Monday, July 14, 2014

Yes, dear...

As I was reading Madame de Staël’s Germany, I was struck by the criticism she doled out against the author of the French adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein. She wrote that this author “was obliged to incorporate in his play the exposition which was handled so originally in the prologue.” While she admitted that the first scenes were “in perfect accord with the imposing tone of French tragedy,” she complained that there was “a kind of animation in the irregularity of the German original which can never be improved upon.”

Um... Madame de Staël? The author of that French adaptation… wasn’t that Benjamin Constant? You know... the guy you were mentoring... and uh... sleeping with at the time?

Why, yes, it was! But that didn’t stop her from laying into her “little friend” even more. Referring to the play by its French title, de Staël wrote: “I would be curious to see the play Wallstein performed in our theatre, even more so if the French author had not submitted so rigorously to the conventions of French regularity.”

Geesh! Cut the guy some slack, can’t you? Well, a number of years later, Benjamin Constant finally admitted… yes, she was right. In 1829, the French-Swiss author published a revision of his preface to Wallstein, recognizing that, on each of these points, he probably should have listened to his girlfriend.

That first part of Schiller’s Wallenstein, the prologue that just shows a day in the life of an army camp, it really was better in the original, Constant admitted. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight (and of a demanding lover who wasn’t afraid to say exactly what she thought), Constant wrote:

The scenes follow one another without being linked, but this incoherence is natural: it is a living portrait with neither past nor future.... We perceive all the symptoms of a burgeoning insurrection, awaiting Wallenstein’s signal to explode.... We see them defying authority, yet making it a point of honor to obey their leader.... It would be impossible to transfer to our stage this singular production....

Though Constant covers his rear by noting that he never could have gotten the French stage to accept something like Schiller’s prologue, he has to agree with de Staël that he at least should have tried. “In various ways I had destroyed the dramatic effect of the play by condemning myself to maintaining all our own theatre’s rules,” Constant wrote--two decades after he had first translated the play. Sadly, he had described Wallenstein’s superstitious nature rather than showing it, as Schiller had done. (Show, don’t tell, remember Benny? Didn’t a certain someone point that out to you…?)

Plus, he had eliminated a number of roles from the original, reducing 48 different characters to a mere 12. As Constant put it:

I had sacrificed, without any compensation, another advantage possessed by Schiller. Subordinate characters which are not directly linked to the plot allow the Germans a type of effect unknown in our theatre.... In German tragedies... there exists... a second sort of roles which are, in a way, spectators themselves.... Thus we can say that the audience’s opinion is anticipated and directed by an intermediary audience which is closer to the action, but no less impartial.

Constant compared Schiller’s use of secondary characters to the use of the chorus in the great tragedies of Sophocles. Looks like he missed out on that one. And then there’s the matter of his portrayal of the female character Thekla. Constant has to confess, he got her wrong, wrong, wrong. It seems there might have been a certain amount of eye-rolling from you-know-who on this one.
Toward the end of the essay, Constant writes:

Had I possessed more foresight or daring, [or perhaps just listened to my girlfriend] I would have avoided the majority of the flaws I have just indicated in my own work. I should have foreseen that a political revolution would carry over into a literary revolution. I should have foreseen that a nation which had only momentarily renounced liberty in order to hurl herself into the perils of conquest would no longer be satisfied by the weak and imperfect emotions which had sufficed for spectators softened by the pleasures of a peaceful existence and a refined civilization.

There’s a nice thought for this Bastille Day.

And next time, please pay attention when the lady criticizes your play. Especially when the lady happens to be Madame de Staël.