A New and Complete Translation

Essay 2

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 5 May 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 4 Yet another observation, also concerning the Christian drama, might be made with regards to Clorinda’s conversion.[2.1]  While we may always wish to be convinced of the direct effects of grace, it can please us but little in the theater, where everything that belongs to the personality of the characters must spring from the most natural causes.  In the theater we only tolerate miracles in the physical world; in the moral realm everything has to keep to its proper course, because theater should be the school of the moral world.[2.2]  The motives for each decision, for each change in even the most minor thoughts and opinions, must be precisely weighed for consistency with the character as it has already been presented, and they must never produce more than they could according to the strictest truth.  The writer might possess the art of seducing us into overlooking incongruities of this type through beautiful details; but he deceives us only once, and as soon as we have cooled down, we take back the applause he wheedled from us.  Applying this to the fourth scene of the third act, one will find that Sophronia’s speeches and behavior might indeed have moved Clorinda to pity, but they are far too ineffectual to have the effect of conversion on a person who is not at all disposed to enthusiasm.  In Tasso Clorinda also embraces Christianity, but only in her last hour, only after she has just discovered that her parents embraced this faith. These are subtle, elevated circumstances, through which the force of a higher power is, so to speak, interwoven into a series of natural events.  No one has better understood how far one may go with this subject in the theater than Voltaire.  After the sensitive, noble soul of Zamor has been assaulted and shaken to its core by example and pleading, by magnanimity and exhortations, Voltaire allows him more to suppose, than actually to believe, the truth of the religion whose converts display so much greatness.[2.3] And perhaps Voltaire would have also suppressed this supposition, if something of the sort had not been necessary in order to keep peace among his audience.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In view of the above observations even Corneille’s Polyeucte is faulty; and since its imitations have all been even worse, we are without doubt still waiting for the first tragedy deserving to be called Christian.[2.4]  By that I mean a play in which for the first time the Christian interests us as a Christian. — But is such a play even possible?  Isn’t the character of the true Christian somehow completely untheatrical?  Don’t his most characteristic traits—quiet tranquility and consistent gentleness—somehow conflict with the entire business of tragedy, which seeks to purify passions through passions?  Doesn’t his expectation of a rewarding happiness in the next life contradict the selfless altruism with which we wish to see all great and good actions on the stage undertaken and performed?

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Until a work of genius incontestably refutes these concerns—for experience has shown us that genius can overcome many difficulties—my advice would be:  to leave all Christian tragedies written to date unstaged.  This advice, derived from the requirements of art, and which can deprive us of nothing except very mediocre plays, is none the worse in that it benefits those weaker souls who feel I know not what kind of horror when they hear sentiments spoken in the theater that they are only prepared to encounter in a holier place.  The theater should offend no one, whoever they may be; and I wish that it also could and would forestall any offenses to anyone.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 4 Cronegk only brought his play to the end of the fourth act. The rest was added by a pen in Vienna; a pen—for the work of a mind is not very evident in it.[2.5]  Apparently the editor ended the story completely differently than Cronegk planned.  Death best solves all complications; thus he allows both Olindo and Sophronia to die.  In Tasso they both survive, because Clorinda takes up their cause with selfless generosity.[2.6]  But Cronegk had made Clorinda fall in love, and so it was admittedly difficult to guess how he intended to deal with two rivals without calling death to his aid.  In a different (even worse, tragedy) when one of the main characters suddenly died, one member of the audience asked his neighbor: “But what did she die of?” – “Of what?  Of the fifth act” answered the other. Truth be told, the fifth act is an evil nasty disease that carries away many a one to whom the first four acts had promised a much longer life.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 But I don’t want to go to any greater lengths with my criticism of the play.  As mediocre as it is, it has been exceptionally produced.  I say nothing about the external splendor, because this improvement of our theater requires nothing other than money.  The arts that require this sort of help have the same level of excellence as in every other country; it is just that our artists wish to be paid as well as those in every other country.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 One should be satisfied with the production of a play if among four or five people a few have performed excellently and the others well.  He who is so offended by a beginner or some substitute in a minor role that he turns up his nose at the whole thing should travel to Utopia and visit the perfect theater there, where even the candlesnuffer is a Garrick. [2.7]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [†] Herr Eckhof was Evander; although Evander is in fact Olindo’s father, he essentially functions as not much more than a confidant.[2.8]  This actor, however, can make what he wants of a role; even in the smallest role we always recognize him as the finest of actors and regret not being able to see him play all of the other roles in addition to his own.  A talent completely unique to him is that he knows how to deliver moral adages and sweeping observations, those boring digressions of an awkward writer, with such grace and inner fire, that in his mouth the most trivial phrases are imbued with novelty and dignity, the coldest phrases with fire and life.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The interspersed morals are Cronegk’s strength.  Both here and in his Codrus he has expressed quite a few with such a lovely and emphatic brevity that many of his verses deserve to be kept as aphorisms and taken up by the general public as part of the prevailing wisdom in everyday life.  Unfortunately he also often tries to peddle colored glass for precious stone and witty antitheses for common sense.  Two lines of that kind in the first act had a particular effect on me.  The first,

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 “Heaven can forgive, but a Priest cannot.”

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The second,

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 “He who thinks badly of others is himself a villain.”

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 3 I was struck by a general movement in the parterre and noticed that murmuring through which applause expresses itself when the audience’s attentiveness does not allow it to fully break out.  On the one hand I thought:  Wonderful! These people love morality; this audience has a taste for maxims; a Euripides could earn fame on this stage, and Socrates would happily visit it.  On the other hand, it also occurred to me how cock-eyed, how false, how offensive these supposed maxims were, and I very much wished that disapproval might have had the largest share in that murmuring.  There has only been one Athens, there will only ever be one Athens, where even among the rabble moral sentiment was so fine and sensitive that actors and playwrights ran the risk of being driven out of the theater because of corrupt morality!  I am well aware that in the drama sentiments must correspond with the assumed character of the person who expresses them; they therefore cannot bear the stamp of absolute truth. It is enough if they are poetically true, if we must admit that this character, in this situation, in this state of passion, could not have judged otherwise.  But on the other hand, even this poetic truth must approach the absolute, and a writer must never think so unphilosophically that he imagines a person could want evil for evil’s sake, or act according to vicious principles whose viciousness he recognizes and even boast of them to himself and others. Such a person is a monster, as hideous as he is uninstructive, and is nothing but the miserable last resort of an insipid mind, who thinks glittering tirades are the highest achievement in tragedy.  If Ismenor is a cruel priest, then are all priests Ismenors?  One must not argue that we are talking about priests of a false religion.  No religion in this world has ever been so false that its teachers necessarily had to be fiends.  Priests have wreaked havoc in false religions as well as in true ones, not because they were priests, but because they were villains who would have abused the privileges of any social positionin the service of their evil inclinations.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 4 When the stage indulges the expression of such ill-considered judgments against priests, is it any wonder that among them there are some foolish enough to proclaim the stage a high road to hell?

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 But I am falling again into criticism of the play, and I wanted to speak of the actors.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0  

  • 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0
  • [2.1] Clorinda was born a Christian but was raised among Muslims; her conversion is therefore less an act of faith as it is a return to “natural” inclinations.
  • [2.2] Lessing, like many of his contemporaries, proposed that the theatre could serve as a tool of moral reform; such proponents espoused a universal view of natural behavior founded on moral philosophy. Moral improvement, however, was to be effected through an appeal to spectators’ capacity for compassion, rather than by depicting a “moral lesson.” Cf. “Brief an Nicolai 11.10.1769” (“Letter to Nicolai 11 Oct 1769”) (Werke und Briefe 11/1: 628-29) in which Lessing decries those who would make the stage a moral school.
  • [2.3] Above, Lessing uses “pity” (Mitleid), “enthusiasm” (Enthusiasmus) and “sensitive” (empfindlich). These were critical terms in Enlightenment philosophy and an essential component of Lessing’s affective acting theory. Zamor is a “noble savage” who converts to Christianity in Voltaire’s play Alzire, ou les Américains (Alzire; or, The Americans) (1736).
  • [2.4] In Pierre Corneille’s Polyeucte (1642) the titular character, an Armenian prince, converts to Christianity and is martyred. Robertson (174 n.3) asserts that this was the most popular of Corneille’s plays in Germany.
  • [2.5] See 1.2, above.
  • [2.6] See 1.4, above.
  • [2.7] Until late in the eighteenth century the lighting in German theaters was provided by candles; the Lichtputzer (here translated as “candlesnuffer”) was responsible for maintaining those candles, trimming wicks to prevent them from smoking and extinguishing the flames when it was time for the candles to be changed. On lighting practices in the 18th-century German theater, see Maurer-Schmoock 65-75. English actor, playwright, and entrepreneur David Garrick (1717-79) was considered among the greatest dramatic artists of the century; the literary reference is to Thomas More’s Utopia (1516).
  • [2.8] Konrad Ekhof (1720-78); Lessing gives a variant spelling of his name in the text. Born in Hamburg, Ekhof joined Johann Friedrich Schönemann’s troupe when he was eighteen years old. When the Hamburg National Theater was founded in 1767 Ekhof became a leading member of the company. After the collapse of the Hamburg Theater, he became co-director of the more longstanding national theater at Gotha; the Ekhof-Theater at Schloss Friedenstein is one of the few still-functioning baroque theaters in Europe.
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages cut by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/111-2/