¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 [†]It was clearly important to begin with a German original, which in this case would also have the attraction of novelty. But the intrinsic value of this particular play could not make any claims to such an honor. The choice would warrant criticism, if anyone could demonstrate that they could have found something better.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Olindo and Sophronia is the work of a young writer, and is his uncompleted posthumous work.[1.2] Cronegk certainly died too young for our stage; but in truth, his fame is based upon what he might have achieved, according to the judgment of his friends, rather than upon what he actually accomplished.[1.3] And what dramatic writer, from any era or nation, could have died in his twenty-sixth year without leaving an equally ambivalent assessment of his true talent?
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The subject matter is the well-known episode from Tasso.[1.4] To reshape a brief, touching story into a touching drama is not easy. True, it takes little effort to invent new entanglements and to expand isolated feelings into entire scenes. But it is crucial to prevent these new developments from weakening the interest or compromising the probability; to be able to shift oneself from the perspective of narrator to the authentic position of each and every person; to avoid describing passions but instead to let them develop before the eyes of the audience and to let them grow smoothly and with such illusory continuity that the audience must sympathize, whether it wants to or not.[1.5] This is what genius does unconsciously, without explaining everything to death. And this is what the merely clever wit tries torturously to imitate, but in vain.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 In his Olindo and Sophronia Tasso seems to have had Virgil’s “Nisus and Euryalus” in mind.[1.6] Where Virgil portrayed the power of friendship in his work, Tasso wanted to depict the power of love. In Virgil, it is the heroic sense of duty that triggers the test of friendship. In Tasso, it is religion that gives love the opportunity to show its true power. But religion, which is just the means through which Tasso shows love at work, becomes the central theme of Cronegk’s reworking. Cronegk wanted to ennoble the triumph of love through the triumph of religion. Certainly, a pious improvement – but nothing more than pious! For it has misled him into taking what for Tasso was so simple, natural, true and human, and rendering it so complicated, fanciful, wondrous and heavenly that it is devoid of meaning.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 In Tasso, the character who advises Aladin to move the miraculous image of Mary from the Temple to the Mosque is a man who is neither Christian nor Muslim, but rather someone who has woven together his personal belief out of both religions. Why did Cronegk turn this magician into a Mohammedan priest? The priest could give such advice only if he were as ignorant of his own religion as the playwright seems to be. They do not permit any images in their Mosques. Cronegk reveals in numerous places that he possesses a very mistaken conceptualization of the Muslim faith. The crassest mistake, however, is that he makes this religion guilty of polytheism when it is perhaps more than any other committed to a singular God. He refers to the mosque as “the seat of false gods,” and he has the priest cry out:
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 In Tasso, the image of Mary disappears from the mosque without anyone knowing whether it was taken by human hands or whether a higher power was involved. Cronegk makes Olindo responsible. He also transforms the image of Mary into “a picture of the Lord on the Cross.” Nevertheless, an image is an image, and this miserable superstition creates a despicable side to Olindo’s character. One cannot forgive him for being willing to risk leading his people to the brink of destruction through such a small deed. When he later freely confesses, it is only out of guilt and not greatness of spirit. Tasso has him take this step out of love: he wants to save Sophronia or die with her. Die with her, simply to die with her—he can do nothing more. Unable to share a bed, they share a funeral pyre; bound at her side to the same stake, certain to be consumed by the same fire, he feels nothing but the happiness of such a sweet proximity. He does not give a thought to what awaits him beyond the grave, and wishes for nothing more than that the proximity be even closer and more intimate, that he press his breast against her breast, and be allowed to breathe out his spirit upon her lips.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 This superb contrast between a sweet, gentle, romantic, effusive young woman and a fiery-tempered, lusty young man is entirely lost with Cronegk, where they are both driven by the coldest singularity of intent: both have nothing but martyrdom in mind. And it is not enough that they both want to die for the sake of religion; Evander also wants to, and even Serena seems to have no small desire to do so.[1.8]
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 Here I would like to make a two-fold argument that, if well heeded, will protect an aspiring tragic playwright from great missteps. The first point has to do with tragedy in general. If heroic sentiments are supposed to evoke admiration, then the playwright must not use them promiscuously. People stop marveling at what they hear and see too often. Cronegk crossed this line badly with his Codrus. The willingness to die for the sake of his homeland[1.9] should have been embodied by Codrus alone. He should have stood as the only example of a very particular type, in order to have the impact that the playwright intended. But Elesinde and Philaide and Medon (and how many others?) are all equally ready to sacrifice their lives for their homeland.[1.10] Our admiration is divided, and Codrus gets lost in the crowd. The same occurs here. In Olindo and Sophronia, all Christendom appears to regard being tortured and dying as if it were no more than drinking a glass of water. We hear such pious bravado so often, from so many mouths, that it loses all of its power.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 4 The second observation has to do with the Christian tragedy in particular. Heroes of these plays are usually martyrs. Now, however, we live in a time in which the voice of healthy reason calls out too loudly to allow every madman to claim the title of martyr just because he willingly and unnecessarily flings himself into death with only contempt for his civic obligations. We now know all too well how to distinguish the false martyrs from the true; we despise the former as much as we revere the latter, and the most they can do is squeeze a melancholy tear out of us over the blindness and stupidity of which humanity is evidently all too capable. However, this tear is not the pleasurable sort that tragedy wants to stimulate. When the playwright chooses a martyr as his hero he should give him the clearest and most effective motivations! Place him in conditions of utter necessity, so that he must take the step that places him in danger! Do not let him seek death lightly, or arrogantly defy it! Otherwise, his pious hero will become an object of disgust, and religion itself—that which the playwright wants to honor—may suffer. I have already touched upon the fact that only a worthless superstition, such as that which we despise in the magician Ismenor, could drive Olindo to take the image out of the mosque. It does not excuse the playwright that there have been times when such superstition was common and existed alongside many positive traits, and that there are still lands where such superstition poses no threat to pious simplicity. But he did not write his play for those times, any more than he intended it to be produced in Bohemia or Spain.[1.11] The good writer, regardless of genre—if he is not writing merely to demonstrate his wit or his learnedness—always has the best and most illuminating traits of his time and his place in mind, and he only deigns to write that which will appeal to these people and move them. Even the dramatic writer, if he sinks to the level of the masses, only condescends in order to enlighten and improve, and not to confirm them in their prejudices and ignoble ways of thinking.
- ¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0
- [1.1] Set in 12th-century Jerusalem, Olint und Sophronia,by Johann Friedrich von Cronegk (1731-1758), depicts Olindo’s love for the Christian Sophronia. After Olindo steals a crucifix meant to protect the city from Crusaders, he and Sophronia offer to martyr themselves to save her people from the wrath of the sultan, Aladin. In the production, Konrad Ekhof played Olindo’s father, Evander, and Sophie Hensel played Clorinde, a heathen queen also in love with Olindo. Johann Michael Böck and Susanna Mecour played the title roles. For a production history and fuller synopsis of this play, see Robertson (54-57).
- [1.2] Kassian Anton von Roschmann-Hörburg completed Olint und Sophronia in 1764.
- [1.3] Cronegk’s play Codrus (1757), about the last king of Athens,initiated a revival of Alexandrine tragedies in Germany and led to his posthumous fame, even as bourgeois dramas such as Lessing’s Miss Sara Sampson (1755) gained in popularity.
- [1.4] The story of Olindo and Sophronia appears in the second book of Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered ). Mendelssohn had previously criticized Cronegk’s writing in the periodical Briefe, die neueste Litteratur betreffend (Letters 190 & 191, dated 8 Oct and 15 Oct 1761), and his arguments are strongly reflected by Lessing.
- [1.5] Here Lessing lays out a few of the key criteria he will use throughout the Hamburg Dramaturgy to assess plays and performances: “probability” (Wahrscheinlichkeit), “illusory continuity” (illusorische Stetigkeit), and the notion that an audience should “sympathize” (sympathisieren) with the action or characters.
- [1.6] Book IX of Virgil’s Aeneid contains the story of Nisus and Euryalus, two Trojan soldiers who shared a close bond of friendship. During a raid of an enemy’s camp, Euryalus steals a helmet, which leads to his capture. Although Nisus returns heroically to rescue his friend, both are killed.
- [1.7] Ismenor, the “Mohammedan priest,” was played by David Borchers.
- [1.8] Serena is the confidant of Sophronia.
- [1.9] Lessing uses the term Vaterland (literally, “fatherland”) here and in the next sentence.
- [1.10] Elisinde (misspelled in this essay) and Philaide are Athenian noblewomen in Cronegk’s play; Medon is Elisinde’s son.
- [1.11] Both Catholic countries.
- [†] Text in blue indicates passages cut by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.