A New and Complete Translation

Essay 25

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 24 July 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 “Essex himself protests his innocence, but why would he rather die than convince the Queen of it?[25.1] His enemies have maligned him; with one word he can strike them down, and he does not. Is that in keeping with the character of such a proud man? If he should be acting so absurdly out of love for Ireton, then the writer should have shown him more ruled by his passion throughout the whole play. The tumult of emotion can excuse everything; but we do not see him in such a tumult.”[25.2]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 “The Queen’s pride is in continuous conflict with Essex’s pride; such a conflict can be easy to enjoy. But if it is only this pride that causes them to act, then it is nothing but obstinacy on the part of both Elizabeth and the Earl. He should beg me for mercy; I will not beg her for mercy: this is endlessly harping on the same string. The spectator has to forget that Elizabeth is either very insensitive or very unjust when she demands that the Earl ask forgiveness for a crime that he has not committed and that she has not investigated. He has to forget it, and he really does forget it, in order to concern himself only with the feeling of pride that is so flattering to the human heart.”[25.3]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 “In brief: there is not a single role in this tragedy that is what it should be: all of them are flawed, and nevertheless the play has pleased. What is the cause of this pleasure? It is apparently due to the situation of the characters, which in itself is moving. – A great man being led to the scaffold will always be of interest, and the representation of his fate will make an impression even without any help from poetry – just about the same impression that reality itself would make.”[25.4]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 For the tragic playwright, so much depends on the choice of material. The weakest and most confused plays can find some form of success through this alone, and I do not know how it is that good actors always show themselves to their best advantage in such plays. It is rare that a masterpiece is performed as masterfully as it is written; mediocre plays always fare better with actors. Perhaps this is because they can put more of themselves into mediocre plays, or perhaps because mediocre plays leave us more time and ease to notice their acting, or perhaps because in the mediocre work everything rests on one or two prominent persons – unlike in a more accomplished play, in which every person must be a first-rate actor, and if they are not, they help ruin all the others by botching their own roles.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 All of these reasons and more come together in Essex. Neither the Earl nor the Queen has been portrayed by the author with such power that they could not become much more powerful through performance. Essex does not speak so proudly that the actor could not show him to be even more proud with every gesture and facial expression. It is in fact an essential feature of pride that it often expresses itself less through words than through other behavior. His words are often modest, and we can only see, not hear, that his is a proud modesty. This role must necessarily gain something in performance. Moreover, the secondary roles cannot have any negative influence on him; the more deferentially Cecil and Salisbury are played, the more Essex stands out. I thus need not write at length about how excellently an Ekhof must play this role, which even the most indifferent actor could not completely ruin.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Things are not quite the same with the role of Elizabeth, but it too would be difficult to miscarry completely. Elizabeth is as tender as she is proud; I am willing to believe that a woman’s heart can be both at the same time, but I do not quite comprehend how an actress can perform both well at the same time. In nature we do not give a proud woman much credit for tenderness, or a tender one much credit for pride. We do not give credit, I say, because the signs of one contradict the signs of the other. It is a miracle when a woman experiences both equally; but if only one of the two is mainly in her power, then although she may indeed feel the passion expressed by the other, it will be difficult for us to believe that she feels it as much as she claims. And how can an actress go farther than nature? If she has a majestic stature, if her voice has a fuller and more masculine timbre, if her look is bold, her movement quick and lively, then she will have excellent success with the proud passages; but what about the tender ones? If on the other hand her figure is less imposing, if her countenance is ruled mainly by gentleness, her eyes by a modest glow, if her voice is more melodious than emphatic, if her movement contains more grace and dignity than strength and spirit, then she will accomplish the tender passages with the greatest satisfaction; but what about the proud ones? She will not ruin them, certainly not; she will contrast them sufficiently, we will see in her an offended angry lover – just not an Elizabeth who was man enough to send her general and lover home with a box on the ear. I mean that the actresses who could show us a wholly two-sided Elizabeth with the same degree of illusion might be even more rare than such an Elizabeth herself; and we can and must be content if only one half is played well, and the other is not completely neglected.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Madame Löwen pleased mightily in the role of Elizabeth; but, to apply those general observations to her, she let us see and hear more of the tender woman than the proud monarch. Her figure, her voice, her modest acting, all lead us to expect nothing else, and it seems to me that our enjoyment lost nothing thereby. For if one necessarily overshadows the other, if it cannot be otherwise that either the Queen must give way to the lover, or the lover to the Queen, then I believe it is more advantageous that something of the pride and of the Queen be lost, rather than of the lover and her tenderness.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 When I criticize thusly, it is not just idiosyncratic taste; even less is it my intent to pay a compliment to a woman who would still be a master of her art even if she had not succeeded in this role. I know how to pay only one compliment to an artist, be that a person of my own sex or the other, and that consists in assuming that he is so far removed from all vanity that art is more important to him than anything else, that he likes to be criticized freely and loudly, and that he would rather be judged falsely from time to time than hardly at all. Regarding anyone who does not understand this flattery: I acknowledge myself mistaken in him, and he is not worthy of our attention. The true virtuoso will not believe that we recognize and feel his perfections, no matter how much noise we make over them, unless he also sees that we perceive and feel his weaknesses. He silently scoffs at any unconditional admiration and he is tickled only by the praise of those whom he knows possess the courage to criticize him.[25.5]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 I wanted to say that there are reasons why it is better if the actress expresses more of the tender than the proud Elizabeth. She has to be proud, that is a given; and we hear that she is. The question is only whether she should seem more tender than proud or more proud than tender; whether, if we had to choose between two actresses, we would be better off taking the one who was able to express the offended Queen, with all of the threatening seriousness and dreadfulness of vengeful majesty, or the one who is more suited to the jealous lover, with all of her mortifying feelings of unrequited love, with all her readiness to forgive the dear offender, and all her anxiety about his obstinacy and sorrow over his loss? And I say: this second one.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 In the first place this would prevent the doubling of the same character. Essex is proud, and if Elizabeth should also be proud, then she must at least be so in a different way. If in the case of the Earl tenderness must be subordinate to pride, then in the case of the Queen tenderness must outweigh pride. If the Earl gives himself a more elevated air than he deserves, then the Queen must appear somewhat less than she actually is. To have both of them trotting about on stilts with their noses in the air, both looking down on everything around them with contempt: this would be the most irritating uniformity. We must not be able to believe that if Elizabeth were in Essex’s place she would act just as he does. The ending proves that she is more yielding than he; thus from the very beginning she must not strut around as haughtily as he does. Someone who is able to hold himself aloft through external power needs to expend less effort than one who must do so through his own inner strength. Along these lines, we always know that Elizabeth is the Queen, even if at the same time Essex gives himself the appearance of royalty.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In the second place, it is more suitable in a tragedy if the characters rise rather than fall in their attitudes. It is more suitable for a tender character to have moments of pride, than for a proud character to be carried away by tenderness. The former appears to ascend; the latter, to sink. For a serious Queen – with a furrowed brow, and a look that makes everyone around her shy and trembling, and a tone of voice that alone could command obedience – for her to start making love-sick complaints and sighing over the trivial satisfactions of her passions is very nearly laughable. A lover, on the other hand, who is reminded by her jealousy that she is Queen, reaches beyond herself, and her weakness becomes dreadful.

  • 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0
  • [25.1] Lessing continues his discussion, from [23] and [24], of Voltaire’s criticism of Thomas Corneille’s Le Comte d’Essex [The Earl of Essex].
  • [25.2] Paraphrased from “Le Comte d’Essex,” Voltaire’s preface to Corneille’s play, 1021.
  • [25.3] Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1020.
  • [25.4] Paraphrase of Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1019.
  • [25.5] After this essay, Lessing abandons reviews of specific performances and discussions of the acting process in general, and thereby relinquishes one of the original goals of his project. It is generally assumed that Lessing was responding to pressure from the Hamburg company actors (most particularly Sophie Hensel) who were displeased with his criticism.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-25/