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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 9

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 29 May 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In the novel, St. Preux has the occasional opportunity to demonstrate his enlightened understanding and play the active role of an upstanding man. In the comedy, however, Siegmund is no more than a small, conceited pedant, who makes a virtue of his weakness and is quite offended to find that others do not universally do justice to his tender little heart.[9.1] His entire impact comes down to a pair of massively idiotic deeds. The boy wants to fight and to stab himself.[9.2]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The playwright figured out on his own that his Siegmund does not appear to be sufficiently active; but he believes he precludes this criticism when he announces that, “a man of his sort, in a period of twenty-four hours’ time, cannot accomplish great things like a king, to whom every moment offers such opportunities. One must simply accept at the outset that he is the upright man he is described to be; and it suffices that Julie, her mother, Clarisse, and Edward—all clearly upright people—have recognized him as such.”[9.3]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 In daily life it is right and proper to avoid placing injurious mistrust in the character of others and to place one’s faith in the opinions shared among upstanding people. But should the dramatic poet be allowed to get away so easily with fobbing this social convention off on us? Certainly not, even if he could thereby make his own work much easier. In the theater, we want to see who people really are and we can only see that through their actions. The good that we should attribute to them just because others say so cannot possibly interest us; it leaves us utterly indifferent, and when we ourselves do not have even the slightest direct experience of this good, it really just leaves a bad impression of those people whose belief and opinions we are supposed to accept on their word alone. Far be it then that we should be prepared to acknowledge Siegmund as the most splendid and perfect young man just because Julie, her mother, Clarisse, and Edward do so: rather we are far more likely to develop mistrust in the perspective of all of these other characters, if we never see anything with our own eyes that justifies their favorable opinion. It is true that a private person cannot accomplish many great deeds in twenty-four hours. But who is asking for great? A character can reveal himself even in the smallest actions; and only those actions that shine the most light upon character are truly the greatest, according to poetic evaluation.[9.4] So how did it come to be that twenty-four hours were enough to drive Siegmund to the two most extreme idiocies that could possibly occur to a man in his circumstances? The playwright might answer that the circumstances are suitable: but this he certainly will not do. Yet even if the circumstances were developed naturally and managed delicately, the idiocies themselves that we see Siegmund threatening to commit would still not lose their noxious effect on our impression of the stormy young poser. We see for ourselves that he behaves badly; we only hear that he is capable of behaving well, and even then we hear no specific examples but instead only the most general, vacillating descriptions.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 The severity that Julie encounters at the hand of her father, because he wants her to take someone other than her own heart’s choice for a husband, is barely touched upon by Rousseau.[9.5] Herr Heufeld had the courage to present us with an entire scene. I love it when a young poet takes a risk. He has the father throw the daughter to the ground. [†] I was worried about the staging of this action. But without cause: our actors had choreographed it so well, there was so much grace on the part of the father and the daughter, and this grace did so little damage to the truth of the moment, that I had to concede that if any actors could accomplish such a scene, it was these or none. Herr Heufeld demands that when Julie is raised up by her mother, blood should be visible on her face. He can be grateful that this was left out. The physical staging must never be carried to disgusting extremes. It is enough when the heated fantasy imagines seeing blood in such cases, but the eye must not actually see it.[9.6]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The scene that follows is the most splendid of the entire play. It originates in the Rousseau. I myself cannot explain what kind of displeasure mixes with the feeling of pathos when we see a father begging for something at the feet of his daughter. It offends, it affronts, to see him to whom nature has given such holy rights brought so low. We have to forgive Rousseau this extraordinary lever: the mass that he has to set in motion is too big. Since no argument will change Julie, since her heart is so constituted that it will only more stubbornly fortify itself in its resolve, she could only be shaken by the sudden surprise of the most unexpected encounter and turned about in a kind of stupefaction. We are to believe that the lover becomes a daughter, and that seductive tenderness transforms into blind obedience. Because Rousseau saw no means to derive these changes from Nature, he felt compelled to contrive them from—or, if you will, force them onto—Nature. There is no other way we could we forgive Julie when, in what follows, she supposedly sacrifices the most passionate lover for the coldest husband. But since this sacrifice never transpires in the comedy, since it is not the daughter but the father who finally gives in, should Herr Heufeld not have softened that change of heart? A change that Rousseau merely used to justify what is disturbing in that sacrifice and to shield what is unusual in it from the accusation of being unnatural? – But I could go on and on! If Herr Heufeld had done that, we would have lost a scene that, while not fitting so well with the whole, nonetheless is quite powerful; it would be as if he had painted out of his rendering a source of light has a tremendous effect, even though we never quite know its origin.[9.7] The skill with which Herr Eckhof played this scene, the movement by which he brought a shock of grey hair in front of his eyes as he pleaded with his daughter: these alone would make worthwhile the perpetration of the minor lack of decorum that perhaps no one would notice, other than the cold critic analyzing the plot.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The afterpiece of this evening was The Treasure, an imitation of Plautus’s Trinummus in which the playwright sought to concentrate all of the comic scenes of the original into one act.[9.8] It was performed quite well. The actors all played their roles with the dexterity that low comedy so necessarily demands. If a half-baked gag, an indiscretion, or a play on words is delivered in a slow and stilted manner, if the characters have to stop and think about poor jokes that could do nothing more than raise a smile, boredom is inevitable. Farces have to be delivered rapid-fire, and the spectator must not have even a moment to consider just how witty or stupid they are. There are no women in this play; the only one who might have been brought in would have been an icy lover and honestly, it is better have none than such a one. Otherwise I would not wish to advise anyone to cultivate this peculiarity. We are too accustomed to the combination of both sexes not to feel that entirely eliminating the more charming of the two leaves something missing.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Previously Cecchi, among the Italians, and more recently Destouches, among the French, brought this same comedy by Plautus back to the stage. They both made it into a long five-act play, and were therefore compelled to expand the Roman’s plot with their own inventions. The play by Cecchi is called The Dowry, and in his history of the Italian theater Riccoboni recommends it as one of the best of those old comedies.[9.9] The play by Destouches bears the title The Hidden Treasure and was performed just once in the year 1745 on the Italian stage in Paris—and even this once was not performed to its end.[9.10] It found no renown, and only first appeared in print after the death of the author, and also after the appearance of the German play The Treasure. Plautus himself was not the first inventor of this successful and oft-imitated material; rather it was Philemon, who gave it the simple title to which the German version returned.[9.11] Plautus had his own unique style in naming his plays, and for the most part he took his titles from the most insignificant incidents. For example, he called this play Trinummus, or The Three Pieces of Money, because this is what the impostor receives for his efforts.[9.12]


  • 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages that were cut by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [9.1] Lessing is discussing Franz von Heufeld’s adaptation of Rousseau’s novel Julie, or the New Heloise. See [8].
  • [9.2] Lessing fails to mention that Rousseau’s St. Preux is also prone to such desires.
  • [9.3] Heufeld, Julie iv.
  • [9.4] Champions of bourgeois dramas argued that the private concerns of ordinary citizens were the most universally human, and thus the most compelling, subjects for a play, rather than the uncommon and exceptional deeds of public persons. Previously, both French neoclassicism and the baroque Haupt- und Staatsaktionen had placed great deeds of noble persons at the center of a play’s action. Cf. [14].
  • [9.5] In fact, Rousseau’s Julie is struck and bloodied by her enraged father (Part 1, Letter 63).
  • [9.6] Lessing earlier had explored the relationship between illusion, pleasure, and representations of attractive or repellent objects in Laocoön (McCormick 130-7) and in a letter to Mendelssohn (2 February 1757, Werke und Briefe 11/1: 165-9).
  • [9.7] As in the tenebrismo paintings of Caravaggio or Rembrandt.
  • [9.8] Der Schatz (1750) was Lessing’s own adaptation of Plautus’s Trinummus.
  • [9.9] Giovanni Maria Cecchi (1517?-87); La Dote (1550). Cf. Luigi Riccoboni, 135. Luigi Riccoboni (1675?-1753), influential Italian author, theater reformer, and actor who performed at and directed the Comédie-Italienne in Paris. His Réflexions historiques et critiques sur différents théâtres de l’Europe [An Historical and Critical Account of the Theaters in Europe] (1738), the first comparative history of the European theater, influenced Lessing’s own “Beyträge zur Historie und Aufnahme des Theaters” [“Contributions to the History and Improvement of the Theater”] (1750); see “Beyträge” preface and overview (Werke und Briefe 1: 723-33; 1330-36). In 1754, Lessing published (and may have translated) the majority of Riccoboni’s Histoire du théâtre italien [History of Italian Theater] (1728-31) in his Theatralische Bibliothek [Theatrical Library] 2: 135-214.
  • [9.10] Philippe Néricault Destouches (1680-1754); Le Tresor caché was published in Oeuvres dramatiques de Néricault Destouches [Dramatic Works of Néricault Destouches] (1757) 4: 259-391. Cf. “Leben des Herrn Nericault Destouches” [“Life of Mr. Nericault Destouches”] (Werke und Briefe 3: 312-18).
  • [9.11] Philemon (born ca. 368-60, died ca. 267-63 BCE) writer of Athenian New Comedy. Thesauros [Treasure] (ca. 300 BCE).
  • [9.12] Lessing’s term here, Sykophant, refers to the character in Plautus’s play, in which the sycophanta is a “professional impostor.” [Tr. note]
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-9/