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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 5

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 15 May 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 [†] It is undeniable that the actress, by masterfully setting apart the words

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 “I love you, Olint, – ”

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 gave the passage a beauty for which the playwright—for whom everything rushes by in a selfsame torrent of words—cannot be given even the slightest of credit.[5.1] But if only it had pleased her to continue in these refinements of her role! Perhaps she was concerned that she would entirely miss the spirit of the playwright; or maybe she feared the accusation that she had performed not what the playwright wrote, but rather what he should have written. But then, what praise could be better than such an accusation? Admittedly, not every actor should imagine earning such praise. If that were the case, things would look bad for the poor playwrights.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Cronegk really did make an extremely vulgar, unsavory, ugly thing out of his Clorinda. And despite this, she is still the only one of his characters who interests us.  While he totally failed to give her any natural beauty, nevertheless her heavy-handed, uncouth nature has its own effect.[5.2] That is because the other characters are completely unnatural, and we can more easily sympathize with a battleaxe of a woman than with mystical fanatics. It is only toward the end, when she falls into their overzealous tone, that she becomes just as indifferent and disgusting to us. Everything in her is contradiction, and she continually springs from one extreme to another. No sooner has she declared her love, than she adds:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 “Will you spurn my heart? You are silent? –

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Make your decision;

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 And if you can hesitate—then tremble!”

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Tremble? Olindo is supposed to tremble? He, whom she has seen so often in the tumult of battle, unfazed by the slaughter? And he should tremble before her? What is she going to do? Scratch his eyes out? – If only, instead of this unseemly feminine blustering “then tremble,” it had occurred to the actress to say: “I tremble!” She could tremble as much as she wanted, finding her love spurned and her pride wounded. That would have been very natural. But to demand it from Olindo, to demand love from him with a knife at his throat, is not only bad but laughable.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 But then again, what good would it have done to keep the playwright for a moment longer within the bounds of propriety and moderation? He then proceeds to have Clorinda rage in the authentic tones of a drunken fishwife;[5.3] and from that point on there is no letting up or mincing of words.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The only thing that the actress might yet do for the benefit of the playwright would be, perhaps, not to let herself be so totally carried away by his wild fire, to hold herself together, and to not express the utmost fury with the utmost strain of the voice or with the most violent gestures.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 If Shakespeare was not as great an actor as he was a dramatic writer, he at least knew full well what belonged to the art of the one and what belonged to the art of the other.[5.4] Perhaps he thought all the more deeply about the art of the former, because he possessed such a lesser genius for it. At the very least, every word that he puts into Hamlet’s mouth when he instructs the players is a golden rule for all actors who strive for honest acclaim. Among other things, he has him say to the comedians, “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”[5.5]

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 People talk a lot about the fiery passion of an actor; they argue with each other over whether an actor can have too much fire.[5.6] Where those who claim that it is possible point out as evidence that an actor was too fierce in the wrong place, or at the very least might have been fiercer than the conditions required; then those who disagree might very well respond that in such cases the actor showed not too much fire, but rather too little understanding. But it really depends on what we understand by the word fire. If shouting and contortions are fire, then it is indisputable that the actor can go too far with it. If fire, however, consists in the speed and liveliness with which all the attributes of the actor combine to give his performance the appearance of truth, then, to argue that it is possible for the actor to apply too much fire in this sense is to assume that we do not wish to see the appearance of truth driven to the utmost illusion. It thus cannot be this fire, either, that Shakespeare demands be restrained, even in the flowing current, in the storm, in the whirlwind of passion: he must clearly mean that violence of voice and of movements; and it is easy to see the reason why, in places where the playwright has not observed the slightest moderation, the actor must nevertheless restrain himself in both respects. There are few voices that do not become obnoxious in their most extreme exertion; and all-too-quick, all-too-stormy movements are seldom noble. Neither our eyes nor our ears should be injured; and it is only when actors avoid everything that could be unpleasant to these, in their expression of strong passions, that they will have that smoothness and suppleness that a Hamlet demands of them—even under circumstances in which they are to make the greatest impression and frighten awake the conscience of the unrepentant sinner.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The art of the actor exists midway between the visual arts and poetry.[5.7] As visible painting, beauty must be its highest principle; but as transitory painting it need not always give its postures that calm that made ancient art works so impressive. Acting should, it must often allow itself the wildness of a Tempesta, the audacity of a Bernini; it possesses all of their characteristic expressiveness without the offensiveness that visual art may have because of its static state.[5.8] But acting must not linger too long in any given posture; it must gradually prepare for each through the movements leading up to it, and resolve each through the subsequent movements back to a general tone of decorum; moreover, it must never give any posture all of the force to which the playwright, in his handling of the material, can drive it. For although this is a silent poetry, it wants to make itself immediately understood by our eyes, and every sense is flattered when it is able to communicate directly to the soul those concepts that have been entrusted to it.[5.9]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 It could well be that our actors would not be altogether comfortable with the moderation that they bring to the art even in the most extreme passions, out of consideration for applause. – But what applause? –The gallery is admittedly a great lover of noise and bluster, and will seldom fail to respond with loud hands to a strong lung. But even the German parterre shares this taste to great degree, and there are actors who are clever enough to take advantage of this taste.[5.10] The laziest actor pulls himself together near the end of the scene before he is to exit, suddenly raises his voice and exaggerates the action without considering whether this greater effort serves the sense of his speech. Often this contradicts the condition in which he should exit; but what does that matter to him? It is sufficient that he has thereby reminded the parterre to pay attention to him, and if they would be so kind, to cheer for him. They ought to hiss at him! But sadly the parterre on the one hand lacks connoisseurship, and on the other hand is too forgiving, and mistakes the desire to please for the accomplishment.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 I do not trust myself to say anything about the acting of the remaining actors in this piece. If they must always be occupied with camouflaging mistakes and making the merely adequate seem acceptable, then even the best cannot do any better than appear in a very ambivalent light. Even if we refrain from blaming the actor for the aggravation that the playwright has caused us, we nevertheless cannot calm our irritation enough to do him the justice that he deserves.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The conclusion of the first night was The Triumph of Times Past, a comedy in one act, based on the work of the French writer le Grand.[5.11] It is one of the three small plays that le Grand brought to the French stage in 1724 under the general title, The Triumph of Time, after he had already worked with the same material—garnering little applause—a year previously under the title, The Ridiculous Lover. The event that lies at its center is funny enough, and several scenarios are quite ridiculous. But this ridiculousness is of a type better suited to a satiric story than to the theater. The triumph of time over beauty and youth makes for a sad concept; the vain delusion of a sixty-year-old fop and an equally old fool of a woman—that time had no power over their own attractions—is truly ridiculous; but to see this fop and this fool is more repulsive than comical.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0  


  • 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0
  • [5.1] Hensel [See 4.10].
  • [5.2] Lessing’s aesthetics of “natural beauty,” which predate the Romantic fascination with the sublime and the grotesque, are founded on ostensibly universal standards of order, proportion, and decorum, and are elaborated upon in Laokoon: oder über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (1766) (Werke und Briefe 5.2: 11-206). For an English translation, see Edward Allen McCormick, Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry.
  • [5.3] Tr. note:  the word Lessing uses here is Marquetenderin, which translates best to the archaic English word “sutler,” a merchant who sold goods from the back of a wagon to the army.
  • [5.4] German critics received their view of Shakespeare as an indifferent actor from English biographers such as Nicholas Rowe, who wrote in his 1709 biographical preface to Shakespeare’s works that “his admirable wit, and the natural turn of it to the stage, soon distinguish’d him, if not as an extraordinary Actor, yet as an excellent Writer” (61-2).
  • [5.5] Hamlet 3.2.1 ff.
  • [5.6] Lessing’s argument is derived from the first part of Pierre Rémond de Sainte-Albine’s seminal work of acting theory Le Comédien [The Actor](1747), specifically Chapter III, “Un Comédien peut-il avoir trop de Feu?” [“Can an actor have too much fire?”] (41-49). Lessing had planned a translation of Le Comédien, but instead published a detailed description in 1754 in his Theatralische Bibliothek  under the title “Auszug aus dem Schauspieler des Herrn Remond von Sainte Albine” (Werke und Briefe 3: 304-311).
  • [5.7] In Laokoon, Lessing challenges the Latin dictum ut pictura poesis (“as is painting, so is poetry”) most famously employed by Horace in his Ars Poetica. Theatrical performance, Lessing argues, functions as a “transitory picture” and is therefore responsible to different aesthetic criteria than either poetry or painting.
  • [5.8] May refer to Dutch painter Pieter Mulier the Younger (1637-1701), nicknamed “Tempesta” for his paintings of stormy seas. Robertson, however, suggests instead a reference to Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630), known for his battle scenes (482, n.1). Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), Italian architect and sculptor, is considered synonymous with the Baroque style in architecture.
  • [5.9] For an overview of eighteenth-century acting and its physiological grounding in “the passions of the soul,” see Roach.
  • [5.10] Seats in the gallery were inexpensive and typically would have been populated by servants and the working classes; the parterre audience would have been made up of students, merchants, lawyers, and other literati.
  • [5.11] Le triomphe du temps passé (1725) by Marc Antoine Le Grand (1673-1728).
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages cut by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-5/