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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 29

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 7 August 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Comedy aims to improve us through laughter, but not through derision, exactly; not through those flaws at which it makes us laugh, and even less through those people in whom these flaws are found.[29.1] Its true and universal value lies in laughter itself: in the exercising of our ability to identify the laughable, to quickly and easily find it under the cloak of passion and of fashion, in all combinations with yet worse or with good qualities, even in the furrows of ceremonial gravity. Granted, Molière’s Miser never improved a miser, and Regnard’s Gambler never improved a gambler.[29.2] Conceded, laughter could never improve these fools: so much the worse for them, but not for comedy. It suffices for comedy that if it cannot heal hopeless illnesses, it can shore up health in the healthy. The Miser is instructive to the generous man; the Gambler is illuminating even to one who never gambles; others with whom they must coexist have the follies that they do not have. It is beneficial to know those with whom one might come into contact; beneficial to protect oneself against all impressions of the example. Preventative medicine is also valuable medicine; and morality in its entirety has nothing more powerful or potent than that which produces laughter.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 [†] The Puzzle, or, What Best Pleases the Ladies, a comedy in one act by Herr Löwen, finished off this evening.[29.3]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 If Marmontel and Voltaire had not written stories and fairytales, the French theater would have missed out on a great deal of novelty.[29.4] The comic opera has profited the most from these sources. Voltaire’s What Pleases the Ladies provided the material for a comedy in four acts with interspersed arias, produced in December 1765 by the Italian comedians in Paris under the title The Fairy Urgele.[29.5] Herr Löwen would appear to have had the actual story by Voltaire, rather than this play, at hand. If one judges a statue based on the block of marble from which it was made; if the raw form of this block can explain why this or that limb is too short, or why this or that position is too forced: then we have to dismiss the criticism that would be leveled against Herr Löwen on account of the structure of his play. Take a witchy fairytale and make something more realistic out of it, if you can! Herr Löwen himself offers his Puzzle as nothing more than a little pleasantry that can be enjoyed in the theater if it is well performed. Transformation and dance and song all contribute to this end; and it would be blatant obstinacy to resist finding any pleasure in it. Pedrillo’s attitude is, of course, not original, but well done.[29.6] It just seems to me that a weapon carrier or a groom who recognizes the tastelessness and insanity of the irrational knightly class does not fit so well into a story that bases itself on the reality of magic, and that accepts courtly adventures as commendable actions of a responsible and brave man. No matter – as already noted, this is a pleasantry, and one should not dissect pleasantness.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 On the thirty-fifth evening (Wednesday, the first of July), Pierre Corneille’s Rodogune was performed in the presence of His Royal Highness of Denmark.[29.7]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Corneille professed that he thought this tragedy was his best, that he regarded it as far superior to his Cinna and Cid, that his other plays had few strengths that were not found united in this one: a good plot, completely new fictions, strong verses, a solid conceptual basis, powerful passions, and dramatic interest that develops from act to act.[29.8]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 It is only fitting that we dwell for a bit on the great man’s masterpiece.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The history it is based on is told by Appianus Alexandrinus toward the end of his book about the Syrian war: “Demetrius, surnamed Nicanor, undertook a campaign against the Parthians, and lived for a time as prisoner of war at the court of their King Phraates, whose sister, Rodogune, he married. In the meantime Diodotus, who had served the previous kings, seized the Syrian throne and placed upon it a child, the son of Alexander Rothus, under whose name, as Regent, he initially ruled. Soon, however, he pushed the young king aside, took the crown for himself, and gave himself the name Tryphon. When Antiochus, the brother of the imprisoned king Demetrius, heard of his fate and of the subsequent unrest in the kingdom, he returned to Syria from Rhodes, where he was staying, vanquished Tryphon with much difficulty, and had him executed. From there he turned his weapons against Phraates and demanded the liberation of his brother. Phraates, fearing the worst, did let Demetrius go; but nonetheless there was still an encounter between himself and Antiochus, in which the latter lost and killed himself in despair. After Demetrius returned to his kingdom he was killed by his wife, Cleopatra, out of hatred for Rodogune, even though in anger over that marriage Cleopatra herself had married that same Antiochus, Demetrius’s brother. She had two sons with Demetrius; the oldest one, named Seleucus, who had ascended the throne after the death of his father, she shot to death with an arrow with her own hands, either because she worried that he would revenge the death of his father on her, or because her generally cruel disposition prompted her to it. The youngest son, named Antiochus, followed his brother in rule, and forced his abominable mother to drink the cup of poison that she had intended for him.”[29.9]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 There is material for more than one tragedy in this story. It would not have taken much more invention on the part of Corneille to make a Tryphon, an Antiochus, a Demetrius, or a Seleucus out of it than it took for him to create a Rodogune. What excited him primarily about all this was the aggrieved wife who believed she could not avenge the usurped rights of her rank and bed gruesomely enough. Therefore this is what he extracted from it, and it is indisputable that as a result the play should not be called Rodogune but rather Cleopatra.[29.10] He admitted this himself, and it was only because he worried that the spectator would confuse this queen from Syria with that famous Egyptian queen of the same name that he preferred to take the title from the one person rather than from the other. “I thought to allow myself this freedom,” he says, “all the more because I had noted that the ancients themselves did not consider it necessary to name a play for its hero and would not even hesitate to name it after the chorus, which played even less of a role and appeared more intermittently than Rodogune; for example, Sophocles named one of his tragedies The Women of Trachis, which today would hardly be titled anything other than The Dying Hercules.[29.11] This observation is correct in and of itself; the ancients considered the title wholly unimportant, they did not believe in the least that it should reveal the content, it sufficed if it served to distinguish one play from another, and for this purpose the smallest feature is adequate. That said, I hardly believe that Sophocles would have wanted to give the title Deianira to the play he called The Women of Trachis. He did not hesitate to give it an insignificant title, but he would have been far more cautious about giving it a seductive title that points us in the wrong direction. Besides, Corneille’s concerns went too far: anyone who knows the Egyptian Cleopatra also knows that Egypt is not Syria, and that many kings and queens had the same names; anyone who does not know this is not going to confuse them. At the very least Corneille should not have avoided the name Cleopatra so carefully in the play itself; the clarity suffered in the first act, and the German translator did well to dismiss this trivial hesitation.[29.12] No writer, even less a poet, should assume his reader or his auditor to be so completely ignorant; he ought more likely to think from time to time – if they do not know, they should ask!

  • 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [29.1] Lessing continues, from [28], his discussion of the function of comedy.
  • [29.2] Molière, L‘Avare (1668), and Regnard, Le Joueur (1696); the latter is discussed in [14].
  • [29.3] Das Räthsel, oder; Was dem Frauenzimmer am meisten gefällt (1765/66): an afterpiece that was followed by a musical divertissement. Queen Bertha has sentenced the knight Robert to death; he can avoid this sentence by solving the riddle of what women find most pleasing. An old woman gives him the answer in exchange for his promise that he will repay her when she asks. When the answer saves his life, the old woman demands he marry her; he agrees, and she is magically revealed to be the Queen’s daughter, who had been cursed by a fairy to live as an old woman until she could find a man to marry her.
  • [29.4] Jean-François Marmontel.
  • [29.5] Voltaire’s Ce qui plaît aux dames (1764): a fairytale poem in verse (itself an adaptation of John Dryden’s adaptation of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale); an English version can be found in Candide and Other Stories 178–89. The Italian comedians: the actors of the Comédie-Italienne. The Fairy Urgele: an early comic opera, La fée Urgele, ou, Ce qui plait aux dames (1765), by Charles Simon Favart, with music by the Italian composer Egidio Romualdo Duni (1708/9–75).
  • [29.6] Pedrillo: Robert’s servant in The Puzzle.
  • [29.7] Pierre Corneille, Rodogune, Princesse des Parthes [Rodogune, Princess of Parthia] (1644): a five-act tragedy in verse; it was performed, in a new German translation, for the Danish king, Christian VII (1749–1808), who visited Hamburg on multiple occasions. This translation, in alexandrines, Rodogüne: Prinzessin der Parther, was published in 1769; the translator may have been the actor Wilhelm Christian Dietrich Meyer, or, alternately the playwright Friedrich Georg Behrmann. The play’s backstory: the Syrian king Demetrius (Démétrius) Nicanor was captured by the Parthians and reported dead, whereupon his queen, Cleopatra (Cléopâtre) married his brother (who then died in battle with a would-be usurper, Tryphon). Demetrius, however, is not actually dead and leads a Parthian army toward Syria, where he plans to revenge himself on Cleopatra by displacing her through marriage to the Parthian princess, Rodogune. Demetrius is killed when Cleopatra’s army ambushes him, and Rodogune is taken captive. The play opens with the return of Cleopatra’s twin sons, Antiochus and Seleucus, whom she had sent to Egypt for safety; they expect to learn now which is the elder and will therefore inherit the kingdom and marry Rodogune. Both sons fall in love with Rodogune. Cleopatra offers the crown to whichever brother will kill Rodogune. Rodogune offers to marry whichever brother will kill Cleopatra, but then confesses her love for Antiochus. Cleopatra pretends to accept their union, but kills Seleucus when he will not aid her against them, and plans to poison Antiochus and Rodogune at their wedding. Rodogune is suspicious and challenges Cleopatra to drink from the wedding cup. Cleopatra, poisoned, curses their marriage and is led off to die.
  • [29.8] See Corneille, “Examen de Rodogune” 98. Lessing will use Rodogune to address his criticisms of classical French tragedy; for his critique, Lessing will draw on Corneille’s prefatory material to Rodogune and his “Examen,” as well as Voltaire’s criticism of the play in his Commentaires sur Corneille (1764). Cinna (1640) and Le Cid (1637): other tragedies by Corneille.
  • [29.9] Appianus Alexandrinus (Appian of Alexandria) (fl. second century AD): Greek historian; wrote Romaica, a history of Rome organized by the peoples it had conquered. Lessing translates Corneille’s version, which precedes his play, in consultation with Appian’s original.
  • [29.10] See Corneille, “Appian Alexandrin” 6-7.
  • [29.11] See Corneille, “Appian Alexandrin” 7. Sophocles’ Trachiniae [The Women of Trachis] (c. 458 BCE): Deianeira, attempting to win back her straying husband, Hercules, gives him a love charm. When it poisons him, she kills herself.
  • [29.12] Voltaire’s critique: see Commentaires sur Corneille (II) 483. Cleopatra’s name is mentioned twice in the opening exposition of the German translation.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-29/