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A New and Complete Translation

Lessing’s Preface to the “Hamburg Dramaturgy”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Notice

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 It will be readily apparent that the catalyst for this publication is the new administration of our local theater.[0.1]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The ultimate aim of the publication corresponds with the good intentions that we inevitably associate with the men who intend to take on the management of this theater. They have explained their aims sufficiently themselves, and their statements have been received with approval both here and abroad by the more refined public. This is approval that every voluntary promotion of the common good both deserves and should expect in our day.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 To be sure there are always and everywhere people who, because they know themselves so well, see nothing but ulterior motives in every good undertaking.  We could gladly grant them this with respect to themselves: however, when they use these supposed ulterior motives to attack the undertaking itself, and when their spiteful envy, in seeking to block these motives, also derails the project, then they really ought to understand that they are the most despicable members of human society.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Happy is the place where such miserable people do not set the tone; where the majority of well-meaning citizens keeps them within boundaries of respectful behavior and does not allow the better part of the whole to fall victim to their intrigues, or patriotic intentions to become the object of their sneering lunacy!

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 May Hamburg be so happy in everything that concerns its well-being and freedom, for it deserves to be so happy!

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 When Schlegel made recommendations for the improvement of the Danish theater (a German writer for the Danish theater!)—a matter that will long serve as a subject of reproach to Germany, which gave him no opportunity to make such recommendations for the improvement of our own—this was the first and foremost recommendation: “that the concern of working for a profit or loss must not be left to the actors alone.” [0.2] The troupe leaders among them have reduced an art form to a trade, which the master carries out more or less perfunctorily or self-servingly, depending on the degree to which his customers — his buyers — promise him basic necessities or luxury.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Even if nothing more has occurred here, than that a society of Friends of the Theater has put itself to the task and committed itself to work on a plan for the common good, a great deal has been achieved just by doing this.  For all of the other improvements that our theater needs will arise easily and quickly from this initial change, even with only a modest encouragement from the public.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Certainly nothing will be spared in terms of effort or money; only time will tell whether taste or discretion are lacking.  And does the public not have the power to remedy and improve whatever it might find lacking here? It needs only to come, to watch and listen, to consider and judge. Its voice will never be summarily dismissed, its judgment will always be heard with deference!

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 However, not every little fault-finder should fancy himself The Public, and someone whose expectations are disappointed needs to stop and think a bit about the nature of those expectations. Not every art lover is a connoisseur; not every person who perceives the beauty of one play or the correct performance of one actor can thereby also judge the value of all others. A person who has only a one-sided taste has no taste; but he is often the more partisan.  True taste is general and extends to beautiful things of every kind, but it does not expect more pleasure or delight from them than can be afforded by their particular nature.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 There are many steps an emergent theater must climb in order to reach the pinnacle of perfection; but a corrupted theater is of course even further removed from this height, and I greatly fear that the German theater is more of this latter sort than the former.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Thus not everything can happen all at once. But although we may not see something growing, we do, after some time, find it grown. The slowest person who never loses sight of his goal always goes faster than one who wanders around aimlessly.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 This Dramaturgy will maintain a critical register of all of the plays that will be produced, and it will follow every step that is relevant to the art of both the writer and the actor. The choice of the plays is no small thing: but choice presupposes quantity, and if masterpieces are not always produced, one can readily see where the fault lies. In the meantime it is a good thing if a mediocre play is not made out to be anything more than what it is, and the dissatisfied audience member can at the very least learn to judge from it. If we want to instill good taste in someone of sound judgment, we only need to make apparent to him why he did not like something. Certain mediocre plays must also be retained because they have certain excellent roles in which this or that actor can demonstrate his full strength. Similarly, one does not immediately reject a musical composition just because its accompanying text is wretched.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The great discernment of the drama critic lies in his ability to distinguish, whenever he feels pleasure or displeasure, to what extent that feeling should be credited to the writer or to the actor. For to rebuke one for something the other has caused is to ruin both of them. The first will be discouraged while the other becomes over-confident.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The actor in particular demands that we maintain the greatest rigor and impartiality in this regard. The vindication of the writer can be undertaken at any time; his work remains present and can be brought before our eyes time and again. But the art of the actor is transitory in its effects. His good and bad moments of performance  rush past with equal speed, and often the momentary mood of the spectator is more responsible than the actor himself for why the good or the bad left the more vivid impression.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 A beautiful figure, a captivating face, an expressive eye, a charming walk, a mellifluous tone, a melodic voice:  these are all things that are not easily expressed in words. But these are neither the only nor the greatest perfections of the actor. They are valuable gifts of nature, necessary to his profession, but they are far from sufficient for his work! He must constantly think with the writer, and when something all too human overtakes the writer, he must think for him.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 [†] We have every reason to expect many examples of this from our actors. – But I do not want to raise the audience’s expectations any higher. Both he who promises too much, and he who expects too much does himself harm.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Today marks the opening of the theater. The opening will determine much, but it should not determine everything. In the first few days there will no doubt be a crossing of opinions. It will take effort to achieve a sedate hearing. – For this reason the first installment of this publication will not appear before the beginning of next month.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Hamburg, April 22, 1767

  • 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0
  • [0.1] “This publication” refers to the gazette distributed at the opening of the theatre on 22 April 1767, not to the edition of collected essays published in 1769.
  • [0.2] Johann Elias Schegel (1719-1749), early 18th-century playwright and theater theorist.  The quote is from his “Schreiben von Errichtung eines Theaters in Kopenhagen” (“Writings on the Establishment of a Theater in Copenhagen”). Lessing both misattributes the quote to Schlegel’s “Gedanken zur Aufnahme des dänischen Theaters” (“Thoughts on the Improvement of the Danish Theater”) and misquotes the passage.  The original translates:  “The reason that there has yet been no continuously existing local theater here seems to be this:  that previously the concern of working for their own profit and loss was left to the actors themselves” Werke 3:252. Cf. Eaton (30-88), Robertson (24).
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages excised by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/notice/