is convinced of the clergyman’s honesty. Ultimately, as each sees that the other’s point of view is not diametrically opposed to his own, the two apparent rivals become friends (Sanderson, 1939 pp 286-287). Brown (1957) summarized that in "The freethinker", "the great majority of critics...unite rather in viewing the resolution of the conflict as a triumph, after many rebuffs, of Theophan's nobility of spirit, of his forebearance and patience, of his generous goodheartedness and charity over the stubborn prejudice of Adrast. They prefer to emphasize the humanitarian rather than the religious implications of the Theophan-Adrast conflict by regarding the clergyman not primarily as a representative of any specifically religious attitude, but as the kind of human being that attracted Lessing's particular sympathy, that is to say: as a man of feeling...When Adrast himself finally reveals the reason for his rejection of Theophan, it becomes apparent that this is not traceable to the difference in their religious attitudes. During the course of one of their customary exchanges (V,iii), Adrast voices his familiar mistrust of Theophan's motives, and the latter again ascribes it to religious prejudice. At this point Adrast at last feels constrained to make completely clear to him the real reason for his antipathy...It is...jealousy [over] Julianne...The same thing may be said of Adrast's bitterness toward other members of the clergy. It does not in fact arise from the disparity in religious attitudes, but may be ascribed rather to his brooding over the injuries he has suffered at their hands...Among qualities usually associated in the public mind, the freethinker may exhibit not only anti-religious sentiments and scorn for its proponents, but may also engage in loose and unconventional thinking on a variety of topics quite apart from religion...In Lessing's comedy, these roles are admirably filled by Lisidor, Johann, and Henriette...Though Lessing is concerned to distinguish Adrast's particular form of bias from those prejudices in matters of religion conventionally ascribed to the the freethinker, he endows him with a degree of unwarranted bitterness toward certain fellow humans which is quite sufficient to bar him from the ranks of the second group, the 'model' freethinkers. Only when this prejudice has been dissipated in the climactic scene can he expect to join their favored number; only then is he completely free to think and act without bias. The necessity for a change in his attitude toward religion, however, is nowhere indicated...In the climactic scene...Theophan, who up to this point in the action has embodied only the gentler impulses of the heart, sweetness, charitableness, brotherly love, has been unable to bring about the desired change in Adrast; that with his overpowering uprightness he has been altogether too good in Adrast's eyes (and, we may safely assume, in Lessing's) to be true...Lessing apparently felt it necessary to provide a further motivation for Adrast's eventual acceptance of Theophan by 'humanizing' the clergyman, and chose to do so by introducing the element of contrast provided by his outburst of temper (in itself a natural, human, emotional reaction to Adrast's provoking behavior) after his previous gentle demeanor" (pp 188-199).
In "the young scholar", "Damis figures as the conventionally obnoxious suitor of the heroine. His successful rival provides no standard by which to measure the young scholar’s limitations, but in the course of the intrigue various side lights are thrown upon Damis’ academic pretensions. He at first refuses to marry the girl of his father’s choice, because his only loves are Greek poetesses; then he is captivated by a mischievous maid when she flatters him on his great capacities and wide fame; at last he agrees to marry the heroine, because many famous wise men have had troublesome wives. When he learns that she is kind and good, he sticks to her because her stupidity will increase his glory; he struggles in vain to write a suitable epithalamion for their wedding, and only when he hears of the failure of his prize essay does he decide to give up his fiancee, his servant, and his ungrateful fatherland, to travel alone throughout the world. Damis is a failure in his profession, an indifferent lover, and a useless member of society, which he forswears of his own volition to seek fresh woods and pastures new. He is not ejected by the irate community or forced to reform, as was generally the case in Holberg’s comedies under similar circumstances. Lessing was too kind a person to have his characters suffer severely, but he did not hesitate to point out their absurd deviations from normal human conduct" (Sanderson, 1939 pp 281-282).
Time: 1740s. Place: Germanic territory.
Adrast loves Juliane but arrives too late to ask for her hand in marriage, because she is betrothed to Theophan, a clergyman who pleads for Adrast's friendship despite the latter's freethinking tendencies, but is yet unable to obtain it. Adrast intends to settle for her sister, Henriette. But despite the two sisters' vows of marriage, Henriette shows signs of preferring Theophan and Juliane of preferring Adrast. One day, Theophan receives the visit of his cousin, Araspe, to whom Adrast owes money without being able to pay. Although Araspe knows he may lose his money, he intends to pursue his unpaid bond rather than let the freethinker marry. Theophan dissuades him from that purpose by proposing to pay the bond himself. Araspe agrees provided his cousin pays the sum after his death. When Adrast learns the bond is in Theophan's keeping, he refuses to accept the deal out of pride. In reply, Theophan tears it up. An ill-humored Adrast greets Henriette coldly, specifying that he wishes her to be more modest, like her sister, Juliane. Henriette retorts that he in turn should be more amiable, like Juliane's lover, Theophan. Adrast next tells Juliane that he does not love Henriette, mainly because of her outspokenness. She retorts that her sister appears so only since knowing him. "That woman pays me a bad compliment who looks on me as a fool, pleased with no manner but his own, and who would wish to see on every side faint copies and imitations of himself," Adrast replies. He adds that although he himself is a freethinker, he deplores her own lack of religion, an adorment in womankind. Affronted, Juliane specifies that it should be an adorment to all. Adrast is enraptured at her defense of religion and kneels to her with passion. Henriette overhears this conversation and reports it to Theophan. They are yet uncertain about Juliane's feelings for Adrast. The sisters' servant, Lisette, proposes that to draw them out, Henriette should pretend to love Theophan and Theophan should pretend to love Henriette. After hearing that Adrast's banker refuses him a loan to pay his debts, Theophan convinces the banker to loan him the money based on his security. However, when the banker hears Adrast denigrate Theophan, he reveals the truth of their transaction and everything remains as it was. For his part, Theophan proposes to Adrast that should Juliane prefer him, he will resign his claim on her. Theophan also reveals his love of Henriette, not Juliane, and suspects that Juliane loves him. They agree to tell the sister's father the truth, who agrees with the new matches as readily as his daughters.
"The young scholar"
Time: 1740s. Place: Germanic territory.
Chrysander wants his son, Damis, to marry his foster-daughter, Juliane, but he prefers to immerse himself in private studies. Since her father died, Juliane has no fortune of her own, but may obtain one when her father's former lawsuit is considered. "Now a certain document has fallen into my hands for which he long sought in vain and which puts the whole business in another light," Chrysander informs his son's tutor, Anton. "It is only necessary for me to give enough money to recommence the lawsuit." Although Juliane learns the truth from her servant, Lisette, and although she loves Valer, Damis' rival, she refuses to marry him out of gratitude for Chrysander. To help her mistress and obtain a dowry Valer promised her so that she can marry Anton, Lisette denigrates her before Damis, calling her silly, quarrelsome, vain, and warning that she will ruin him with extravagant parties and feasts, all which he considers trifles, rather an opportunity to write a good book about a bad wife, and willing to submit to his father. Still seeking to help her mistress, Lisette writes a fraudulent letter to Chrysander on the part of his lawyer, stating that the lawsuit is not worth pursuing. The plot works except that when Juliane learns of it, she divulges it to Chrysander, who now wants her to marry Valer. Damis wants to keep her until he discovers his failure to win a literary prize long sought after. Out of spite, he leaves the country.
Johann Elias Schlegel
A second early 18th century German dramatist of note includes Johann Elias Schlegel (1719-1749) with "Der Triumph der guten Frauen" (The triumph of good women, 1749). In 1743, Johann Elias Schlegel went to Copenhagen as secretary...of the Saxon legation...His comedies...treated in the main of small incidents in everyday life and they are, no doubt, a faithful reflection of life in the Copenhagen of the the time" (Eaton, 1928 pp 28-38).
In "The triumph of good women", when Hilaria appears disguised as a man (Philinte) before the husband who abandoned her (Nicander) because he wanted his freedom back, “her ideas reflect his...[But] it remains unclear whether Hilaria is expressing her own views or is merely attempting to find favor with Nicander by echoing his views” (Potter, 2012 p 92).
Schlegel (1846) complained that in the comedies of his namesake "in drawing folly and stupidity, the same wearisomeness has crept in their picture which is inseparable from them in real life" (p 509).
"The triumph of good women"
Time: 1740s. Place: Copenhagen, Denmark.
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Nicander left his wife, Hilaria, ten years ago, to pursue other women, including Julie, wife of Agenor. To win him back, Hilaria disguises herself as a man and pretends to court Julie. Viewing the disguised Hilaria as a competitor and unaware of her sex, Nicander threatens his own wife to a duel, but she refuses to fight. When Agenor arrives, he talks to his wife apart from Hilaria to rid himself of her presence. After Hilaria leaves, Agenor declares that since their marriage he is unhappy about her behavior. According to him, Julie is too flighty and does not regulate her conduct according to his wishes. He especially does not want her to attend a ball she wishes to go to. Julie unhappily submits. She asks the help of her servant, Catherine, to obtain money from her husband because of a debt incurred to Hilaria in a matter concerning her husband's honor. When Catherine asks Agenor for household money, he gives her some to spy on his wife. He then kisses the servant but when she cries out, he is forced to desist from going further. Catherine is next accosted by Nicander, who readily admits loving both her and her mistress. To win Julie, though unconscious of what had just occurred, he requests Catherine to say that Agenor tried to seduce her while he works on his friend's jealousy by speaking against Hilaria. Instead of keeping the money, Catherine hands it over to her mistress, specifying that it is a gift Agenor does not want to hear mentioned. But when Agenor sees Julie with a happier demeanor than usual, he becomes suspicious and insists on knowing why. She admits it is because of the gift. He counters that it is no gift of his but from one of her admirers. Convinced of his honesty, Agenor encourages Nicander to remind Julie of her duties towards her husband. Instead, Nicander encourages Julie to betray her husband and thereby get the upper hand on him. She declines, intending instead to speak to her husband against Nicander. But when she hears her husband speaking heatedly with Catherine, she decides to spy on them, thereby discovering how the money was obtained and Agenor's desire to seduce their servant. When Julie comes out of hiding, Catherine quickly realizes she has heard everything and reveals this to Hilaria, who considers the matter of small importance but yet encourages Julie to avenge herself by betraying her husband. Julie refuses. Meanwhile, Nicander is pursued by creditors, but, to his surprise, is saved from debtor's prison by Hilaria. Feeling grateful towards his new-found friend, Nicander reveals to Hilaria what she already knows, that he is married to a woman named Hilaria. Because Catherine refuses to cooperate with his designs, Agenor fires her and justifies the action to Julie by saying it is because she carries gifts from her admirers. But Julie reveals she overheard his conversation with their servant and knows of his attempt at seducing her. Nevertheless, Agenor is adamant. To aid Julie's plight and promote Hilaria's pretended love-interest, Nicander proposes that Hilaria disguise herself as her new-found servant. Instead, Hilaria presents herself to Nicander as her own sister but still disguised in such a way that he does not recognize his own wife, though charmed by her manners and conversation in such a way as to seem to fall in love with her a second time. As a favor, Hilaria requests him to obtain letters from her banker, to which he agrees. When Julie enters, Hilaria presents herself as her disguised male friend. Julie turns away Catherine's replacement and now fears her husband's reaction. Hilaria proposes to take her away from him. "I fear much less my husband: he works merely against my peace, while you work against my virtue," she answers. Agenor suddenly enters and, finding Hilaria at his wife's feet, threatens to kill his imagined seducer. To his astonishment, Hilaria reveals her true sex. When Nicander returns, she further reveals herself to be his estranged wife. Touched at her persistence in trying to win him back, Nicander readily returns to her while an abashed Agenor promises to amend his domestic tyranny.
Another comedic dramatist of the period, Luise Gottsched (1713-1762), shone most brightly with "Das Testament" (The testament, 1745).
"Frau Gottsched's comedies are didactic enough to satisfy the neo-classical theorists and sentimental enough to appeal to the middle class to which they were directed. Each of these comedies depicts the unpleasant consequences of actions which did not conform to contemporary middle-class morality. Her comic protagonists personify deviations from the accepted norms of behavior, and the laughter they evoke is derisive and scornful, similar to that precipitated by Ben Jonson's bitter comedies. Rather than condone or emulate such reprehensible behavior which would make him the object of ridicule, the thoughtful spectator would adhere to the ethos of middle-class Wohlanständigkeit (decorum). The watchwords of these dramas, then, are reason and virtue, involving self-control, integrity, tolerance, thrift and patriotism. The incidents of the plots, with one exception, are episodically arranged as exempla of particular moral precepts, such as the undesirability of inter-class marriage, the folly of Gallomania, or the pitfalls of excessive pride in intellectual attainment. The Testament, easily the best of Gottsched's comedies, follows a cause-to-effect arrangement of dramatic incidents which results in a comic reversal...Gottsched's best work. This comedy of intrigue depicts the schemes of two unscrupulous young people who wish to inherit their aunt's fortune. Their machinations are recognized by the aunt early in the play, and the remainder of the drama is devoted to her turning the tables on the plotters. Unlike Gottscheld's other comedies, The Testament consists of causally arranged incidents leading to a comic reversal, thus creating the theoretically best kind of comic plot. Suspense is engendered and the expectations of the audience are fulfilled as the schemers are thwarted in their designs. Normalcy is reestablished when the aunt exposes her newly-written will, through which the plotters are disinherited and a faithful niece receives the aunt's legacy. The story illustrates the triumph of virtue over vice, of honesty and decency over treachery. For the first time, however, Gottsched does not fall into excessive moralizing. the main characters are not plaster-cast models of reason and folly; more than Gottsched's other dramatic agents, they are imbued with a warmth and individuality, albeit limited, which make them dramatically interesting. Both the pomposity of The Mixed Marriage and the coarseness oí The Governess are lacking in The Testament which amuses without offending" (Bryan and Richel, 1977 pp 193-197).
Time: 1740s. Place: Germany.
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Caroline remonstrates with her elder sister, Amalie, for showing obvious signs of being impatient to obtain their widowed aunt’s money after her death, a woman who has harbored them in her house as orphans since childhood. Amalie is itching to know how much money she will inherit to augment the number of her suitors so that she can marry. She wants Aunt Veronika’s attending physician, Dr Hippokras, to declare that her health is worse than it is, but Carolina promises to contradict such notions if proven false. “I think her ladyship will never get well if she does not write her will today,” the elder sister states. The hypochondriac Aunt Veronika considers to have slept badly when Carolina, spending the night at her bed-side, assures her she slept soundly. Though pretending to be in cahoots with Amalie, Dr Hippokras reveals to his patient that her niece wishes him to diagnose her as sicker than she is so that the will may be written. The two sisters’ dissolute brother, Torpetus, is angry after learning that one of the servants allowed one of his aunt’s letter to reach Kreuzweg, a possible suitor for one of the sister’s hand in marriage, because Torpetus wants to control all her letters. He is even angrier after learning that, without his permission, the servants let in Magistrate Ziegendorf, his aunt’s brother-in-law, who reports that his letters to her have been intercepted by her nephew. In league with her brother-in-law in an emerging plot, Aunt Veronika requests Dr Hippokras to report her as being sicker than she is and informs him that she will be attended by an additional doctor. Amalie and Torpetus rejoice that their aunt is sicker. Amalie invites Captain Wagehals over as a possible suitor, but her aunt turns the dissolute soldier away. A frustrated Amalie abruptly leaves the room, pretending to have a nosebleed. Dr Hippokras welcomes the new doctor, Dr Schlagbalsam, and leaves to announce him to his sister-in-law as Amalia and Torpetus enter. When Dr Schlagbalsam declares that he will do his best to make her aunt well again, Amalie is taken aback. “Judging from her condition, there would probably be nothing better for her than if she went to her eternal rest,” she responds. He pretends to cooperate with their scheme, promising not to give her any injurious medication but at least some that do nothing. Despite her brother’s disapproval, Amalie invites Captain Wagehals in, who bluntly informs her that he needs money immediately to outfit him for a military campaign about to start. She informs him that she expects her aunt to leave the capital with her and set aside some money to her brother and sister. The captain is even more blunter by asking Aunt Veronika how much money she intends leaving to Amalie in view of the fact that she wants to marry him. Th aunt responds that she hates Freemasons and would disinherit her if her niece made “so evil a choice.” Kreuzweg reappears as a witness to the declaration of the will. Amalie attempts to sound him out as to whether he would like to marry her, but he does not commit himself, saying that “it all depends on the will.” Aunt Veronika enters with her notary to reveal her testament to all. She bequeaths a considerable sum and one of her estates to Caroline, but her principal heir is her future husband, Dr Schlagbalsam, revealed as Ziegendorf’s brother with whom she has been secretly corresponding. Wagehals exits sulking, Amalie kisses her hand and leaves sadly, Torpetus leaves with a promise that she will do her best to obtain for him a post as an ensign in the army. When Kreuzweg turns to Caroline to propose marriage, she laughs outright at him.