History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/German Romantic
- 1 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- 2 Friedrich von Schiller
- 3 Otto Ludwig
- 4 Franz Grillparzer
- 5 Georg Büchner
- 6 Heinrich von Kleist
- 7 Christian Dietrich Grabbe
- 8 Amalie Heiter
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Major figures in German Romantic theatre include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), whose two main dramas in the 19th century are "Faust" parts 1 (1808) and 2 (1832). The main source of this work is medieval German puppet plays, also a source for Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" (1593).
The prologue in heaven in "Faust" is derived from the Biblical Book of Job in which a man is tested by means of a demonic agency. Yet, in “Table talk” (1835), Coleridge judged the prologue in heaven to be blasphemous. On the contrary, Lewes (1882) considered it in necessary to be in tune with the medieval context of the rest of the play. (pp 252) Coupland (1895) explained Faust's susceptibility to the earth-spirit. "This Spirit alone could give him what his starved nature needed. He was in that condition where pure science could avail nothing, if indeed it could ever serve him. The spectacle of the midnight heavens, the glory of the astronomer, could bring no healing to Faust now, nor could any celestial food prepared within the Churches hallowed precincts still his hunger—what Faust needed was the natural human life. His intellect had been cultured to a high degree, and he had tasted in earlier days of religious joy— it was the clamorous heart which had never obtained its natural aliment that now was goading him to despair. Bat though the Earth-Spirit was the power who could aid him^ it also was too vast for any individual mortal; some agency closer still must be found..." (pp 68-69)
The scene between Mephistopheles and the student is exaggeratedly interpreted as a “withering satire on every branch of knowledge" (Lewes, 1882, p 261) It may be rather seen as a satire of the students who practice it. In regard to the devil’s pact, Lewes (1882) wrote that “the age demanded that it should be no simple legend, but a symbolical legend; not a story to be credited as fact but a story to be credited as representative of fact; for although the rudest intellect would reject the notion of any such actual compact with Satan, the rudest and the loftiest would see in that compact a symbol of their own desires and struggles.” (pp 284-285) This critic treats the pact as a symbol but Gretchen’s plight as real, whereas some others prefer a more integrated approach. According to Lewes’ view, Goethe’s symbols and his seducing devil are superior visions than Marlowe’s naïve ones and his more terrifying devil. However, the so-called naïve approach draws more tragic power.
In Auerbach's cellar, "Faust enters the cellar only to wish himself away. If the devil is to get Faust’s soul, a finer bait than this must be offered, and this the clever fiend knows well enough, but as Faust has asked to traverse the whole world of human feeling, it is fitting he should for once see what kind of enjoyment suffices some of his fellow-beings." (Coupland, 1895, p 117) Once he encounters the village maiden, "nothing can be plainer than that Gretchen is Faust's first lore, and although his conversation with Mephistopheles after the brief encounter is frank even to coarseness, experience shows that the collapse of asceticism is only too apt to be followed by licentiousness of thought." (p 133) To obtain access to one "so jealously guarded both by her own innocence and her mother’s watchful care" (p 135), Martha's intervention is necessary. "The inexperienced Gretchen, no less than her mother, failed to pierce the outwork of her neighbor’s soul, but what was more, although she could not have explained it to herself, was positively drawn towards the only one in her small circle who knew how to play upon the instincts of a young girl’s heart. What wonder then that, on the discovery of the second casket of jewels placed in her cupboard, she should immediately run over to her neighbour, and inform her of the marvel!" (p 136) In the garden, Gretchen "is both flattered and puzzled at being the object of attention of so distinguished a personage as Faust." (p 139) As the seduction progresses, Faust "perceives that he is gradually losing control over himself, feels that his eye is growing dim and his foothold less sure, while the path pursued is becoming narrower, winding ever closer to the edge of a precipice." (p 140) "The encounter with Valentine had taken place on the eve of the famous Walpurgis Night, the great meeting time of the witches, the servants of the Prince of Evil, a festival which Mephistopheles was anxious for Faust to take part in. The more readily therefore was he able to persuade his companion to follow him with the consequences of that fatal encounter threatening the man who had struck the blow. Faust was now wholly in the power of Mephistopheles." (p 155) When Faust sees Helen of Troy, Mephistopheles, being apart from the Classic world of Greece, "cannot himself fetch the ancient beauties, [but] he can indicate to Faust the means by which they are to be evoked..." (p 198)
Faust’s vision of Helen represents form without substance and so Faust needs to come into contact with the Mothers, keepers of such forms (Nichols, 1977). But when Faust touches Paris with the key, an explosion occurs as the result of incompatibility. Faust represents the romantic figure who rejects the old forms of the classic view, judged to be incompatible. It is Homunculus, unborn intellect, possessing access to incorporate forms, who finds the solution by transporting Faust back in time to ancient Greece, so that he may engender with her. But when he reaches Greece, he must forward her towards the Middle Ages when they eventually engender Euphorio, child of classic and post-classic culture, the “romantic exuberance” destined to die. At the end, Faust is saved "for two reasons — first, because it is not Mephistopheles who has brought his bliss; secondly, because that bliss was not a bliss of ease, but a bliss of the fullest activity." (Coupland, 1895 p 339)
In general, critics prefer the first part of Faust than the second. “Some minds will be delighted with the allegorical Helen embracing Faust, and in the embrace leaving only her veil and vest behind, her body vanishing into thin air - typical of what must ever be the embrace of the defunct Classical with the living Romantic, the resuscitated Past with the actual Present - and in their delight at the recognition of the meaning, will write chapters of commentary. But the kiss of Gretchen is worth a thousand allegories.” (Lewes, 1882, pp 374-375)
"Faust, part 1"
Time: 1800s. Place: Germany.
Despite having mastered many facets of learning, including jurisprudence and medicine, Faust is dissatisfied with them all. He is visited by an Earth-spirit, but remains unable to achieve the superior knowledge he seeks. He thereby considers suicide. Raising a vial of poison to his lips, he is dissuaded by the sound of church bells at Easter-time, reminding him of childhood days. While walking in the streets with his assistant, Wagner, Faust notices a poodle following them. It is the disguised devil, Mephistopheles, who proposes to Faust a pact, by which hell wins his soul should he desire a thing so beautiful that he would desire to have that moment linger. That great moment is not found in the drinking pleasures inside Auerbach's cellar, where Faust is disgusted at the sight of drunken revellers. However, Faust accepts to be transformed as a young man and, spying a simple milkmaid, Gretchen, in the street, is determined to seduce her. Faust and Gretchen stroll about in a garden, while Mephistopheles does the same with her neighbor, Martha. Having previously learned from Mephistopheles her husband's death, Martha flirts with him, who encounters grave difficulties in politely rejecting her advances. Gretchen confesses her love to Faust and is willing, one one hand, to have him enter her room, but, on the other hand, unwilling to be discovered by her pious mother. Faust gives Gretchen a bottle containing what he thinks is a sleeping potion for her mother but is in reality poisonous. After her mother's death, Gretchen is soon discovered to be pregnant and her enraged brother, Valentine, challenges the culprit to a duel. Helped by Mephistopheles, Faust kills him. To distract Faust from Gretchen's abandoned state, Mephistopheles invites him to a witches' sabbath, where he is about to fall in the arms of a naked young witch when Gretchen's image suddenly appears. But before he can return to the real Gretchen, she drowns her baby and is condemned to death. Although Mephistopheles promises to rescue her from the prison cell, Gretchen refuses to follow Faust, because the man she once loved has changed for the worse. In danger of being caught, the devil pushes Faust away with the words: "She is judged." On the contrary, a voice from heaven decrees: "She is saved."
"Faust, part 2"
Time: 1800s. Place: Germany.
Faust and Mephistopheles arrive at an emperor's court where money is scarce. Thanks to Mephistopheles, Faust obtains favor from the emperor by printing paper-money based on discovering piles of gold in the bowels of the earth, sufficient to forestall a mass revolt. Now that the emperor is saved, he wants to be entertained, which Faust seeks to satisfy by the use of pageantry. To satisfy Faust’s intellectual curiosity, Mephistopheles presents him with a key by which he learns about the Mothers, spiritual creatures mysteriously guiding the world's destinies and concepts. After having ensured the empire's prosperity, Faust and Mephistopheles entertain the court with pageants from Greek mythology, in particular Helen of Troy abducted from her husband, Menelaus, by Paris. Meanwhile, at Faust's house, long abandoned by the master, Wagner, his servant, seeks to recreate mankind anew inside his oven. To his joy, a homunculus appears inside a glass vial, but, to his chagrin, the homunculus ignores the lacklustre Wagner to follow the more interesting Mephistopheles. Because Faust seeks something beyond mere pageantry, Mephistopheles' powers permit him to reach the very land of classical myth itself where Helen of Troy is in danger of being chopped to death with an ax by the cheated Menelaus because of her adulterous relations with Paris. Faust saves her in the shape of a medieval knight and secures her for himself in the land of Arcadia, replete with shepherds and lyric poetry, where the happy pair bear a son, Euphorio. However, Faust and Helen have difficulty in restraining the impetuous Euphorio, who seizes a young girl and is about to rape her when she is transformed into fire and disappears. They next see Euphorio prepare to engage in martial feats, but, to their grief, the boy soon plummets from a height to his death. After this misfortune, Faust cannot hold on to Helen any longer. When he embraces her bodily form, it disappears, only the robe remaining. When Faust and Mephistopheles return at court, there is an armed revolt afoot. In Mephistopheles' view, "war, commerce, and pirating are inseparable". But thanks to his powers, the emperor's troops succeed in crushing the opposition. Now quite old, Faust becomes blind, though mentally seeing his probable end in infernal regions. He nevertheless commands Mephistopheles to retrieve a huge number of workers to build massive structures and gardens, but before he can complete his pursuits, he falls on the ground where working lemurs seize him. Instead of hauling Faust to hell as expected, Mephistopheles sees roses and angels cover his sight from above, lifting his prize up to Gretchen’s state of beatitude.
Friedrich von Schiller
Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) continued potent dramatic works from the previous century with "Wilhelm Tell" (William Tell, 1804).
Time: 14th century. Place: Switzerland
A ferryman, a hunter, and a shepherd are surprised to see Baumgarten running towards them. He has just killed a bailiff with an axe for entering his house and proposing disgraceful matters to his wife. He asks the ferryman to help him cross the lake to escape from the authorities pursuing him for murder. The ferryman refuses because a storm is rising. Despite the tempest, William Tell saves Baumgarten in the ferryman's canoe. Frustrated to see the murderer escape, the officers of Governor Gessler avenge themselves on innocent bystanders by destroying their property. By order of the governor, a prison-fortress is built in Uri and a hat placed atop the highest point in the village, below which everyone must kneel and lift his own hat. The villagers laugh and consider this is a gross sign of Austrian tyranny. To punish a minor fault, a governor's officer removes Melchthal's two best oxen from his team. The peasant retaliates by breaking the officer's finger before escaping. In retribution, the governor seizes Melchthal's father and blinds him. Hearing such news, the baron of Attinghausen accuses his nephew, Ulrich, for being on the side of oppression. Ulrich is of the opinion that they should submit to the emperor's authority. His armor rusts and he is tired of staying inactive at home, with only the sound of cowbells in his ears. The baron appeals to the ancient ways, the Swiss being traditionally free of any oppressor. Furthermore, he accuses him of hoping to claim Bertha, the governor's ward. "To conquer this woman, you would enslave your country," he affirms. At night, a group of thirty men, including Melchthal and Baumgarten, plot rebellion, hoping to oust offending governors from the three Swiss cantons. Here even men opposed to each other at the tribunal shake hands. Bertha accuses Ulrich of being "Swiss' unnatural son". Ulrich responds he only wishes to win her, but how can he, she being dependent on her parents' will? "If Switzerland is free, so am I," she declares. In town, the guardians of the hat arrest Tell in the name of the emperor for violating the ordinance. To make an example of him, Gessler declares: "Prepare to strike an apple on the top of your child's head." If he misses Walter from 80 steps away, Tell dies. Walter has confidence in his father to the extent of refusing to be tied to the tree and blindfolded. Tell requests the soldiers to kill him instead, but if he refuses to shoot, both he and his son die together. Tell hides a second arrow, seen by Gessler. Though in the governor's train, Ulrich tries to interfere. While Ulrich and Gessler bandy angry words, Tell succeeds in striking the apple. What would he have done with the second arrow? wonders Gessler. Tell admits he would have aimed it at him, so that the honest archer is arrested and led in chains to Küssnacht fortress. But on the way, he frees himself during a tempest. After the death of the baron of Attinghausen, Ulrich becomes the new baron and joins the revolted peasants, with all the more reason since Bertha has been kidnapped. On the way to the castle, a woman begs the governor for clemency, she and her children being without means since her husband's imprisonment while awaiting trial. Thanks to this delay, from behind a bush Tell strikes Gessler dead with an arrow. The happy mother shows her children how a villain dies. Fire signals in the mountains and tolling bells indicate that the peasants are invading and burning the fortresses, with Bertha saved by Ulrich and Melchthal before the fire reaches her. The hat will henceforth be maintained as a sign of liberty. There is even more momentous news: the emperor has been assassinated by his nephew, the duke of Austria. There is now hope that the new emperor will protect the Swiss against Austria. One day, the duke of Austria, disguised as a monk, enters Tell's house. Tell,the assassin for the people's good, is horrified at seeing the assassin of his own good: "Do not sully the peaceful house where innocence inhabits," Tell warns him. He recommends him to the pope, to pardon his crime or not. Ulrich and Bertha marry and declare freedom for all the serfs.
Also of note is Otto Ludwig (1813-1865), who wrote "Der Erbförster" (The hereditary forester, 1850).
"The hereditary forester"
Time: 1850s. Place: Prussia.
During the engagement party of Robert Stein and Mary Ulrich, his father, Adolf, quarrels with hers, Christian, surnamed the "hereditary forester" for having occupied that position for several generations. Like his master, Adolf orders Christian to clear trees from one part of the forest. Christian rightly considers this a mistake, since the winds from the mountain will then destroy the rest. The master warns him that if he disobeys, he will be replaced by Godfrey, a disreputable hunter in those parts. Yet since Christian continues to defy him, he is ordered away by Adolf's bookkeeper, Möller. "Ulrich, yield; you must yield," declares an angry Robert. "What do you want from the man whom your father intends to dismiss?" the forester asks Mary. "I am going, but come what may, I shall not resign my claim on Mary," Robert retorts. When Adolf learns that the forester still refuses to obey, he blames Möller for having expressed himself badly, since he only meant to scare him. "His post, I dare say, he must resign for the time being; but his present salary he may— yes, he shall draw twice the amount," Adolf declares. "He may regard it as a pension until further notice. I should think—after all, his is the chief fault in this business— in this way he is let off easily enough for his share." While ostensibly protecting the forest from poachers, Godfrey seizes the opportunity of enraging the old forester for whom he harbors a grudge. With the help of five other men, he takes hold of his son, Andrew, removes his clothes, ties him to a tree, and whips him. On hearing this, Christian sends his other son, William, to draw a complaint against the master and Godfrey in court. While William rests in a country inn on his way there, his rifle is stolen from him by a poacher named Lindenschmied, who, bearing a grudge against Godfrey, shoots him with it. Before dying, Godfrey reveals to Robert and Möller that a man holding a rifle with a yellow strap is responsible. Robert confronts Andrew in the forest and accuses him of murder. He denies it. When Robert turns away, Lindenschmied, still on the prowl for more mayhem, shoots at him. Seeing a man fall at a distance, Andrew advances to help him. Meanwhile, Adolf continues to have second thoughts about his rash behavior. He now intends to transfer the forest property to Robert, so that he could reinstate the dismissed forester. Considering the situation hopeless and his family about to be destitute, Wilkens, a cousin of the forester's wife, Sophy, proposes that they come over to live with him. She accepts, but not the forester. He is however stunned on learning from William that the court refuses to consider his complaint on the basis that the master is in his rights to take down his own trees. Mary receives a letter from Robert, asking her to leave with him, which Sophy approves of. "If you would go," Sophy says to Mary, "we might then remain with father. Robert would try once more to persuade his father, Uncle Wilkens also would yield, and when you wear the bridal wreath a second time it would be even more becoming to you." Mary accepts to sneak out of the house in the evening but only to tell Robert that she intends to stay with her father. Even worse news come to the forester when his keeper, Weiler, reports that he saw Robert shoot at a man who fell, probably Andrew, because the victim bore the rifle with the yellow strap and he recovered his son's muffler covered with blood. Drunk with rage and wine, the forester goes out to avenge his son. When he discovers Robert at a distance, he shoots at him. However, Mary at the point of joining her lover steps in front of the bullet and is killed. Christian returns home in a confused state. On seeing Andrew also back home, he is unable to believe his eyes. "You have my muffler which Lindenschmied stole from me before he killed Godfrey?" Andrew asks and then relates that Robert shot Lindenschmied to death. When Robert shows up with Mary's corpse, the forester goes out and shoots himself to death.
Also of note is the Austrian dramatist, Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872), author of a Gothic drama, "Die Ahnfrau" (The ancestress, 1817).
Time: 1810s. Place: Austria.
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With no son as heir to his fortune, but only a single daughter, Bertha, Count Zdenko von Borotin bitterly regrets he represents the last of his ancestral lineage. Put asleep by his daughter's harp, he thinks he sees an ancestress of his, also named Berta, murdered many years ago by her husband after engaging in an adulterous relation, whose bastard son is the only source of the ancestral line. His daughter and the guardian of the castle, Gunther, assure him that they were on the terrace together when the apparent vision appeared. Their talk is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a perturbed Jaromir, Berta's lover, barely escaped from robbers in the forest who killed two of his servants. Approving of the intended marriage between this man and his daughter, Zdenko agrees to harbor him for the night. However, Jaromir's sleep is broken by phantom lights. He thinks he sees Bertha before him walking from one room to another until the real Bertha appears, who does not see her ancestress. The count also awakes. He asks Jaromir whether he truly agrees to mix his fate with theirs. "Only a fool builds a home where thunder has struck," the count comments. Yet Jaromir is willing. Berta is glad. She playfully binds his arm with a scarf so that he does not fly away. Their talk is interrupted by a captain, sent with his men to pursue the murderous brigands. Unexpectedly, Jaromir defends them, supposing some to be driven to a thief's life because of poverty. He refuses to join Zdenko and the captain in pursuit of the thieves. Left alone, Berta trembles while heading towards Jaromir's room left to rest on his bed, all the more so after hearing two gunshots. She finds the bed empty. Later that night, Jaromir returns. She discovers he has been shot in the arm and binds his arm with the remains of the torn-off scarf. A knock is heard and a soldier enters as Jaromir heads out. He explains he had spotted the captain of the robbers and shot him in the arm. He further reveals that he had seized him, but the robber had pulled away and escaped, with only part of a scarf left behind. To her despair, Berta recognizes the rest of Jaromir's scarf. Jaromir explains he has been a thief since childhood, his father being one. Now he depends on her to retire from that kind of life by escaping with him. Thinking of her father, she hesitates, but then agrees. To her consternation, he pulls down from the wall the dagger that killed the ancestress. They agree to meet at midnight. As Berta and Gunther worry over the count's fate, soldiers enter carrying his struck body, stabbed by Jaromir when about to be captured. A captured thief, Boleslas, is led in with a strange story to tell. On the present castle grounds, he confesses to kidnapping many years ago a three-year old boy, keeping him as his son and fellow thief, the count's son, whom he thought had drowned, now a man they know as Jaromir. In despair, the count dies and Berta swoons at the point of reaching a vial full of poison left behind by Jaromir. Distracted by the count's death, the soldiers neglect to keep a close watch on Boleslas, who escapes and finds Jaromir. Boleslas discloses to him his true origin. Jaromir pushes him away and calls for Berta. "Who calls?" asks instead the ancestress. Believing here to be his Berta, though his sister, he pleads with her to go away with him. When the ancestress shows him her grave, he succumbs next to it as she disappears.
With the important though incomplete "Woyzeck" (1837), the art of Georg Büchner (1813-1837) resembles more 19th century German Realist and even 20th century drama, though with themes in common with France's Alfred de Musset, namely the despairing poetic musings of the main character. This work was influenced by Lenz' "The soldiers" (1776) in its short-scene format and betrayal themes between soldiers and their women.
For Gassner (1954), "Buchner was a forerunner of both naturalism and expressionism in the drama, although his life was cut short before he could develop the possibilities of either style. He had the naturalist’s “despair over life’s uncleanliness” and the expressionist’s technique of substituting psychologically suggestive brief scenes for elaborately developed situations. He was, in effect, an anti-romanticist in his romantic milieu. His philosophy of character, which stemmed from the outlook of nineteenth-century mechanistic science, is a distinct departure from “storm and stress” heroics. "Danton's death" (1835), with its portraits of Danton and Robespierre, who are both caught in the swirl of an unleashed revolution, exemplifies his deterministic outlook. “Individuals,” he wrote, explaining himself, “are so much surf on a wave, greatness the sheerest accident, the strength of genius a puppet play—a child’s struggle against an iron law.”" (p 337)
Time: 1830s. Place: Germany.
Woyzeck, a soldier, is subject to anguish for no specific reason. He experiences sights and sounds intensely. While tapping his feet on the ground, he is fearful on discovering that the sound is one of struck wood. For none of his worries does he obtain any encouragement from his supposed friend, Andres. Woyzeck executes menial tasks for his captain and acts as an experimental subject to a doctor in a nonsensical study on the effects of a diet consisting entirely of peas. The captain seems well-intentioned towards Woyzeck, but his recommendations are vague and unhelpful. He particularly recommends that he should stop pissing in the open. Woyzeck visits his girlfriend, Marie, living near the army camp as a whore, with a small boy to care for. Marie is tempted to stray from Woyzeck when she observes a drum major in the street. When Woyzeck and Marie go to a local fair, the pleasures associated with this and other activities are minimal and brief. Suspicious of the drum major, Woyzeck walks up to him, but is beaten for his pains. All the more suspicious and anguished in the extreme, Woyzeck stabs Marie to death beside a pond and throws the knife away. Arriving at an inn, he has neglected to wipe the incriminating blood from his clothes. When asked about it, he says he cut himself shaving, but a man comments that he is certainly talented, because it looks as if he smeared his right elbow with his right hand. Worried about the incriminating knife, Woyzeck returns to the pond to look for it but cannot at first find it. He finds the corpse first and asks in a delusion: "Why so pale, Marie?" Finally, he finds the knife and runs off to escape before being discovered. A policeman is called in the case and is impressed by the deed. "A good murder, a proper murder, a lovely murder, as lovely a murder as anyone could wish. We've not had a murder like this for years," he says admiringly.
Heinrich von Kleist
Among comedies of the period, Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)'s "Der zerbrochne Krug" (The broken jug, 1808) stands out.
"The broken jug"
Time: 1800s. Place: Huisum, Holland.
Judge Adam learns that a justice counsellor has arrived to investigate the doings of his court. It is a bad time for him, having suffered two blows on the head from the previous night and being scratched all over. He is nervous, and, whenever so, subject to defecating. Counsellor Walter notes Adam's behavior in a case about a jug. Martha accuses Ruprecht, her daughter's intended, of breaking it, which he denies, accusing a stranger found in Eve's bedroom late at night, whom he could not identify, perhaps another suitor of hers named Liebrecht, to whom he gave two head-blows. Eve also denies that Ruprecht is responsible but names no one. Adam appears relieved to hear Liebrecht's name, but Walter is surprised at the judge's unwillingness to hear Eve's complete testimony. Ruprecht's aunt testifies she heard Eve in her garden one half-hour before he broke her door in. She reports that Eve seemed discontented and even disgusted at being in that man's company. When she asked Eve who is the man she spoke with, she answered "Ruprecht". Ruprecht again denies he was there. She followed the unknown man's footprints in the snow and saw a pile of excrement along the way. She also saw evidence of a deformed foot, perhaps the devil's, leading all the way to Judge Adam's house. At this point, Walter orders that the case be immediately stopped. Adam pronounces Ruprecht guilty, who, convinced Adam is the culprit, rushes towards him, but he escapes, leaving his robe behind. Eve worries about Ruprecht being sent to prison, but Walter reassures her on that point. He learns that Adam demanded sexual favors from her in exchange of preventing Ruprecht's conscription in the army on dangerous missions.
Christian Dietrich Grabbe
Another comic writer of note is Christian Dietrich Grabbe (1801-1836) with "Scherz, Satire, Ironie und tiefere Bedeutung" (Jest, satire, irony, and deeper significance, 1827).
"Jest, satire, irony, and deeper significance"
Time: 1820s. Place: Germanic territory.
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To please the boy's father, a village schoolmaster agrees to present young Gottlieb to Baron Haldungen's castle. But first Gottlieb must mark the master's face with ink to make him appear more diligent. On a hot August day, the devil, removed from hell because of some housecleaning being done there, shivers on a hillside and faints as a natural scientist notices his plight. With three of his science colleagues, he helps the devil recover at the castle, where the latter identifies himself to all as a bishop. The court poet, Ratsbane, remarks that as a bishop he arrives in time to perform the marriage ceremony between the baron's daughter, Liddy, and a man named Wattsdale. The so-called bishop is forced to admit that he does not know the text of the ceremony, but Liddy assures him, to her lover's sorrow, that the wedding is still months away. When the schoolmaster arrives at court, the marks on his face impress no one. While the schoolmaster criticizes modern German poetry, the bishop, still feeling chilly, breaks a chair and sets it afire to dip his finger in. Gottlieb impresses no one either, to Liddy appearing much like a numskull. "A numskull genius," the schoolmaster points out, "like so many to be found today." Although the baron generously invites the false bishop to remain at the castle, the latter only wants to cause trouble, principally prevent his daughter's marriage. After having asked the village blacksmith to fix his loosened cloven hoof, he accosts Baron Murdax and promises him his aid in marrying Liddy provided he murder thirteen apprentice tailors. Murdax agrees to murder twelve and break a few ribs of the thirteenth. The devil next accosts Wattsdale, who agrees to part with his bride in exchange for cash to pay off his debts. In his room, Ratsbane decides to write a poem about a man unable to write a poem. Looking out the window in his plight to find a simile for chewing quills, he sees a boy defecating but decides that is not it. "What the mane is to a horse, the quill is to a pen," he reasons and decides to work on that. His musings are interrupted by the devil, who informs him about who is in and out of hell. Yet another suitor for Liddy arrives, Mushcliff, who expects to be repulsed because of his ugly face. To thank the schoolmaster for encouraging him despite his handicap, he gives the schoolmaster twenty condoms no longer of any use to him. Mushcliff's fears are all too justified: Liddy indeed rejects him without hesitation. For his part, the schoolmaster agrees with the blacksmith to capture the devil, place him inside a cage, and make money of him at fairs and market places. They go on a drinking binge with the suicidal Mushcliff, Ratsbane, and even little Gottlieb while Murdax murders all thirteen apprentice tailors. Recovering from the bout, Ratsbane invites Liddy for a coach drive in the woods. The schoolmaster succeeds in attracting the devil in his cage by placing the condoms in it. However, Murdax fails in wooing Liddy and therefore asks the help of accomplices to abduct her. But he fails once more when Mushcliff fires pistol shots to scare them away. This transforms Liddy's view of Mushcliff altogether. She agrees to marry the fellow after all. Unexpectedly, the schoolmaster is unable to follow his design when the devil's grandmother shows up to save him. The schoolmaster is then irritated at discovering Christian Dietrich Grabbe in the woods with a lighted lantern.
Amalie Heiter, princess of Saxony (1794-1870), was responsible for another fine comedy of the period: "Die Heimkehr des Sohnes" (The son's return, 1842) in which a married couple wishes to separate but is unexpectedly brought together again.
"The son's return"
Time: 1830s. Place: Hamburg, Germany.
Against Colonel Seewald’s advice, his son, George, married Johanna, a poor man’s daughter. Because of his father’s lack of financial support and his obligations towards his wife’s family, the couple were forced to accept positions as tutor and governess, which they lost when their patron discovered their love of each other. As a result, George sought his fortune in America as a tutor, but was reported to have died. Taking pity on her poor condition, Colonel Seewald and his wife, Clara, took up Johanna into their house, who paid them back by devoting time in household duties with an energetic will. During the course of a year, Johanna is courted by Braus, a forester, but is hesitant to marry him. Unexpectedly, George returns from Guadalupe, even more expectedly, rich. Overwhelmed with joy, Clara requests Braus to inform Johanna about George’s arrival, which he accepts to do. Johanna is stunned at these news and intimates a fault on her part concerning her long-lost husband. The colonel decides “to throw anger in the grave” and forget about his son’s disobedience to his will. When Clara announces that Johanna has lived under their roof, George is as stunned at this turn of events as she was at his return, because he thought she had died, having received an ill-informed letter on this subject in Guadalupe. On entering the room, Johanna glances at her husband and immediately rushes out, determined to leave the house before even speaking with him. George tells his father that before their separation he mostly lived at variance with his wife and is dejected at the thought of living with her again. There is a second unexpected arrival, for George, thinking his wife dead, married a second time, Adèle, daughter of a wealthy Creole while serving as her brother’s tutor, the father and brother having died from yellow fever and she the only remaining survivor in the family. When Adèle first meets the colonel, she takes him for the steward. After some painful moments, the colonel discovers she is his son’s wife. He disowns him, unaware that his son thought his first wife had died. Suspecting that Johanna wrote to George the false news of his wife’s death, Braus confronts her with his thoughts but is unable to make her talk. He next reveals to George the love he bears his wife, but yet encourages him out of a sense of duty to remain with her. On discovering that George’s wife is still alive, Adèle prepares to return to Guadalupe, not before offering half her fortune to him, but he declines the offer. When Johanna learns of Adèle’s arrival and departure, she asks a servant to pursue her. A final surprise occurs when George finally casts his eyes on Johanna, whom he calls “Lisette”. Indeed, Johanna is not the Johanna he knew as his wife but her grieving younger sister, who, destitute of any means of support after her sister's death, pretended to be Johanna while accepting the charitable offer of the Seewalds to live with them. This revelation sets George free to remain with Adèle as husband and wife.