A New and Complete Translation

Essay 48

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 13 October 1767[48.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 It is true that our surprise is greater when we do not learn with full certainty that Aegisthus is Aegisthus until Merope herself does.[48.2] But please: the paltry pleasure of surprise! And why does a playwright need to surprise us? He can surprise his characters as much as he likes; we will get our share, even if we have already long foreseen what must hit them wholly unexpectedly. Indeed, our share will be so much the stronger and more vivid, the longer and more certainly we have seen it coming.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 On this point I will let the best French critic speak for me.[48.3] “In complex plays,” Diderot says[*] “the interest is more the effect of the plot than the speeches; in simple plays, on the other hand, it is more the effect of the speeches than the plot. But whose interest is of concern? That of the characters? Or the audience? The audience members are only witnesses, about whom we know nothing. Then it is the characters we must keep in mind. Without doubt![48.4] Let them tighten the knot without knowing it – let everything be impenetrable for them; bring them, without their noticing it, closer and closer to the resolution. As long as they are agitated, we spectators will surrender to the same agitation, we will have to feel it as well. – I am far from thinking with the majority of critics who have written about the art of dramatic writing that the resolution must be hidden from the spectator. On the contrary, I thought that it would not be beyond my capacity if I undertook to write a work in which the resolution would be revealed in the very first scene, and the most intense interest would arise out of this very circumstance. – Everything must be clear for the spectator. He is the confidante of every single character – he knows everything that will occur and everything that has already occurred; and there are a hundred moments where one cannot do better than to tell him directly what is going to happen. – Oh, you inventors of general rules, how little you understand the art, and how little you possess of the genius that produced the models on which you established those rules and can violate them at will! – One may find my thoughts to be as paradoxical as one likes, this much I know for certain: that for every one occasion in which it is useful to hide an important incident from the spectator until it comes to pass, there are always ten or more in which his engagement demands the exact opposite. – The poet achieves a brief surprise by means of his secret; think of what prolonged anxiety he could have pitched us into had he not made a surprise out of it![48.5] I can only pity for an instant someone who is hit and struck down in an instant. But what becomes of me if I expect the blow, if I see a violent storm gathering over my own head or someone else’s, which hovers there for a length of time? – As far as I am concerned, the characters do not need to know each other, as long as the spectators know all of them. – Indeed, I would almost argue that material needing such concealments is thankless material, and a plot that takes refuge in such concealments is not as good as one that could have dispensed with them. They will never give rise to something dynamic. In that case, we will always have to occupy ourselves with preparations that are either far too obscure or far too obvious. The whole piece will become a web of little artifices by which one can produce nothing more than a brief surprise. If, on the other hand, everything that concerns the characters is known, then I see in this possibility the source of the most powerful emotions. – Why do certain monologues have such a great effect? It is because they confide a character’s secret designs to me, and in that instant this confidence fills me with fear or hope. – If the characters’ identities are unknown, the spectator cannot take a stronger interest in the action than the characters do. But the spectator’s interest will double if he has sufficient insight and feels that the actions and speeches would be completely different if the characters knew each other’s identities. Only then will I tremble in expectation of what will become of them, when I can compare what they really are to what they do or want to do.”[48.6]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Applying this to Aegisthus, it is clear which of the two plots Diderot would favor: either the old one in Euripides, in which from the very beginning the spectator knows Aegisthus as well as he knows himself, or the new one by Maffei that Voltaire so blindly adopted, in which Aegisthus is a mystery to both himself and the spectator and consequently makes the whole play a “web of little artifices” that can produce nothing but a brief surprise.[48.7]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Diderot is also not completely wrong in characterizing as both new and well-established his thoughts about the expendability and insignificance of all vague expectations and sudden surprises intended for the audience. His thoughts are new with respect to their abstraction, but very old with respect to the models from which they have been abstracted. His thoughts are new considering that his predecessors only urged the opposite, but neither Aristotle nor Horace were among these predecessors, and nothing slipped from the pens of these two that could have reinforced their successive interpreters in their predilection for that opposite, the positive effects of which they had perceived in neither the majority of ancient plays, nor the best of them.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Euripides in particular was so confident that he nearly always showed spectators, in advance, the goal toward which he wanted to lead them. Indeed, I am very inclined, because of this, to undertake a defense of his prologues, which so displease modern critics. “It is not enough,” Hedelin says, “that he has one of his main characters tell the audience virtually everything that has happened before the action of the play, in order to make what follows understandable; he also often uses a god for this purpose, whom we must assume knows everything, and through whom he makes known not only what has happened but also everything that is going to happen. Consequently, right at the beginning we learn the dénouement and the whole catastrophe, and we see each incident coming far in advance. This is, however, a very pronounced mistake completely at odds with the uncertainty and expectation that should constantly reign in the theater; it destroys all the charms of the play, which are based almost solely on novelty and surprise.”[†] [48.8] No: the most tragic of all the tragic poets did not think so little of his art; he knew that it was capable of a much higher perfection, and that satisfying a childish curiosity was the least to which it could aspire.[48.9] Thus without a qualm he allowed his audience to know as much about the coming action as ever a god could know, obliging himself to generate the emotion he wanted not through what would occur, but through the manner in which it would occur. Therefore nothing really ought to offend the critics here, except for the following: that he has not sought to convey the necessary knowledge of the past and future through a more subtle device, that he used a higher being for this purpose, who has no other role in the action, and that he has this higher being speak directly to the audience, thereby mixing the dramatic genre with the narrative.[48.10] If, then, they limited their criticism to this alone, what would be their criticism? Is the useful and necessary never welcome unless it comes at us in a roundabout way? Are there not things, especially in the future, that only a god can know? And if the audience’s engagement depends on such things, is it not better that we learn of them beforehand through the intervention of a god, than not at all? And finally what is really meant by the mixing of genres? In textbooks they are distinguished as precisely as possible from each other; but if a genius with higher purposes allows several of them to flow together in one and the same work, we should forget the textbook and simply ask whether he has achieved these higher purposes. What does it matter to me if a play by Euripides is neither wholly a narrative, nor wholly a drama? Call it a hybrid if you like, it is enough that this hybrid pleases and edifies me more than the rule-bound creations of your proper Racines, or whoever else they might be. Just because the mule is neither a horse nor a donkey, is he any less useful as a pack animal?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [*] In his Discourse on Dramatic Poetry, after The Father of the Family; p. 327 of the trans.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [†] Pratique du Théâtre Lib. III. chap. I.

  • 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0
  • [48.1] Actually published 5 January 1768.
  • [48.2] Lessing continues his discussion, which extends from [36] to [50], of Voltaire’s tragedy Mérope and its relationship to Maffei’s original. For the plot of Mérope, see Robertson 86–7. In [47], Lessing criticizes both Maffei and Voltaire for hiding Aegisthus’s true identity, which, he argues, lessens the emotional effect for the spectator; Lessing extrapolates from available sources that in Euripides’ version of the story Aegisthus’s identity is known from the start.
  • [48.3] Lessing’s quotation of Diderot combines several disparate passages in the French theorist’s 1758 treatise De la poésie dramatique, à Monsieur Grimm, published as an addendum to his comedy Le Père de Famille [The Father of the Family]. For the passages Lessing cites, see De la poésie dramatique, à Monsieur Grimm 291–7; an excerpted English translation can be found in “Discourse on Dramatic Poetry” 64–5. Lessing draws from his own 1760 translation of Diderot in Das Theater des Herrn Diderot [The Theater of M. Diderot], which is largely idiomatic rather than “mechanically literal” (see Nisbet 273); the page number he refers his reader to in his footnote is in volume 2 of that work. Significant alterations made by Lessing in this excerpt are noted below.
  • [48.4] In Diderot’s treatise, a hypothetical reader asks “Ce sont donc les personnages qu’il faut avoir en vue?” (“Then it is the characters we must keep in mind?”), to which the author responds “Je le crois.” (“I think so”). (Diderot, De la poésie dramatique, à Monsieur Grimm 292). Lessing follows Diderot’s original in his 1781 reissue of his translation.
  • [48.5] Diderot’s text reads: “Le Poëte me ménage, par le secret, un instant de surprise; il m’eut exposé par la confidence à une longue inquiétude” (“By keeping the secret the poet treats me to an instant of surprise; by confiding it, he would have exposed me to prolonged anxiety”). (De la poésie dramatique, à Monsieur Grimm, 293).
  • [48.6] Diderot’s final sentence in fact reads: “C’est ainsi que vous produirez en moi une attente violente de ce qu’ils deviendront, lorsq’ils pourront comparer ce qu’ils sont avec ce qu’ils ont fait ou voulu faire” (“This is how you produce in me a violent expectation of what they will become when they are able to compare what they are with what they have done or wanted to do”). (De la poésie dramatique, à Monsieur Grimm 297).
  • [48.7] In Euripides: more properly, in Hyginus, whose 137th fable may have summarized Euripides’ Cresphontes. “Web of little artifices”: a loose reference to Diderot, who writes that the drama is “un tissu de loix particulieres dont on a fait des préceptes généraux” (“a tissue of particular rules, from which general precepts have been drawn”). (De la poésie dramatique, à Monsieur Grimm 298.)
  • [48.8] See Aubignac, François Hédelin, La Pratique du théâtre 147; and The Whole Art of the Stage 104 (Book 4, Ch. 1).
  • [48.9] Aristotle refers to Euripides as the “most tragic” of playwrights in Poetics (Part XIII).
  • [48.10] The eighteenth century saw the emergence of multiple genres, such as Diderot’s genre sérieux (serious drama), which challenged the strict separation of dramatic forms. Here, however, Lessing’s purpose is to challenge the efficacy of rigid neoclassical rules, rather than to advocate for a specific mixed or intermediate genre.
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