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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 96

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 1 April 1768[96.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 On the fifty-second evening (Tuesday, July 28th), Herr Romanus’s The Brothers was repeated.[96.2]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Or should I rather say, The Brothers of Herr Romanus? Namely, because of a comment made by Donatus on Terence’s Brothers: “Hanc dicunt fabulam secundo loco actam, etiam tum rudi nomine poetae; itaque sic pronunciatam, Adelphoi Terenti, non Terenti Adelphoi, quod adhuc magis de fabulae nomine poeta, quam de poetae nomine fabula commendabatur.[96.3] Herr Romanus published his comedies without his name on them, and yet his name became known because of them. Even today, those plays of his that have retained their place in our theater spread his name to provinces of Germany where it would never have been heard without them. But what adverse fate discouraged even this man from continuing his work for the theater until his plays had ceased to commend his name and his name recommended his plays instead?

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The majority of what we Germans as yet have in the area of literature are attempts by young people.[96.4] Indeed, it is practically a universal prejudice among us that it is only fitting for young people to work in this field. It is said that men have more serious studies or more important business visited upon them by the church or state.[96.5] Verse and comedy are leisure activities; at best they are seen as somewhat useful preparatory exercises that a person might occupy himself with prior to his twenty-fifth year, at most. As soon as we approach the age of manhood, we are to devote all our energies to a useful profession; and if this profession leaves us some time to write, we should write only what compliments our dignity and our professional rank: a handsome compendium of the higher faculties, a solid chronicle of the beloved hometown, an edifying sermon, or the like.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 From this it also follows that our literature has a youthful, nay even childish, aspect when compared not merely to the literature of antiquity, but to that of nearly all modern civilized nations, and it will continue so for a long, long time. It is not lacking in blood and life, or color and passion, but it is very much lacking in vigor and nerve, pith and bones. Our literature still has so few works that a thinking man will gladly take up when he wants to rest and restore himself by ruminating beyond the monotonous, tedious compass of his daily business! What kind of nourishment can such a man find, for example, in our extremely trivial comedies? Puns, proverbs, the kind of little jokes one hears on the streets every day: such stuff may indeed cause laughter in the parterre, which enjoys itself as well as it can; but anyone who wants more than a belly laugh out of it, anyone who wants to laugh with his reason as well, will go there once and never return.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 He who has nothing can give nothing. A young man just entering the world for the first time himself cannot possibly know the world and depict it. The greatest comic genius appears hollow and empty in his youthful works; even Menander’s first plays, says Plutarch,[*][96.6] are not to be compared with his later and final plays. But from these, he adds, we can deduce what he would have achieved had he lived longer. And how young do we think Menander was when he died? How many comedies do we think he wrote? No fewer than a hundred and five, and no younger than twenty-five.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 None among all our deceased comic writers worth talking about reached that age; none of those currently living are yet so old; and none from either group has written a quarter as many plays. And therefore criticism should not find the same things to say about them as it did about Menander? – But it should just take the risk, and speak!

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 And it is not only the authors who hear that criticism with displeasure. We now have, thanks be to heaven, a species of critics whose best criticism consists of making all criticism suspect.[96.7] “Genius! Genius!” they scream. “The genius defies all rules! What the genius creates is the rule!”[96.8] Thus they flatter the genius; I think it is so that we will take them all for geniuses, too. Yet they too clearly betray the fact that they do not feel even the least spark of it in themselves when they add, in the very same breath, that “rules oppress the genius!” – as if genius allowed itself to be oppressed by anything in the world! Much less by something that, as they themselves admit, is derived from genius itself. Not every critic is a genius, but every genius is a born critic. He internalizes a test of all rules. He understands and keeps and follows only those that express his feeling in words. And this feeling of his, expressed in words, should be able to limit his activity? Rationalize with him about it as much as you want; he will only understand you insofar as he intuitively recognizes your general axioms in a unique context at a given moment, and only the memory of this unique case will remain for him, which can have no stronger or weaker effect on his powers as he works than can the memory of a felicitous example or of one of his own happy experiences. Thus to claim that rules and criticism can oppress genius is to claim, in different words, that example and practice can do the same; it means limiting genius not only to itself, but even solely to its first attempt.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 These wise gentlemen are no better at knowing what they want when they whine so comically over the unfavorable impression criticism makes on the adoring public. They would rather like to convince us that no person will find a butterfly colorful and beautiful anymore once the evil magnifying glass allows them to see that its colors are only dust.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 “Our theater,” they say, “is still at far too tender an age to be able to withstand the monarchical scepter of criticism. – It is almost more crucial to demonstrate the means by which the ideal can be achieved than to show how distant we remain from that ideal. – The theater must be reformed through examples, not through rules. – It is easier to reason than to invent on one’s own.”[96.9]

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Does this amount to cloaking thoughts in words, or does it not rather amount to seeking thoughts for the words and failing to grasp any? – And who are these people who speak so much of examples and inventing on one’s own? What kind of examples have they given? What have they themselves invented? – Clever minds! When they are presented with examples to judge, they prefer rules, and when they are to judge rules, they prefer to have examples. Instead of proving that a criticism is wrong, they prove that it is too severe, and think they have dismissed it. Instead of disproving a line of reasoning, they note that inventing is more difficult than reasoning, and think they have rebutted!

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Anyone who reasons correctly also invents, and anyone who wants to invent must be able to reason. Only those who have no disposition to either believe that the one can be separated from the other.[96.10]

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 But why do I bother with these prattlers? I will go my own way, unconcerned about what the crickets chirp along the way. Taking even one step off the path to stomp on them is already too much. Their summer ends quickly enough!

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Thus, without further introduction, to the comments about Herr Romanus’s The Brothers I promised on the occasion of its first performance![†] The most notable of these relate to the changes he thought necessary to make to Terence’s plot in order to make it conform more closely to our own customs.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 What is to be said in general about the necessity of these changes? If we have so little difficulty seeing Roman or Greek customs depicted in tragedy, why not also in comedy? Whence comes the rule, if it is a rule, of setting the scene of the former in a distant land, among a strange people, but the latter here in our native land?[96.11] Whence comes the obligation we impose upon the writer to depict as precisely as possible the customs of the people among whom he sets his action in the former, when we only demand the depiction of our own customs in the latter? “This appears, at first sight, whimsical and capricious,” Pope says at one point, “but [it] has its foundation in nature. What we chiefly seek in comedy is a true image of life and manners; but we are not easily brought to think we have it given us, when dressed in foreign modes and fashions. And yet a good writer must follow his scene, and observe decorum. On the contrary, ‘tis the action in tragedy which most engages our attention. But to fit a domestic occurrence for the stage, we must take greater liberties with the action than a well-known story will allow.”[96.12]


16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 [*] Επιτ. της συνκρισεως Αρις. και Μεναν. p. 1588. Ed. Henr. Stephani.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 [†]Essay 73

  • 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0
  • [96.1] Actually published Easter (March) 1769.
  • [96.2] The second performance at the Hamburg National Theater of Romanus’s Die Brüder [The Brothers] in fact occurred on August 11, 1767. For more about the play, see [70.6].
  • [96.3] “They say that this play was produced second, at a point when the writer’s name was not well known; and so it was announced as “The Brothers of Terence,” rather than “Terence’s The Brothers,” because up to that point, the writer was recommended more by the name of the play than the play by the name of the writer.” From Donatus’s commentary on the play; see Donatus, Publii Terentii 293.
  • [96.4] For the state of German dramatic literature in the mid-eighteenth century, see the editor’s first introductory essay (Baldyga pp#).
  • [96.5] A belief reminiscent of those held by Lessing’s father, Johann Gottfried Lessing (1693-1770), a Lutheran pastor who published numerous theological works; see Nisbet 11–13.
  • [96.6] In his footnote, Lessing references Plutarch’s Comparationis Aristophanis Et Menandri Compendium [Summary of a Comparison between Aristophanes and Menander] in Plutarchi Chaeronensis quae extant opera, cum Latine interpretatione [Extant Works of Plutarch of Chaeronea, with Latin interpretation] (1572), edited by Henricus Stephanus. Lessing’s page citation is incorrect; the statement to which he refers can be found on page 1568 (not 1588).
  • [96.7] In these next paragraphs, Lessing refers specifically to the young German professor and dilettante literary critic, Christian Adolf Klotz (1738–71), who had criticized Lessing’s Laokoon (in 1768), and, in early 1769, in his journal Deutsche Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften [German Library of Liberal Arts and Sciences], the first volume of collected essays from the Hamburg Dramaturgy (Klotz 9: 41–60). Lessing’s two-volume polemical response to Klotz, the Briefe antiquarischen Inhalts [Antiquarian Letters] (1768–69) thoroughly demolished the critic’s reputation, leading Klotz’s biographer to write that Klotz “threw a pea at Lessing and was answered by an avalanche of stones”; see von Murr 95–6.
  • [96.8] See [30.2].
  • [96.9] Loosely quoted from Klotz, Deutschen Biblothek der schönen Wissenschaften 9: 42–3.
  • [96.10] See Lessing’s remarks “Der Rezensent braucht nicht besser machen zu können, was er tadelt” [“The reviewer need not be able to do better than that which he criticizes”] in his “Paralipomena” (below/pp.#).
  • [96.11] Hurd writes, “Comedy succeeds best when the scene is laid at home, tragedy for the most part when abroad”; see “Dissertation on the Provinces of the Drama” 191.
  • [96.12] This quotation is actually from William Warburton’s commentary on Pope’s Imitation of Horace Epistle I, verse 282 (Pope, The Works of Alexander Pope, Esq. 4: 182). Lessing appears to have drawn the quotation, which we provide in the original English, from Hurd’s “Dissertation on the Provinces of the Drama” 191–2.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-96/