A New and Complete Translation

Essay 14

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 16 June 1767 [14.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The bourgeois tragedy found a strong defender in the French critic who acquainted his country with Sara.[*] The French otherwise rarely approve of something for which they themselves have no example. [14.2]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 The names of princes and heroes can give a play pomp and majesty, but they contribute nothing to its emotional power. [14.3] The misfortune of someone whose circumstances come closest to our own must naturally penetrate most deeply into our souls, and if we have compassion for kings, we have it for them as people rather than as kings. If occasionally their rank makes their misfortunes more important, it does not therefore make them more interesting. Though entire populations may be enmeshed, our sympathy demands a single subject, and a nation is far too abstract a concept for our sentiments.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 4 “We wrong the human heart,” says Marmontel, “we misunderstand Nature, if we believe that titles are required to move us and touch us. [14.4] The sacred names of friend, father, beloved, spouse, son, mother, of human beings in general: these have more pathos than anything else; they assert their rights always and forever. What difference does social standing, surname, or birth make to the unfortunate man whom seductive example, and kindness toward unworthy friends, draws into gambling? Whose fortune and honor are destroyed as a result, and who suffers now in prison, torn by shame and regret? If you ask who he is, I would answer: he was an honest man, and, to his torment, a husband and father; his wife, whom he loves and by whom he is loved, now wastes away in utter poverty and can offer her hungry children nothing but tears. Show me, in the history of heroes, a situation that is more touching, more moral, in a word, more tragic! And when this unhappy man finally poisons himself, when he learns, just after he has poisoned himself, that heaven wants to rescue him – what is missing, in this painful, dreadful moment, in which the fear of death is joined with tormenting thoughts of how happily he could have lived – I ask, what is lacking here to be worthy of tragedy? The marvelous, one might say. How so? Is there not marvel enough in the sudden transition from honor to shame, from innocence to crime, from the sweetest peace to despair – in short, in the most extreme unhappiness brought on by mere weakness?”

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 But no matter how much these Diderots and Marmontels impress their observations upon the French, it does not seem that the bourgeois tragedy will find a niche among them. The nation is too vain, too enamored of titles and other superficial privileges; down to the most common man, they only want to be seen with people of greater distinction, and the company of one’s equals is the same as bad company. To be sure, a happy genius can accomplish much among his people; Nature has not given up her rights anywhere, and perhaps she is simply waiting there for the poet who knows how to depict her in all her truth and power. The attempt made by an anonymous writer in a play called The Picture of Indigence has beautiful elements, and until the French acquire a taste for it, we should adopt it for our theater. [14.5] [†]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The aforementioned critic finds faults with the German Sara that are not entirely unfounded. But I believe that the author would rather retain his errors than undergo what might prove to be a misbegotten effort toward a complete reworking of the play. [14.6] He remembers what Voltaire said in a similar situation: “We can not always do what our friends advise. There are also necessary errors. To cure a hunchbacked man of his hunch, you would have to take his life. My child is hunchbacked, but it is otherwise just fine.” [14.7]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 On the twelfth evening (Thursday, May 7th) The Gamester by Regnard was performed.  [14.8]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This play is undoubtedly the best that Regnard wrote; but Rivière Dufresny, who also brought a Gamester to the stage soon after, took him to task regarding its invention. [14.9] He complained that Regnard stole both the concept and various scenes from him; Regnard shifted the blame back on him, and now we only know this much for certain from the quarrel, that one of the two was a plagiarist. If it was Regnard, then we should thank him for overcoming his better instincts and abusing the trust of his friend; it was for our own good that he appropriated the material, which he anticipated would be ruined. We only would have had a very bad Gamester if he had been more scrupulous. But he should have confessed the deed and given poor Dufresny a share of the honor he earned by it.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 On the thirteenth evening (Friday, May 8th) The Married Philosopher was repeated; the evening concluded with The Lover, Author and Servant.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Cerou is the author of this short, clever play; he was a law student in 1740 when he gave the play to the Italians in Paris to perform. [14.10] It succeeds uncommonly well.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 On the fourteenth evening (Monday, May 11th), The Coquette Mother by Quinault, and The Village Lawyer were produced. [14.11]

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Experts count the former among the best plays of the French theater from the previous century. There truly is much fine comedy in it, the likes of which Molière might have been proud. But the fifth act and the whole resolution could have been much better; the old slave, who is mentioned several times in the previous acts, does not appear, and the play ends with cold narration after we had been prepared for theatrical action. [14.12] Otherwise the play is notable within the history of French theater because the ridiculous marquis is the first of his type. The Coquette Mother is also not the best possible title, and Quinault could have let the second title, The Quarreling Lovers, suffice.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The Village Lawyer is actually an old farce from the fifteenth century that received extraordinary acclaim in its day. [14.13] It earned it too, due to the singular merriment and the fine comedy that arises from the action itself and from the character’s situations, and is not just based on jokes. Brueys gave it a new language and put it into the form that is currently being produced. [14.14] Herr Ekhof was absolutely superb in the role of the lawyer Patelin.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 On the fifteenth evening (Tuesday, May 12) Lessing’s The Freethinker was presented.  [14.15]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 It is known here under the title The Ashamed Freethinker, because people wanted to differentiate it from the tragedy by Herr von Brawe that bears the very same title. [14.16] In truth, one cannot really say that a person who betters himself is ashamed. Adrast is also not the one and only freethinker; there are, rather, several persons who share this role. The vain impulsive Henriette, the mischievous Johann, and Lisidor, who is indifferent to truth or falsehood – all of these are types of freethinkers, who together must live up to the title of the play. [14.17] But of what consequence is the title? It is enough that the performance merited much acclaim. Without exception the roles are well cast, and in particular Herr Böck plays Theophan with all of the friendly decency that this character requires in order to set off in contrast his eventual indignation over Adrast’s obstinacy in misjudging him, on which the play’s whole resolution depends.  [14.18]

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 The evening concluded with a pastoral play by Herr Pfeffel called The Treasure.  [14.19]

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Besides this short play, this writer has made himself a bit of a reputation through another work, The Hermit.  [14.20] In The Treasure he has tried to put in more interest than is usual in our pastoral plays, since their entire substance is trifling love. His writing, however, is often a bit too strained and precious, so that the already too rarefied sentiments acquire a highly unnatural air and become nothing but frosty plays of wit. This is particularly true of his Hermit, which is intended to be a short tragedy that could be used to follow a poignant play in lieu of a comic afterpiece. The intention is all to the good, but we would much rather proceed from crying to laughing than to yawning.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 [*] Journal Étranger, December 1761. [“Miss Sara Sampson, Tragèdie bourgeoise de M. Lessing.” – Ed.]

  • 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0
  • [14.1] Lessing continues his discussion from [13] of Miss Sara Sampson.
  • [14.2] It was previously believed that the “French critic” was Denis Diderot (1753–84), as Lessing’s later mention suggests. Both authors defended emerging middle class modes of drama, and Lessing’s dramatic theory is indebted to Diderot, whose work he translated as Das Theater des Herrn Diderot [The Theater of M. Diderot] (1760) (See Werke und Briefe 5/1: 10–230). Diderot intended to include a commissioned translation of Sara in an (unrealized) anthology of bourgeois tragedies (see Heitner, “Diderot’s Own Miss Sara Sampson” 40–1).
  • [14.3] This paragraph is paraphrased from the Journal Étranger review of Sara.
  • [14.4] Jean-François Marmontel (1723–99): French playwright, novelist, and critic. Lessing translates from Marmontel’s discussion of popular versus heroic tragedy in his Poétique françoise (II: 49–51). Marmontel first evokes the character of Barnwell from The London Merchant (1731) by George Lillo (1693–1739), then describes the fate of Beverley from The Gamester (1753) by Edward Moore (1712–57); both plays are considered representative examples of English bourgeois tragedy and were highly influential in both France and Germany.
  • [14.5] L’humanité, ou, le tableau de l’indigence (1761/1777) by Pierre Louis Paul Randon de Boisset (1708–76). A German translation, Die Menschlichkeit oder Schilderung der Dürftigkeit, was published in 1762.
  • [14.6] The review suggests that many scenes, including that of Sara’s death, would benefit from cutting, and finds some to be improbable or dubiously motivated.
  • [14.7] From Voltaire’s defense of his comedy L’enfant prodigue [The Prodigal Son] (1736). See “Lettre á M. Berger.
  • [14.8] Le Joueur (1696): 5-act verse comedy by Jean-François Regnard (1655–1709). The theater may have used the German prose translation (possibly by J. C. Krüger) staged in Hamburg by Schönemann in 1747 (Robertson 66–7). A 1748 translation by Lessing and Christian Felix Weisse (1726–1804) is not extant. Susanna Centlivre (1669–1723) provided an English adaptation, The Gamester (1708).
  • [14.9] Charles-Rivière Dufresny or Du Fresny (1648–1724); author of Le Chevalier Joueur (1697). Lessing’s criticism of Regnard and Dufresny comes from French sources (see Léris, Dictionnaire portatif historique 254-5; and Parfaict, Histoire du théâtre français 15: 405; 409).
  • [14.10] The Married Philosopher: see [12]. The Lover, Author and Servant [L’amant auteur et valet] (1740): one-act comedy by Pierre Cérou (1709-1797), first performed at the Théâtre Italien. There were several German translations under different titles; it is unclear which was used here (see Robertson 67–8).
  • [14.11] La Mère Coquette, ou, Les Amans Brouillés (1665): verse comedy by Philippe Quinault (1635–88). Lessing’s criticism comes from Parfaict, 9: 369–82. The German translation used was likely Die bulhafftige Mutter found in Schau-Bühne Englischer und Frantzösischer Comödianten […] [Theater of the English and French Players] (1670).
  • [14.12] In Quinault’s play, the titular character, assuming her husband has died in slavery, attempts to marry her daughter’s suitor. After many complications, a maid brings news that an old slave (bribed to claim the husband is dead) is, in fact, the missing husband.
  • [14.13] La Farce de maître Pierre Pathelin [The Farce of Master Pierre Pathelin] (c.1470).
  • [14.14] L’avocat Patelin [The Lawyer Patelin] (1706), three-act prose comedy by David-Augustin de Brueys (1640–1723), theologian and playwright. It was translated into German as Der betrogene Lackenhändler (1742) and Der Advocat Patelin (1762). An English translation, The Village Lawyer (1792), is attributed to both Colman the Elder and Charles Lyons.
  • [14.15] Der Freigeist (wr. 1749). Adrast, a freethinker, rejects the friendship of Theophan, a clergyman, believing him to be a hypocrite. Theophan is engaged to the pious Juliane, while Adrast (secretly in love with Juliane) is engaged to her more spirited sister Henriette. The sisters realize they prefer each other’s fiancés (and Theophan realizes he prefers Henriette); their father, Lisador, happily rearranges the couples at play’s end.
  • [14.16] Joachim Wilhelm von Brawe (1738–58). Brawe’s Der Freigeist contended with Cronegk’s Codrus in Nicolai’s 1756 competition for the best unpublished German tragedy.
  • [14.17] Johann: Adrast’s servant.
  • [14.18] Johann Michael Böck (1743–93).
  • [14.19] Der Schatz (1761): a pastoral one-act comedy by Gottlieb Konrad Pfeffel (1736–1809).
  • [14.20] Der Eremit (1761): also published as Der Einsiedler (The Recluse).
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages cut by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-14/