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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 4

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 12 May 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 But what kind of hand movements should be used to speak a moral in quiet situations?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 We know very little of the chironomy of the ancients, that is, of the content of the rules stipulated by the ancients regarding the movements of the hands; but this we know, that they had brought the language of the hands to a perfection that we cannot possibly imagine based on what our orators are capable of achieving.[4.1] We seem to have retained from this whole language nothing other than an inarticulate shouting, nothing other than the capacity to produce movements, without knowing how to give those movements a fixed meaning or how to combine them with each other so that they become capable of producing a holistic expression rather than just individual significations.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I am fully aware that we must not lump together the pantomimes and actors of the ancient world.[4.2]  The actor’s hands were not nearly as loquacious as the mime’s.  In the case of the latter the hands substituted for speech, whereas in the case of the former the hands served to give increased emphasis to speech, and, as natural signs of things, helped to lend truth and life to the agreed upon signs of the voice.[4.3]  The pantomime’s hand movements were not simply natural signs; many of their movements had a conventional meaning, and the actor had to avoid these at all costs.[4.4]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The actor thus used his hands more sparingly than the pantomime, but also much more effectively. He never gestured unless in so doing he could create meaning or underline emphasis.  He knew nothing of those indifferent gestures through whose continuous and monotonous use so many actors, particularly women, give the perfect impression of being marionettes.  When they describe half of a stunted figure eight downwards from the body, first with the right hand, then with the left, or use both hands simultaneously to row the air away from them, they call it action; and if someone is adept at doing this with a certain dance master’s grace—well! He believes he can hold us spellbound.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I know well that even Hogarth told actors to learn how to move their hands in beautiful serpentine lines—but to all sides, and with all the possible variations that these lines are capable of in terms of swing, size, and duration.[4.5] And in the end he told them to learn this primarily as an exercise, to make them adept at acting, and their arms familiar with graceful curves, and not out of a belief that acting consists of nothing more than the description of such beautiful lines, always in the same direction.[4.6]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 So away with this meaningless port de bras [4.7], and in particular during moral passages!  Grace in the wrong place is affectation and contortion; and that same grace, repeated too many times in a row, becomes cold and, in the end, repugnant.  When the actor offers me general observations with the same movement one uses to give one’s hand in a minuet, or offers his moral as if winding a spindle, I see a schoolboy reciting his little maxims.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Every movement of the hand in the delivery of moral passages must be meaningful.  One may approach the picturesque at times, but only if one avoids pantomime.  There may perhaps be an opportunity in the future to elucidate through example the differences and gradations in gesture from meaningful to picturesque and from picturesque to pantomimic. At present this would lead me too far, and I will only note here that among the meaningful gestures there is one type above all that the actor should observe well, and with which alone he can impart light and life to the moral.  This would be, in a word, the individualizing gesture.  The moral is a general tenet drawn from the particular circumstances of the characters; by means of its generality it becomes somewhat distanced from the action, it becomes a digression whose relationship to the present will not be noted or understood by the less observant or less discriminating spectators.  If then there exists some means to make this relationship evident to the senses, to make the symbolic nature of the moral transparently visible, and if this means consists in certain gestures, then the actor must not fail to use them. [4.8]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 [†] I will be best understood if I offer an example.  I use one that occurs to me in the moment; the actor will be able to think of many more enlightening ones with little trouble.—When Olint flatters himself with the hope that God will move Aladin’s heart, so that he will not deal as cruelly with the Christians as he has threatened to, then Evander, as an older man, cannot do other than warn him to take to heart the deceitfulness of our hopes:[4.9]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 “Trust not hopes, my son, they betray us!”

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 His son is a fiery youth, and in youth we are particularly inclined to promise ourselves only the best from the future.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 “Because they trust too easily, spirited youth often err.”

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 But then he remembers that the old are no less inclined to the opposite error; he does not want to knock the fearless young man completely down.  He continues:

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 “Age torments itself, because it hopes too little.”

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 To pronounce these sentences with an indifferent action, accompanied by nothing but a beautiful movement of the arms, would be far worse than saying them with no action at all.  The only action appropriate to them is one that narrows their generality back down to the specific.  The lines,

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 “Because they trust too easily, spirited youth often err.”

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 must be spoken in the tone and with the gesture of fatherly warning for—and to—Olint, because it is Olint’s inexperienced, gullible youth that has motivated this observation from the cautious old man.  In contrast, the lines

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 “Age torments itself, because it hopes too little.”

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 demand the tone, and the shrug of the shoulders, with which we are in the habit of admitting our own weaknesses, and the hands must necessarily be drawn against the breast, in order to make the point that Evander came by this maxim from his own experience, that he himself is of the age for which it holds true.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 It is time that I return from this digression on the representation of moral passages.  We have Mr. Eckhof’s examples to thank for whatever we might find instructive therein; I have done nothing but try to abstract correctly from them.  How easy and pleasant it is to study an artist who not only succeeds, but also sets a new standard!

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 The role of Clorinda was played by Madame Hensel, who is unquestionably one of the best actresses the German theater has ever had.[4.10] Her particular accomplishment is a very accurate declamation; a false accent will scarcely escape her lips; she knows how to say the most confusing, stumbling, murky verse with such lightness and precision that, through her voice, it receives the clearest interpretation and the most perfect commentary.  Frequently she couples this with a refinement that testifies to either a very felicitous feeling, or a very correct judgment.  In my imagination I can still hear the declaration of love she makes to Olint:

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 “—Know me!  I can no longer remain silent;
Deception or pride belong to baser souls.
Olint is in danger, and I am beside myself—
With admiration I often watched you in war and battle;
My heart, which shied away from discovering itself to itself,
Was in combat against my reputation and my pride.
But your misfortune transported my soul entirely,
And now I finally see how small, how weak I am.
Now when all who once honored you, hate you,
When you are destined for punishment, abandoned by everyone,
Equated with criminals, ill-fated and a Christian,
Near terrible death, and wretched even in death:
Now I dare to confess it:  now know my desires!”[4.11]

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 How free, how noble was this outburst!  What fire, what ardor animated each tone! With what forwardness, with what overflowing of the heart did her compassion speak!  With what decisiveness did she begin her admission of love!  But then how unexpectedly, how surprisingly, did she suddenly break off and change, all at once, her voice and expression and the whole carriage of her body, as the moment came to speak the blunt words of her confession.  Eyes cast down towards the earth, after a long sigh, in a fearful, pinched tone of confusion, came finally

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 “I love you, Olint—”

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 and with such truth!  Even someone uncertain of whether Love would declare itself in such a way must have felt that it ought to declare itself so.  As a heroine she resolved to admit her love; but she confessed it as a tender, bashful woman.  As much as she was a warrior, otherwise accustomed to doing everything in a masculine manner, here the feminine kept the upper hand. But no sooner were these words that posed such difficulty to modesty uttered, than all at once that outspoken tone was back again.  She continued with the most careless liveliness, in the most reckless heat of passion:

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 “—and proud of my love,
proud, that your life can be saved by my power,
I offer you hand and heart, crown and purple.”

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 For at this point love manifests itself as generous friendship; and friendship is as bold as love is shy.

  • 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0
  • [4.1] Lessing refers to the “hand language” of rhetoricians and actors in ancient Rome, as described in Quintilian, The Institutes of Oratory Bk. 11, Ch. 3, sec. 61-184.
  • [4.2] The ancient pantomime performed wordlessly, sometimes accompanied by music or recited poetry. Here Lessing distinguishes pantomimes from actors who make gestures that support and enhance the spoken word. Lessing appears to use the term “pantomime” and “mime” interchangeably, to mean an actor who performs without speaking.
  • [4.3] Two uncompleted works of Lessing speak to his interest in gesture: Abhandlung von den Pantomimen der Alten [Treatise on the Pantomime of the Ancients] (dated between 1749 and 1750, Werke und Briefe 1: 711-724) and Der Schauspieler: Ein Werk worin die Grundsätze der ganzen körperlichen Beredsamkeit entwickelt werden [The Actor: A Work Wherein the Principles of All Physical Eloquence Will Be Developed] (dated between 1750 and 1754, Werke und Briefe 3: ##). In his discussion of gesture, Lessing draws on seminal eighteenth-century works of aesthetics and performance, including the Dissertation sur les Représentations Théâtrales des Anciens [Inquiry into the Theatrical Entertainments of the Ancients] (1752) by the Abbé Du Bos (the final installment of his three-part work, Réflexions Critiques sur la Pöesie et sur la Peinture [Critical Reflections on Poetry, Painting, and Music]) partially translated by Lessing in the third part of his Theatralische Bibliothek [Theatrical Library] in 1755, (Werke und Briefe 3: 651-661); Les Beaux-Arts Réduits à un Même Principe [The Fine Arts Distilled into a Few Principles] by Charles Batteux (translated into German individually by Johann Adolf Schlegel and Philipp E. Bertram in 1751; Lessing reviewed both translations in the same year); William Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty (1753); and François (Francesco) Riccoboni’s treatise L’Art du théâtre (1750), which Lessing translated and excerpted (Werke und Briefe 1: 884-935).
  • [4.4] Cf. David Wellbery’s Lessing’s Laocoön. Semiotics and Aesthetics in the Age of Reason (Cambridge University Press, 1984).
  • [4.5] Hogarth’s widely influential treatise on aesthetics in the pictorial and plastic arts was translated into German in 1754 by Christlob Mylius. Lessing provided a preface to the second edition of this book (Werke und Briefe 3: 350ff.). In Chapter 17 (“Of Action”), Hogarth briefly addresses stage movement, explaining that stage action should be graceful and work in conjunction with, rather than against, stage dialogue.
  • [4.6] Hogarth suggests chalking graceful curving lines on a flat surface and training the hand to follow them—an exercise that he describes as “an odd, but perhaps, efficacious method of acquiring a habit of moving in the lines of grace and beauty” (153).
  • [4.7] Port de Bras. Ballet term indicating the movement and carriage of the arms; also an exercise meant to develop graceful arm movements.
  • [4.8] The term Lessing uses here, “das Anschauende,” here translated as “visible,” relates this passage to the eighteenth-century aesthetic concept of “Anschaulichkeit,” (clarity or transparency). As Dorothea von Mücke notes, the “Project of Anschaulichkeit” aimed to remove the veil of artful representation in order to increase the reality effect of the artistic illusion (see von Mücke 18; 40-60).
  • [4.9] Olint and Sophronia, Act II sc. iv; see also [1.1].
  • [4.10] Sophie Friederike Hensel (née Sparmann) (1738–89): was one of the leading German actresses of her day, as well as a playwright and librettist. She toured for the majority of her career with the troupe of Konrad (Ernst) Ackermann (1712-71) and was hired by the Hamburg National Theater due to her status as a star performer. Known for her tragic neoclassical roles such as Semiramis, Merope, and Cleopatra, Hensel was also lauded for her performances of Lessing’s Minna, Orsina, and Sara Sampson.
  • [4.11] Olint and Sophronia III, iii.
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages cut by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
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