Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Clearing Up the German Stage

In Germany, the Enlightenment was known as the "Aufklärung" which translates roughly to the "clearing up of things." Since the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, Germany had been left as a mess, politically, economically, and intellectually. Enlightenment thinkers in Germany tended to steer clear of political problems, and they usually came from the rising middle class, which was helping to restore the finances of the region in the wake of decades of war. Their primary goal was to liberate people from superstition and worn-out ideas. They particularly took aim at prejudices among German-speaking people to favor fashions from France or England rather than something that had been produced locally, be it a cloak, a hat, or a new play.

The German Aufklärung also sought to clear up the mess that had been made of the country's theatre, and perhaps no one person was more dedicated to reorganizing the theatre than the actress and theatre manager Caroline Neuber. Born Friederike Caroline Weissenborn, she was well educated by an intelligent but tyrannical father who seems to have quite literally beaten her unfortunate mother to death. At twenty, she ran off with a young clerk, Johann Neuber, and married him. The couple joined a troupe of traveling actors, and then five years later moved to another company. In 1727, they founded their own troupe and were granted a special patent by the local government to perform at the annual Easter Fair in Leipzig.

Performing extensively rehearsed productions, the Neubers' company attracted the attention of a university professor in Leipzig, Johann Christoph Gottsched. Like Neuber, Gottsched wanted to elevate German drama, and the two worked together, with Neuber staging innovative new productions and Gottsched writing critical defenses of her actions. Most controversial was Neuber's holding a symbolic banishing of the traditional German clown, Hanswurst, an act Gottsched justified as necessary to bring about a new seriousness in drama. Unfortunately, Gottsched felt he needed to be deferred to in stage matters as well as literary ones, and Neuber would have none of that. The two fell out in 1741 over an argument in which even Gottsched's own wife had sided with Neuber.

Realizing the value of having an educated critic on her side, Neuber looked about for a replacement for Gottsched, and came upon a talented student at the University of Leipzig named Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. She induced him to translate French plays for her, and then in 1748 she produced his first original play, The Young Scholar. Lessing began reviewing theatre productions, and eventually co-founded a new journal dedicated exclusively to the drama. Though it lasted only four issues, it established his reputation. Lessing continued to write plays, and in 1755 penned Miss Sara Sampson, a bourgeois tragedy influenced by George Lillo's The London Merchant but surpassing it in many ways.

While Miss Sara Sampson introduced bourgeois tragedy to the German stage, Lessing's 1767 play Minna von Barnhelm set new standards in romantic comedy. The same year he wrote that play, Lessing began work on a series of essays for the Hamburg National Theater. Though the theatre closed two years later, Lessing's essays, collected together in the book Hamburg Dramaturgy, had a lasting effect on dramatic theory and criticism. In 1772 Lessing wrote Emilia Galotti, a tragedy on classical themes but with a contemporary setting, and seven years later he shocked religious sensibilities with his historical comedy about the Crusades, Nathan the Wise. Though Lessing intended the play as a plea for religious tolerance, people of many faiths condemned it for its argument that all religions are essentially interchangeable.

Lessing is generally credited with helping to pave the way for German Romanticism, but that's another story.