A New and Complete Translation

Essay 83

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 16 February 1768[83.1]

  1. 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0
  2. And finally: the misinterpretation of the first and most essential quality Aristotle requires regarding the moral behavior of tragic characters.[83.2] Their morals should be good. – “Good?” Corneille asks, “If good here is supposed to mean virtuous, then things look bad for the majority of both old and new tragedies, which abound in wicked and vicious characters, or at least characters tainted with some weakness that does not sit well with virtue.”[83.3] He is particularly anxious about his Cleopatra in Rodogune.[83.4] Corneille absolutely does not want to consider Aristotle’s proscribed goodness as moral goodness; it must be a different type of goodness, equally compatible with the morally bad and the morally good. Nevertheless, Aristotle unequivocally does mean moral goodness, only he distinguishes between virtuous persons and persons who demonstrate virtuous moral behavior under certain circumstances. In short, Corneille attaches a completely false idea to moral behavior, and he has not understood at all what proairesis is, through which alone, according to our philosopher, free actions become good or bad behavior.[83.5] I cannot plunge into an extensive proof now; such a proof can only be made with sufficient clarity by means of the context, by means of the syllogistic sequence of all the ideas of the Greek critic. I will thus save it for another occasion, since now it is only necessary to show what an unfortunate detour Corneille took when he wandered down the wrong path. It led to the following conclusion: that Aristotle considered moral good to be found in the brilliant and elevated character of an inclination, whether virtuous or criminal, that is either inherent in, or can be attributed to, the person one portrays: “le caractère brillant et élevé d’une habitude vertueuse ou criminelle, selon qu’elle est propre et convenable à la personne qu’on introduit.[83.6] He says, “Cleopatra, in Rodogune, is wicked in the extreme; she shies away from no act of murder if it can help her maintain possession of the throne that she values most in the world; her lust for power really is that fierce. But all her crimes are bound up with a certain greatness of soul that has something so noble that, even as we condemn her actions, we still have to admire the source from which they spring. I dare say the same thing about The Liar.[83.7] Lying is unquestionably a vicious habit, but Dorant delivers his lies with such commitment and vehemence that this imperfection suits him quite well, and the spectators are bound to acknowledge that the talent of lying like this is a vice no fool is capable of.”[83.8] – Truly, Corneille could not have had a more pernicious idea! Follow it to its execution, and there’s the end to all truth, all illusion, and all moral benefit of tragedy! For virtue, which is always modest and simple, will be rendered vain and romantic through this brilliance, while vice will be coated with a varnish that dazzles us from all sides, regardless of the standpoint from which we view it. What foolishness, to hide the inner ugliness of a vice and hope that its dire consequences alone will terrify! Consequences are unpredictable, and experience teaches that they can just as easily be positive as negative. This brings us back to the purification of the emotions as Corneille understood them. The way I imagine it, the way Aristotle taught it, has absolutely nothing to do with this deceptive brilliance. The false patina that is here applied to vice makes me discern perfections where there are none; it makes me feel compassion where I should not. – Dacier, it is true, has already contradicted this explanation, but for even more spurious reasons, and the explanation he adopted in its place with Père le Bossu is nearly just as detrimental, at the very least to the poetical perfection of the play.[83.9] He says, namely, that “morals should be good” means nothing more than that they should be well expressed, “qu’elles soient bien marquées.”[83.10] This is certainly a rule that, correctly understood and in its proper place, deserves the dramatic poet’s full attention. If only the French examples did not reveal that they took “well expressed” to mean “strongly expressed.” They overloaded the expression, they put pressure on pressure, until characterized persons became personified characters and vicious or virtuous human beings became bare skeletons of vices and virtues. –

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I will break off from this material here. Whoever is equal to the task can make the application to Richard himself.[83.11]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 [†]I probably do not need to say anything about Duke Michael, which followed Richard.[83.12] What theater has not produced it, and who has not seen or read it? Krüger, however, can hardly take credit for it; it was taken wholly from a story in the Bremen Contributions.[83.13] The many good satirical strokes it contains belong to that writer, as well as the whole course of the plot. Nothing but the dramatic form belongs to Krüger. Yet with Krüger’s passing, our stage lost much indeed.[83.14] He had talent for low comedy, as his Candidates proved.[83.15] But where he tries to be moving and noble, he is chilly and affected. Herr Löwen collected his works, from which, however, his Clergymen in the Country is missing.[83.16] That play was Krüger’s first attempt at drama, while he was still studying in Berlin at the Graue Kloster.[83.17]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 On the forty-ninth evening (Thursday, July 23rd) M. de Voltaire’s comedy The Woman Who Is Right was performed, and L’Affichard’s Is he a member of the family?[*] was repeated to conclude the evening.[83.18]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The Woman Who Is Right is one of the plays M. de Voltaire wrote for his private theater.[83.19] It was certainly good enough for that. It played in Carouge in 1758, but as far as I know, not yet in Paris.[83.20] It isn’t as if there haven’t been worse plays performed there since; the Marins and Le Brets have taken care of that.[83.21] It is rather because – actually, I have no idea. For I, at least, would much prefer to see a great man in his pajamas and nightcap, than a bungler in his Sunday best.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The play does not have much in the way of characters or interest, but it has several situations that are comical enough.[83.22] The comedy, it must be said, is of the most common sort, based on nothing but incognito, misrecognitions, and misunderstandings. But the laughers are not bothered, our German laughers least of all, so long as the strangeness of the customs and the wretched translation do not make the mot pour rire incomprehensible.[83.23]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 On the fiftieth evening (Friday, July 24th) Gresset’s Sidney was repeated. The evening ended with The Seeing Blindman.[83.24]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 This brief play is by Le Grand, and also not by him. He borrowed the title and intrigue and everything else from an old play by de Brosse.[83.25] An officer, getting on in years, wants to marry a young widow he is in love with, when he receives orders to report to the army. He takes leave of his betrothed, with mutual assurances of the most heartfelt tenderness. But no sooner is he gone than the widow accepts the attentions of the son of this officer. His daughter likewise takes advantage of her father’s absence and receives into her house a young man whom she loves. This double intrigue is reported to the father who, in order to convince himself of it, has someone write to them that he has lost his sight. The ruse succeeds; he returns to Paris and, with the help of a servant who knows of the deception, he sees everything that is happening in his house. It is easy to guess what happens: since the officer can no longer have any doubts of the widow’s inconstancy, he allows his son to marry her, and he gives his daughter the same permission to marry her lover. The scenes between the widow and the officer’s son in the older man’s presence contain a lot of comedy: the widow asserts that she is deeply affected by his misfortune but that she loves him no less for it, and at the same time she winks at his son, her lover, and demonstrates her tenderness to him through other gestures. That is the plot of the old play by de Brosse, and also the plot of the new play by Le Grand, except that in the latter the intrigue with the daughter has been left off, in order to bring the former’s five acts more easily into one. The father has become an uncle, and there are some other similar small changes besides. In the end it doesn’t matter where it originated; all that matters is that it pleases greatly. The translation is in verse and is perhaps one of the best we have; at any rate it is very fluid and has many funny lines.[83.26]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [*]See the 17th evening.

  • 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0
  • [83.1] Actually published Easter (March) 1769.
  • [83.2] Lessing concludes a refutation, begun in [81], of French neoclassical theory by way of a point-by-point critique of Pierre’s Corneille’s interpretation of Aristotle.
  • [83.3] Lessing paraphrases from P. Corneille’s first discourse, “De l’utilité et des parties du poëme dramatique” in Trois discours 27; for an English translation, see P. Corneille, “First Discourse: On the Uses and Elements of Dramatic Poetry” 144.
  • [83.4] Cléopâtre: tragic character from P. Corneille’s tragedy Rodogune (1644); for Lessing’s discussion of the play, see [29] – [32].
  • [83.5] Proairesis: reasoned choice; Aristotle introduces this term in his Nicomachean Ethics (see in particular Book 3, Chapter II).
  • [83.6] P. Corneille, “Du poëme dramatique” in Trois Discours 28; P. Corneille, “First Discourse” 144.
  • [83.7] Le Menteur (1642): five-act verse comedy by P. Corneille, based on a comedy by Mexican-born Spanish playwright Juan Ruiz de Alarcón (1581–1639), La Verdad sospechosa [The Suspicious Truth] (1634) (mistakenly attributed by Corneille to Lope de Vega).
  • [83.8] Dorante: the central character of La Menteur. For the argument of Corneille that Lessing paraphrases here, see P. Corneille, “Du poëme dramatique” in Trois Discours 28; P. Corneille, “First Discourse” 144.
  • [83.9] René Le Bossu (1631–80): distinguished French critic, whose theoretical work, Traité du poème épique [Treatise on Epic Poetry] (1675), is referenced by Andre Dacier in his edition of Aristotle’s Poetics.
  • [83.10] Aristotle and Dacier, 233.
  • [83.11] Lessing’s multi-essay analysis of Aristotle, spanning essays [73] – [83], is prompted by his discussion of C. F. Weisse’s Richard der Dritte [Richard the Third] (1759/65), which he begins in [73] and returns to in [74] and [79].
  • [83.12] Herzog Michel (1750 / pub. 1757): one-act comedy in verse by J. C. Krüger; a highly popular Nachspiel (afterpiece), it was performed five times by the Hamburg National Theater company.
  • [83.13] Krüger’s play is based on a story, Das ausgerechnete Glück [The Calculated Fortune] by Johann Adolf Schlegel (1731–93), published in vol. 4 (1747) of the weekly Bremen-based periodical Neue Beiträge zum Vergnügen des Verstandes und Witzes [New Contributions for the Pleasure of Reason and Wit], which is generally referred to as the Bremer Beiträge [Bremen Contributions] (1744–1759). Schlegel’s story was itself based on La Fontaine’s fable “La laitière et le pot au lait” [“The Milkmaid and the Pot of Milk”].
  • [83.14] Krüger died in 1750 at the age of 27.
  • [83.15] Die Candidaten, oder die Mittel zu einem Amte zu gelangen [The Candidates, or the Means to an Office] (1748): five-act comedy in prose.
  • [83.16] Johann Friedrich Löwen published Krüger’s collected plays as Johann Christian Krügers Poetische und Theatralische Schriften [Johann Christian Krüger’s Poetry and Theatrical Writings] (1763). Die Geistlichen auf dem Lande [The Clergyman in the Country] (1743): three-act comedy in prose.
  • [83.17] Graue Kloster (Grey Monastery): the oldest secondary school in Berlin; founded in 1574, it took its name from the medieval Greyfriars monastery that originally occupied its site.
  • [83.18] La femme qui a raison (1758): three-act comedy in verse by Voltaire. The German translation, Die Frau, welche Recht hat, was first published in 1762; the translator is unknown. La famille [The Family] (1736): comedy by Thomas L’Affichard; see [17].
  • [83.19] Voltaire did stage performances at his estates Les Délices and Ferney (in and just outside Geneva, respectively), but the original one-act version La femme qui a raison appears to have been first performed in 1748 at the court theater of Lunéville (where Voltaire was in residence), by the acting troupe of Duke Stanislas Leszczynski, the former King of Poland.
  • [83.20] The three-act version of La femme qui a raison was first performed in 1758 at Carouge (a small city on the outskirts of Geneva). The play was staged throughout the provinces but was not performed in Paris in Voltaire’s lifetime.
  • [83.21] François-Louis-Claude Marin (Marini) (1721–1809) and Antoine Le Bret (1717–2): lesser French playwrights.
  • [83.22] In La femme qui a raison, a brother and sister, with the assistance of their mother, outwit their father in order to marry the people they love. For more on the play, see Russell and Waddicor, “Introduction to La femme qui a raison” 255–94.
  • [83.23] mot pour rire: punchline.
  • [83.24] Sidney (1745): comedy by Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset; see [17]. L’aveugle clairvoyant (1716): a one-act comedy in verse, by Marc Antoine Le Grand. This program actually occurred on July 31 rather than July 24.
  • [83.25] L’aveugle clairvoyant (1650): a five-act comedy in verse by Brosse (or La Brosse) (first name unknown).
  • [83.26] Der sehende Blinde (1752), a translation in alexandrines, possibly by Karl August Suabe; see Robertson 92.
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
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