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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 80

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 5 February 1768[80.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Why bother with the laborious work of dramatic form? Why build a theater, costume men and women, rack one’s memories, invite the whole city to one place, if I do not want to produce anything more with my work and its performance than some of the feelings that could be produced by a good story, read by anyone curled up at home?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The dramatic form is the only one that allows compassion and fear to be aroused, or at least these emotions cannot be aroused to such a high degree in any other form; and yet people will prefer to arouse all other emotions than these, they will prefer to use it for every purpose other than the one to which it is so eminently suited.[80.2]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The audience is satisfied. – That is good, and also not good. For one does not yearn much for the table at which one is always merely satisfied.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 It is well known how keen the Greeks and Romans were about dramas, especially the former about tragic drama. By contrast, how indifferent and cold is our public toward the theater! Where does this difference come from, if not from the fact that the Greeks felt so inspired by such strong and extraordinary feelings at their theater that they could not wait for the moment to experience them again and again; whereas our theater makes such weak impressions upon us that we rarely consider it worth the time and money to experience them? We go to the theater, almost all of us, almost always, out of curiosity or boredom, for the sake of fashion or company, or out of a desire to see and be seen; only a few of us, and these only rarely, go with another purpose.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I say we, our public, our stage, but I do not just mean we Germans. We Germans admit openly enough that we still do not have a theater.[80.3] I do not actually know what is meant by many of our critics who agree with this admission and who are great admirers of French theater. But I do know what I think when I say it. I think, namely, that it is not just we Germans alone, but also those who boast of having had a theater for hundreds of years, who brag of having the best theater in all Europe – even the French do not yet have a theater.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Certainly not a tragic one! For even the impressions that the French tragedies produce are just flat and cold! – Listen to what a Frenchman himself has to say about them.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 “Among the outstanding beauties of our theater,” says M. de Voltaire,[80.4] “there was a hidden fault that had gone unnoticed because the audience could not on its own have any higher ideas than those which the great masters taught by way of their models. Only Saint-Évremond picked up on this fault: he said, namely, that our plays do not make enough of an impression, that what ought to awaken compassion arouses tenderness at best, that superficial emotion takes the place of deep agitation, and amazement that of terror; in short, that our sentiments did not go deep enough.[80.5] It cannot be denied: Saint-Évremond laid his finger directly on the secret wound of French theater. One may say as much as one likes that Saint-Évremond was the author of the awful comedy Sir Politick Wouldbe, and another, equally awful one, called The Operas; that his little social verses are the shallowest and commonest that we have of the genre; that he was nothing but a cheap phrase-turner: but one can lack all spark of genius and still possess much wit and taste.[80.6] Unquestionably his taste was very refined, as he hit so precisely upon the reason why most of our plays are so dull and cold. We have always lacked a certain degree of warmth; we had everything else.”

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 That is: we had everything, only not what we should have had; our tragedies were excellent, except that they were not tragedies. And why were they not?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 “This coldness,” he continues, “this monotonous dullness arose in part from the petty spirit of gallantry that prevailed among our courtiers and ladies, which transformed tragedy into a series of precious conversations in the style of Cyrus and Clélie.[80.7] Those plays that formed something of an exception to this rule consisted of long political speeches, of the sort that ruined Sertorius and made Othon so cold and Suréna and Attila so bad.[80.8] But there was also another factor that kept back the high pathos from our scenes and prevented the action from becoming truly tragic, and this was the narrow, badly constructed theater with its paltry decorations.[80.9] – What could be done on a couple dozen boards, packed with spectators to boot? What pomp and apparatus could be used there to captivate, enthrall, and deceive the spectator’s eye? What great tragic action could be performed there? What freedom could the poet’s imagination have there? The plays were supposed to consist of lengthy declamations, and as a result they became more conversations than plays. Every actor wanted to shine in a long monologue, and a play that had none was rejected. – All theatrical action disappeared from the form, along with all of the great expressions of passion, all the powerful pictures of human misery, and all of the terrifying traits that penetrated to the innermost soul; instead of being torn apart, the heart was scarcely touched.”

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The first reason is quite correct. Gallantry and politics always leave us cold, and no writer in the world has ever succeeded in arousing compassion and fear through them. The former leave us hearing nothing but the fool or the schoolmaster, and the latter requires us to hear nothing but human beings.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 But the second reason? – Could it be possible that the lack of a spacious theater and good decorations had such influence on the poet’s genius? Is it true that every tragic action requires pomp and stage apparatus? Or should the poet instead not compose his play such that it produces its full effect even without these things?

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 According to Aristotle, he should certainly do this. “Fear and compassion,” the philosopher says, “can be aroused through spectacle, but they can also originate from the combination of events themselves; this latter is preferred and is the choice of the better poet.[80.10] For the plot must be so constructed that, even unseen, anyone who simply listens to its course of events to will be moved to compassion and fear at what takes place, just like the story of Oedipus, which one need only hear to be brought to compassion and fear. Achieving this aim by means of spectacle requires less art and is the business of those who undertake the production of the play.”[80.11]

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Anyone who has seen the plays of Shakespeare will have had a particular experience of how superfluous in general theatrical decorations are. Which plays could possibly need the assistance of scenery and the whole art of decoration more than these, with their constant interruption and change of place? Yet there was a time when the stages on which they were played consisted of nothing but a curtain of poor rough material which, when raised, revealed bare walls, at most hung with mats or tapestries; there was nothing there but imagination to come to the aid of the spectator’s understanding and the actor’s performance. Nevertheless it is said that in those days Shakespeare’s plays were more intelligible without any scenery than they later were with it.[*][80.12]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 If, then, the poet need not worry at all about the decorations; if the decorations, even where they appear necessary, can be omitted without any particular disadvantage to his play, why should it be the fault of the narrow, badly constructed theaters that the French poets did not give us plays that are more moving? It is not: the fault is their own.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 And experience proves this. For now the French have a more beautiful and more spacious stage, they no longer tolerate any spectators on it, the wings are empty, the decorator has free rein and can paint and build anything the poet demands[80.13] – but then where are they, those warmer plays, that they have written since? Does M. de Voltaire flatter himself that his Sémiramis is such a play?[80.14] It has pomp and apparatus enough, and a ghost to boot, and yet I can think of no colder play than his Sémiramis.[80.15]


17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 [*] (Cibber’s Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. II, p. 78–79). – Some have insinuated, that fine scenes proved the ruin of acting. – In the reign of Charles I. there was nothing more than a curtain of very coarse stuff, upon the drawing up of which, the stage appeared either with bare walls on the sides, coarsly [sic] matted, or covered with tapestry; so that for the place originally represented, and all the successive changes, in which the poets of those times freely indulged themselves, there was nothing to help the spectator’s understanding, or to assist the actor’s performance, but bare imagination. – The spirit and judgment of the actors supplied all deficiencies, and made as some would insinuate, plays more intelligible without scenes, than they afterwards were with them.

  • 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0
  • [80.1] Actually published spring of 1768.
  • [80.2] In [74] – [79], Lessing provides an in-depth analysis of Aristotle’s assertion in Poetics that tragedy should evoke eleos (compassion) and phobos (terror/fear).
  • [80.3] Lessing refers to an internationally-respected drama of high literary merit, rejecting centuries-old German performance traditions. Like other German theater reformers in the eighteenth century, Lessing sought to upgrade the status of the theater from lowbrow entertainment to a respectable art form suitable for the German middle classes.
  • [80.4] See Voltaire, Appel à toutes les nations de l’Europe 95–6. This essay served as “an integral part of Voltaire’s campaign against foreign, and particularly English, literary influence” (Williams, “Introduction to Appel à toutes les nations de l’Europe” 21).
  • [80.5] Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis, seigneur de Saint-Évremond (or Évremont) (1614?–1703): French soldier and amateur essayist who lived in exile in England and Holland; author of numerous works of dramatic theory inflected by his exposure to English theater. See Saint-Évremond, Sur les tragédies in Oeuvres en prose 3: 31–2.
  • [80.6] Sir Politick Would-be (1705): prose comedy “in the English style,” inspired by Ben Jonson’s Volpone; collaboratively written in French c.1662–5 by Saint-Évremond; George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham; and Ludovic Stewart, Sieur d’Aubigny. Les Opéra (1705): prose comedy written c.1676 that satirized the contemporary French obsession with opera.
  • [80.7] Voltaire, Appel à toutes les nations de l’Europe 96–8. This passage was included in editions subsequent to the original. Cyrus and Clélie: reference to Artamène, ou le grand Cyrus [Artamène or the Grand Cyrus] (1649–53) and Clélie, histoire romaine [Clélie, a Roman History] (1654–60), courtly novels (each issued in ten volumes) authored by Madeleine de Scudéry (1607–1701), a prominent French novelist, salonnière, and philosopher.
  • [80.8] Sertorius (1662), Othon (1665), Suréna (1674), and Attila (1667): tragedies by P. Corneille.
  • [80.9] Voltaire ardently advocated for the reform of French theater architecture, which, in the early eighteenth century, retained the long and narrow shape of the tennis courts from which the French theaters had been adapted. See, for example, Voltaire’s “Dissertation sur la tragédie ancienne et moderne” [“Dissertation on Ancient and Modern Tragedy”] (1748).
  • [80.10] See Aristotle, Poetics (Part XIV).
  • [80.11] This line ends differently in Poetics; Butcher’s translation reads, “But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids” (see Part XIV). Lessing’s ending appears to refer back to Part VI of Poetics, in which Aristotle discusses the role of spectacle in dramatic poetry: “of all the parts, [Spectacle] is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry. . . . [The] production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet” (Butcher’s translation).
  • [80.12] Lessing’s footnote quotation from Cibber is accurate; dashes indicate textual elisions.
  • [80.13] See [10.14].
  • [80.14] See [10] – [12] for Lessing’s discussion of Sémiramis.
  • [80.15] See [11] and [12] for Lessing’s comparison of Shakespeare and Voltaire’s use of ghosts.
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