¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 This play first came to the stage in 1745. A comedy against suicide did not meet with great success in Paris. The French said: this is a play for London. But I am not so sure, for the English might find Sidney a bit too un-English: he does not get down to business quickly enough; he philosophizes too much before he commits the deed and too little after he thinks he has done it; his remorse could look like shameful cowardice; indeed, to be fooled by a French servant might be thought by many to be a humiliation worthy of death.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 But as it stands, the play seems just right for us Germans. We like to cloak a frenzy in a little philosophy, and we do not feel our honor compromised if someone keeps us from doing something stupid and gets us to admit that we have philosophized wrongly. [†]Thus even though Dumont is a French braggart, we like him so well that the etiquette the playwright observes with him is offensive. For when Sidney finally learns that due to Dumont’s precautions he is no nearer to death than the healthiest of people, Gresset has him call out: “I can hardly believe it! – Rosalia! – Hamilton! – and you, whose fortunate zeal etc.” Why this hierarchy? Might manners not be sacrificed to thankfulness? The servant has saved him; the first word, the first expression of joy should go to the servant, no matter how far below his master and his master’s friends he may be. If I were an actor, I would boldly take the liberty here to do what the writer should have done. If I could not go against his specifications and direct the first word to my rescuer, then at least I would deliver the first emotional look his way and rush to him with the first thankful embrace; and then I would turn to Rosalia and Hamilton, and then come back to him. It should always be more in our interest to show humanity than manners!
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Herr Ekhof played Sidney so excellently – it is unquestionably one of his strongest roles. One can hardly express with more art or with greater truth the enthusiastic melancholy, the feeling of an utter lack of feeling, if I may put it that way, that makes up Sidney’s entire state of mind. Ekhof has such a cornucopia of painterly gestures, through which, so to speak, he embodies general statements and makes his innermost feelings concrete and visible! And what a rousing tone of conviction! –
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The evening concluded with a play in one act, based on the French play by L’Affichard, with the title: Is he a member of the family? [17.2] One guesses right away that it must feature a fool since it mainly concerns the old aristocracy. A young person, well-bred but of doubtful parentage, courts the stepdaughter of a Marquis. The consent of the mother depends on the clarification of this point. The young man believes that he is only the foster-child of a certain bourgeois Lisander, but it turns out that Lisander is his real father. Now the marriage would be inconceivable, if Lisander himself had not been forced down into the bourgeois class by mischance. In fact he is as noble as the Marquis: he is the Marquis’ son, driven from the family estate because of youthful indiscretions. Now he wants to use his son to reconcile with his father. The reconciliation succeeds and makes the end of this play very moving. But, because the overarching tone is more moving than comic, shouldn’t the title have us expect more of the former than the latter? The title is really a trifling thing, but in this case I would not have based it upon one ridiculous character.[17.3] It need not indicate nor exhaust the content; it should, however, not lead us astray. And this one does that a bit. What is easier to change than the title? The rest of the deviations the German author made from the original redound more to the play’s advantage, and give it the local flavor that nearly all of the plays taken from French theater lack.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This play is adapted from the English play by Addison. Addison wrote only one tragedy and one comedy. Dramatic poetry in general was not his strength. But a smart man can pull anything off, and so both his pieces at least have some merits that make them valuable works, even if they are not the best of their genres. He tried with both the comedy and the tragedy to incorporate French rules, but even twenty more Addisons could never make these rules suit English taste. He who settles for them knows no higher beauties!
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Destouches, who had personal contact with Addison in England, gave the Englishman’s comedy more of a French turn. We now perform it using this revision, which is actually much finer and more natural, but also somewhat colder and less powerful. If I am not mistaken, Madame Gottsched, who wrote the German translation, had the English original to hand, and used it to good advantage.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 This comedy teems with errors and inconsistencies, and yet it pleases. The connoisseur laughs just as heartily as the least educated among the masses. What do we make of this? That the beautiful qualities it does possess must be true and universal, and that perhaps the errors only involve arbitrary rules that can be set aside more easily than a critic might like to admit. He did not adhere to the unity of place – be that as it may. He got rid of everything familiar – oh well. His Democritus does not resemble the real Democritus in any way, and his Athens is an entirely different Athens than the one we know. So fine, just take away Democritus and Athens, and replace them with invented names. Regnard certainly knew as well as anyone that there are no deserts, tigers, or bears around Athens; that at the time of Democritus, it had no king, etc. But he did not want to know all of this here; his purpose was to depict the customs of his land in foreign disguise. This depiction – and not historical truth – is the primary task of the comedic poet.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Other errors may be harder to excuse: the lack of interest, the scant complications, the multitude of tiresome persons, and the tasteless chatter of Democritus – tasteless not only because it contradicts the image that we hold of Democritus, but also because it would still be nonsense in any other mouth, regardless of what the poet named him. But what won’t we forgive when having the kind of fun that Strabo and Thaler create for us? The character of Strabo is hard to pin down: you don’t know what you should make of him; he changes his tone with everyone he meets. First he is a refined and clever wit, and then he is a simple prankster, now a prissy intellectual, and then an unabashed dandy. His encounter with Cleanthis is incredibly funny, but implausible. The art with which Mademoiselle Beauval and la Thorillière first played this scene has spread from one actor and actress to another.[17.6] It involves the most outrageous grimaces; but they have become sanctified in France and Germany by tradition, so that no one would think to change anything. And I will venture to say that we should hardly tolerate them in farces. The best, funniest, and most developed character is Thaler, a real country farmer, if anything too roguish, too full of angry muttering, and the one who – from a poetic perspective – is anything but episodic, since he is as indispensable to the final resolution as he is suited to it.
- ¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1
- [†]Text in blue indicates passages cut by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
- [17.1] Sidney, three-act verse comedy by Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset (1709–77). Translated anonymously into English as Sidney, or, the Self-Murderer Reclaimed (1801) and into German as Sidnei, oder: der Schwermüthige [Sidney, or, the Melancholic] (1751). Sidney, a rich young Englishman, has come to regret his abandonment of his love, Rosalia, for a libertine lifestyle; his empty existence and guilt have rendered him suicidal. Sidney’s friend Hamilton tries to help him but fails. Rosalia arrives to confront Sidney, but his friends learn that he has already drunk poison. Luckily, his faithful servant, Dumont, has substituted a harmless drink in its place. The estranged lovers are reunited.
- [17.2] La Famille [The Family] (1736) one-act prose comedy by Thomas L’Affichard (1698–1753).
- [17.3] The translation of La Famille used by the Hamburg company is unknown; a translation published in 1749 by Schönemann is entitled simply Die Familie.
- [17.4] Das Gespenst mit der Trommel (1741): a translation by L. A. Gottsched of Le tambour nocturne [The Night Drum] (1736) by Destouches, itself an adaptation of The Drummer or the Haunted House (1715) by Joseph Addison. See .
- [17.5] Démocrite amoureux (1700): five-act comedy in verse by Jean-François Regnard. The German translation in alexandrines used, Demokrit, oder, Der lachende Philosoph [Democritus, or, the Laughing Philosopher] (1749) was by actor-manager and playwright Heinrich Gottfried Koch (1703–75). In his criticism of the play, Lessing quotes liberally and often verbatim from the Histoire du théâtre français (see Parfaict 14: 164–70). Democritus, a misanthropic philosopher, exiles himself to a cave with his servant Strabo. They befriend a peasant, Thaler, and his daughter Criseis, with whom Democritus falls in love. Agelas, king of Athens, brings them all to his court and also falls in love with Criseis, who turns out to be the long-lost half-sister of Princess Ismene, his intended wife. Agelas marries Criseis, freeing Ismene to marry her love, Prince Agenor. Strabo falls in love with Ismene’s servant Cleanthis, who is revealed to be his own forsaken wife. Most of this action occurs in the final act; the play deals primarily with Democritus’s struggles to conceal his feelings.
- [17.6] Mademoiselle Beauval and la Thorillière: Jeanne Olivier Bourgignon Beauval (c.1647–1720) and Pierre le Noir, sieur de la Thorillière (1656–1731), contemporaries of Molière.