¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Marivaux wrote for the theater in Paris for nearly half a century; his first play dates from 1712, and he died at the age of seventy-two in 1763.[18.2] The number of his comedies adds up to about thirty, of which more than two-thirds feature a Harlequin because he produced them for the Italian stage.[18.3] The False Confessions belongs to this group. It was first performed in 1763 without great acclaim; it was then revived two years later and received much more.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 As rich as his plays are in characters and complications, they still seem very similar to each other. All have the same shimmering, often farfetched humor; the same metaphysical analysis of the passions; and the same flowery language, full of neologisms.[18.4] His plots are small in scale but, as a true Callippides of his art, he understands how to traverse their tight confines with such tiny and yet remarkably distinct steps that at the end we imagine we have traveled quite a distance alongside him. [18.5]
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Ever since Frau Neuber publicly banned Harlequin from her theater under the auspices of his Magnificence, Herr Professor Gottsched, all of the German theaters striving to conform to the rules seem to have joined in this banishment.[18.6] I say “seem,” because in reality they abandoned only the colorful little jacket and the name, but kept the fool.[18.7] Neuber herself put on a number of plays in which Harlequin was the main character. But in her theater Harlequin became “Little Hans” and wore all white instead of motley. A great triumph for good taste, indeed!
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The False Confessions has a Harlequin, too, who has become “Peter” in the German translation. Neuber is dead, Gottsched is also dead: I’d think we could put his little jacket back on him. – Seriously, though, if he can be tolerated under a strange name, why not under his own? “He is a foreign creation,” they say. So what? I wish all the fools among us were foreigners! “He dresses in a way no person among us would dress.” Well, then, he need not waste a lot of time introducing himself. “It is preposterous to allow the same individual to appear each day in another play.” We should not consider him to be an individual, but rather a type. It is not Harlequin who appears today in Timon, tomorrow in The Falcon, the day after in The False Confessions, like a real jack-of-all-trades; rather, these are Harlequins.[18.8] The type supports a thousand variations. The one in Timon is not the same as the one in The Falcon, the former lived in Greece, the latter in France, and it is only because the characters share some of the same main traits that we give them the same name. Why should we be more contemptuous, more picky about our amusements, and more susceptible to hollow nitpicking – I will not say, than the French and Italians are, but rather – than the Romans and Greeks were themselves? Was their Parasite something other than a Harlequin?[18.9] Did he not have his own special costume, in which he appeared in play after play? Didn’t the Greeks have a special drama, into which Satyrs had to be woven, whether or not they belonged in the story of the play?[18.10]
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [†]A few years ago Harlequin defended his cause before the bench of true criticism with as much whimsy as thoroughness. I recommend Herr Möser’s essay on the grotesque-comical to all of my readers who do not yet know it; I already have the support of those who do know it.[18.11] It speaks in passing of a certain author who possesses enough insight to become Harlequin’s eulogist someday. “Now he has achieved it!” people will think. But no: he has always been so. He cannot remember ever having made the objection against Harlequin that Herr Möser puts in his mouth; indeed, he cannot remember ever having even thought it.[18.12]
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Another servant besides Harlequin appears in The False Confessions, one who leads the whole intrigue. Both roles were played very well; overall, when it comes to servant roles, our theater has few actors from whom it could demand more than Herr Hensel and Herr Merschy.[18.13]
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The name de Belloy cannot be unknown to anyone who knows anything about recent French literature. The author of The Siege of Calais![18.15] If this play did not earn all the clamor the French made over it, nonetheless the clamor itself brings honor to the French. It shows them to be a nation jealous of its fame, still impressed by the great deeds of their ancestors, and one that, convinced of the value of a poet and of the influence of theater on virtue and manners, does not count the former among its useless appendages and the latter as an object that only concerns bustling men-about-town. How far behind the French in this matter are we Germans! To say it plainly: in comparison to them, we are still veritable barbarians. More barbaric than our barbaric ancestors, for whom a troubadour was a highly estimable man, and who, for all their indifference regarding arts and sciences, certainly would have considered the question: “Who is the more useful citizen, a poet or a man who deals in bearskins and amber?” to be the question of a fool! – Look wherever I might in Germany, a city has yet to be built that might be expected to show a German poet even a thousandth part of the respect and recognition that Calais had for de Belloy.[18.16] We always take this for French vanity; how far we have yet to go before we are capable of such vanity! And is it a surprise? Our scholars themselves are so small-minded that they reinforce our nation’s contempt for anything that does not directly fill a purse. You can speak of a work of genius, any you like; you can talk about encouraging artists; you can express the wish that a rich, flourishing city might, merely by taking an interest, assist in establishing not only the most respectable recreation for men who must bear the stress and heat of their daily business, but also the most useful pastime for those who don’t want any business at all (the theater is this at least, is it not?) – and just look and listen to the reply. It’s not just the usurer Albinus who cries out “Thank heaven our citizens have more important things to do!”
Rem poteris servare tuam! – [18.17]
– haec animos aerugo et cura peculî
Cum semel imbuerit – [18.18]
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 De Belloy was a young man who wanted – or was supposed – to study law. “Was supposed to” is probably more likely, for the love of theater kept the upper hand: he laid Bartolus aside and became an actor.[18.19] He performed for some time with the French troupe in Braunschweig, wrote several plays, returned to his native country, and thanks to a couple of tragedies quickly became as happy and famous as legal scholarship ever could have made him, even if he had become a Beaumont.[18.20] Woe to the young German genius wanting to pursue this path! Contempt and beggary would be his most certain fate!
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 De Belloy’s first tragedy was Titus; Zelmire was his second.[18.21] Titus found no favor and was performed only once. But Zelmire found much greater acclaim; it was performed fourteen times in a row and the Parisians still could not get enough of it. The subject matter is of the author’s own invention.[18.22]
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 A French critic took the opportunity on this occasion to declare himself generally against tragedies of this type. “We would have preferred,” he writes, “material taken from history. After all, the annals of the world are rich enough in notorious crimes, and tragedy is specifically intended to present the great actions of real heroes for our admiration and imitation. In paying the tribute posterity owes to their ashes, tragedy also inspires those living today with the noble desire to be like those heroes. One should not argue that Zaïre, Alzire, Mahomet are also just fabrications of fiction.[18.23] The names of the first two are invented but the basis for their stories is historical. There really were Crusades, in which Christians and Turks hated and slaughtered each other for the glory of God, their common father. The conquest of Mexico necessarily brought to light the fortuitous and sublime contrasts between European and American morals, between fanaticism and true religion. And as for Mahomet, it is the extraction, the quintessence, so to speak, of the whole life of this deceiver; it is fanaticism in action, the finest and most philosophical portrait that has ever been made of this dangerous monster.” [18.24]
- ¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0
- [†] Text in blue indicates passages cut by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
- [18.1] Les Fausses Confidences (1737): three-act prose comedy by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (1688–1763). The German translation used is unknown. Contemporary English translations have been provided by Bentley (The False Confessions) and Wertenbaker (False Admissions).
- [18.2] An error: Marivaux was 75.
- [18.3] Harlequin: Arlecchino, a character from Italian commedia dell’arte; Marivaux wrote extensively for the Théâtre Italien in Paris. Lessing exaggerates Marivaux’s use of Harlequin, who appears in 13 of his 36 comedies.
- [18.4] Marivaux’s distinct style came to be known as “marivaudage.”
- [18.5] Callippides: proverbial Athenian actor who imitated running while remaining in place (either the 5th century BCE tragedian, or a mime of the same name).
- [18.6] In 1737, influential actress-manager Friedericke Caroline Neuber (“die Neuberin”) (1697–1760) staged Die Verbannung des Hanswurst von der Bühne [The Expulsion of Harlequin from the Theater]. Neuber partnered with J.C. Gottsched to develop a literary and morally respectable German-language theater. More so than Neuber, Gottsched objected to the improvised (and sometimes obscene) comedy of Hanswurst, the German Harlequin. Lessing, despite his own disapproval of lowbrow comedy, had defended Hanswurst while attacking Gottsched’s French preferences. See Letter 17 (dated 16 Feb., 1759) of the Litteraturbriefe (Werke und Briefe 4: 499–501). Tr. note: “Under the auspices”: Lessing uses the Latin phrase sub auspiciis Sr. Magnificenz to heighten his sarcastic jibe at Gottsched.
- [18.7] The brightly colored peasant costume of Hanswurst included an open jacket.
- [18.8] Timon le Misanthrope (1722) and Le faucon et les oies de Boccace [Boccaccio’s The Falcon and the Geese] (1725): comedies written for the Théâtre Italien by Louis-François Delisle de La Drevetière (1682–1756).
- [18.9] Parasite: stock character of Roman comedy, a leechlike flatterer.
- [18.10] Reference to the tragicomic “satyr play” of ancient Greece, presented after a tragic trilogy and featuring mythological characters such as satyrs.
- [18.11] Lawyer and historian Justus Möser’s (1720–94) essay, Harlekin, oder Vertheidigung des Groteske-Komischen [Harlequin or a Defense of the Grotesquely Comical] (1761), favorably reviewed by Lessing.
- [18.12] Harlequin says: “Herr Lessing, a man who possesses enough insight to one day become my eulogist, would perhaps object here that the exaggeration of figures is a sure means of undermining [the writer’s] purpose, by misleading spectators to believe that they are far beyond the licentious ridicule of folly.” In a later edition, Möser added an erratum, claiming that he had misremembered statements by Lessing in the Beiträge (Möser 46).
- [18.13] Johann Gottlieb Hensel (1728–87), husband of Sophie Hensel. Merschy: a minor actor in the company (first name and dates unavailable).
- [18.14] Zelmire: five-act verse tragedy by French playwright and actor Pierre-Laurent Buirette de Belloy (also known as Dormont de Belloy) (1727–75). Polidor, king of Lesbos, thought murdered by his usurping son Azor, is being kept alive in a subterranean tomb by his daughter Zelmire, who gives him her breast milk. Azor has been killed by Prince Antenor, who now controls the island, supported by the head of the military, General Rhamnes. Zelmire’s husband, Ilus, returns from battle and denounces her. Antenor attempts to stab Ilus, then frames Zelmire when she intervenes. Zelmire is finally cleared when Polidor is revealed and a Thracian soldier produces a note in which Azor identifies Antenor as his murderer. Antenor orders Rhamnes to kill Polidor, but the general kills Antenor instead.
- [18.15] Le Siège de Calais (1765): five-act “national tragedy” in verse. Depicts the heroism of self-sacrificing French burghers during the Hundred Years’ War; the play became a sensation, due in part to the recent events of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63).
- [18.16] Calais granted de Belloy honorary citizenship.
- [18.17] “Good! You will be able to look after your wealth!” (Horace, Ars Poetica l. 328).
- [18.18] Also from Horace, who asks, “When this care for money, this rust, has stained the spirit,” how can we make poems worthy of posterity? (Ars Poetica l. 330f.)
- [18.19] Bartolus: Italian jurist, Bartolo da Sassoferrato (1313/14–57) whose name became internationally synonymous with juridical excellence.
- [18.20] Jean-Baptiste-Jacques Elie de Beaumont (1710–86): prominent French jurist.
- [18.21] Titus (1760): five-act verse tragedy by de Belloy.
- [18.22] The play references the mythological story of Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos, as well as that of Pero and Cimon.
- [18.23] Zaïre, Alzire, Mahomet: all tragedies by Voltaire.
- [18.24] Here Lessing paraphrases an anonymous essay on Zelmire published in Pierre Rousseau’s Journal Encyclopédique (14:37, 1967 reprint; 14:124, original 1762 edition).