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ON THE GERMAN DRAMA.
WHEN the German Drama is mentioned, the mind is immediately filled with images of vehement passion, touching sensibility, elevated and tender sentiments, strikingly diversified character, agonizing distress, electrifying coups de theatre, and interesting incidents wrought into complicated and mysterious fable; all carried to just that pitch of extravagance, which, even whilst it offends the critical taste, irresistibly fascinates the imagination. Such was the German drama when it first became known in this country, but such it is no longer. Of late years either the above enumerated constituents of tragedy have been systematically rejected, or if they have been admitted, they have been so skilfully compounded as to produce a result very different from what might have been anticipated. A change so extraordinary and sudden may render it well worth our while to bestow some pages upon the Teutonic Melpomene.
Of the style of tragedy usually meant to be designated by the name German Drama, the finest specimen is, we believe, the celebrated "Robbers" of Schiller. This piece is so generally known that it is unnecessary for us to enter into any details respecting it; and it is perhaps equally a work of supererogation to mention the impression it made upon the apparently very susceptible youth of Germany, which was such, that the active interference of government became requisite to prevent a whole university's being organized into troops of banditti. The singular susceptibility displayed upon this occasion might possibly depend upon some peculiarities of disposition, not to be understood without such an investigation of the whole constitution of German society, as might, we suspect, prove a task of some difficulty, besides that it would lead us too far from the purpose of this paper. Or possibly we may be indebted for our exemption from such fearfully felonious influences solely and simply to the circumstance of our being acquainted with "Die Räuber" only in the retirement of our closets, and never having had our imaginations stimulated by the intoxicating effect of theatrical representation, by the exertion of every effort of histrionic skill to heighten the splendour of Karl Moor, a hero who appears to be driven into crime by the very excess of his virtues, combined with his deficiency in the single, and to youth uninteresting, quality of common sense; a splendour that derives increased brilliancy from its contrast to the cold, sophistically calculating vice of Franz Moor, and the weakness of the old father, as well as from the devoted affection with which, even in the depth of his guilt and infamy, he still inspires the tenderly impassioned Amalie. Leaving this question undecided, we will merely observe, that although for some unexplained reason Schiller chose to write this play in prose, probably from a wish of deepening its pathos by adhering more closely to nature, it bears throughout, in story, situation, character, and sentiment, as well as in language, indubitable proofs of its being the production of a poet, and of a poet endowed with no ordinary powers.
The "Kabale und Liebe" of the same author is equally familiar to the English reader, who has been presented with two versions of it under the different titles of" Cabal and Love," and "The Minister." This is a piece of humbler pretensions, though it holds a high, if not
the highest rank amongst Domestic Tragedies. Its colouring is of a lower tone. That part of the poetry of the drama which springs from the external circumstances and manner of life of its personages, is here wholly wanting; instead of baronial castles, ruined towers, and the caverns of banditti, we are introduced into the cabinets of prime ministers, the boudoirs of royal mistresses, and the parlours of music-masters. Still, notwithstanding this very prosaic locality, the high, chivalrous character of Ferdinand, who has preserved himself untainted amidst the atmosphere of court intrigue that surrounds him, the purity and simplicity of Louisa, and the wild loftiness of feeling that almost redeems the shame of the guilty Lady Milford, breathe a strain of poetry over the whole, amply atoning for all other deficiencies.
But the business of writing for the stage fell into inferior hands; and if we trace the progress, or rather the decline of the German drama in the works of Kotzebue and Iffland, without extending our researches over a wider field, we shall probably discover the cause of the violent re-action that has occurred.
Kotzebue wrote a few regular tragedies and comedies, but by far the larger part of his innumerable volumes consists of domestic tragedies and romantic plays, if we may be allowed to adopt this German term of art for pieces of the nature of "The Robbers." Under these two last heads we include, indiscriminately, dramas in which there are, or are not, any deaths; inasmuch as that single circumstance can hardly be thought sufficient to make any essential difference in the character of plays otherwise essentially similar, though in point of fact it does form the sole distinction between the French drame and the domestic tragedy. Neither our author's regular tragedies in blank verse, with an occasional intermixture of dactyls and spondees, nor his comedies, would have gained him much celebrity in his own country, certainly none out of it: it was as a writer of romantic plays and domestic tragedies that he acquired his reputation, and it is as such only that we have to consider him. If upon this ground we proceed to compare him with Schiller, we shall find that by him every point enumerated in our first sentence as constituents of what is commonly meant by the German Drama, is more strongly and more coarsely marked, more glaringly coloured; so that, although the intensity of his distresses, his dangers, and his passions, seizes for the moment powerfully upon the affections, the agitation of interest no sooner subsides, than the mind, unless very juvenile indeed, is revolted by the extravagance and incongruity of what the instant before commanded tears. To prove this charge it would only be needful to analyze some of this author's pieces; but so many of them are intimately known as well to every visitor of the theatre, as to every lover of works of fiction, that we hold it sufficient, instead of thus swelling our pages and our labours, to refer our readers to Pizarro," "The Stranger," "The Virgin of the Sun," "Count Benyowsky," "Lovers' Vows," &c. &c.
Shall we seek the cause of this exaggeration in the necessity under which the authors of plays of this kind lie, to encherir upon each other, in order to excite afresh an appetite partially blunted as well as cloyed? Or shall we give its explanation in a word, by boldly asserting that Kotzebue, despite his blank verse and his hexameters, was no poet, while to these two species of dramatic composition poetry is indispen
sable? This last part of our position demands a few additional words. That poetry is indispensable to the romantic play, we apprehend no one will dispute. It is in truth its life-blood, its vivifying principle. The romantic play is by its very essence removed far beyond common existence, and requires the music of the enchanting shell' to harmonize its parts and proportions; besides, ere we can enter heart and soul into scenes so remote from our habitual sympathies and experience, our fancy, our sensibility, in short our whole intellectual nature, must be raised to a degree of excitement which can be attained only by the action of the master-spell of the bard. The spirit of poetry seems congenial with all that is beyond our knowledge; when improbabilities are presented to us in a humbler form, we can perceive merely their absurdity. But domestic tragedy, it may be said, professedly confines its representations to calamities of daily occurrence, to scenes in which poetry can neither be required nor admitted. It is because domestic tragedy exhibits to us those naked and familiar misfortunes to which we are all hourly liable, that it requires, not the forms-they would counteract the purpose of fidelity to nature-but the spirit of poetry, to relieve by its innate loveliness emotions so bitterly and purely painful, as to be probably only endured from an idea that so much suffering must strengthen the impression of the moral lesson such performances are for the most part intended to convey.
If we now descend to Iffland, we shall be tempted to suspect that this author, together with some others of his less noted and less fertile contemporaries, was trying experiments upon the quantity of unmixed pain which human beings would be contented to bear and call pleasure. We believe his writings are wholly unknown to the British public, and we imagine that no translator is likely to be found hardy enough voluntarily to encounter the misery of confining his fancy amidst such depressing sorrows. We are ourselves already impatient to escape from their recollection, and will endeavour to be as brief as possible in explaining his scheme of tragedy. Embarrassed circumstances constitute his usual source of distress, and to these he delights to superadd such other pressure as may, by a refinement of torture, drive the most honourable spirits to seek relief not only in guilt but in baseWhen he sometimes quits this favourite subject, he either involves honourable men connected with government in disgrace and apparent criminality, through the machinations of the meanest hangerson upon a court, or he obliges parents, in the discharge of their official duties, to break the hearts of their own children. One or two examples will afford sufficient illustration. In one piece the son of a sort of Receiver-general of taxes plays deep at the house of a young lady of rank and fortune, with whom he is desperately in love, and incurs enormous debts. The discharge of one of them, a debt of honour due to his high-born rival, is demanded upon the very day when he expects to obtain the lady's consent. Its non-payment would infallibly ruin all his hopes, his family resources he has drained, he is irritated by taunts touching plebeian honour, and he privately takes the requisite sum out of his father's tax-chest. The defalcation in the father's accounts is discovered by the Superior Commissioner,' and the whole family are overwhelmed with infamy and ruin beyond redemption. We use this expression, notwithstanding the Superior Commissioner,' after an
act or two, during which we expect to see them all die every minute, charitably manages to hush up the affair in the last scene, as the poor old 'Receiver-general' is evidently left upon his death-bed.—In another, the proofs that the son of a War Counsellor' has been guilty of something very wrong concerning official money, fell into the hands of a wicked Commissary' whom the War Counsellor' is prosecuting for fraud and peculation. As no threats can shake the old man in his public duty, meins are found to dishonour him in the Prince's opinion. The plot is luckily detected in the last act by the Commissary's' indiscreetly offering a bribe to an honest Lord of the Bedchamber,' and the Prince and his War Counsellor' are tenderly reconciled: but the son meanwhile blows his brains out, and the curtain falls upon the Prince's fruitless endeavours to console the wretched father.-Lastly, in a tragedy in his more dignified style, the daughter of the Commander of a besieged town imprudently induces her lover, one of the officers, to leave his post, which he conceives to be for the time secure, to attempt to save her from a forced marriage. The post is surprised and taken in his absence. He is tried and condemned to death. The old General orders his execution, and comforts his daughter with the assurance that she will not long outlive him. When the curtain drops, the lover is led to execution; the father is summoned to head an attack, in which he hopes and means to be killed, and the lady drops down, we know not whether fainting or dead.
Such was the state of the stage in Germany soon after some of the mightiest minds the country could boast had introduced the romantic play and domestic tragedy, owing probably to both the above-mentioned causes, want of poetic genius in the authors, and the necessity of outvying each other in wildness or depth of interest. How Schiller felt this degradation of his art, he has himself told us in a little poem called SHAKSPEARE'S SHADE. In this he represents himself as visiting the Infernal Regions to question Tiresias respecting the ancient buskin. He meets Shakspeare, who makes inquiries into the state of the drama in Germany, some of which, we think, might have come more naturally from Corneille. We will give our readers the few lines that mark the writer's strong reprobation of the then prevailing manner; and as the poem is in the classical elegiac measure, shall content ourselves with translating it into blank verse. It is a dialogue, and Shakspeare asks, "You then admit Thalia's sportive dance,
Beside Melpomene's sad solemn gait?"
And proper household griefs to touch our hearts."
What, then, is Cæsar banished from your stage,
"Pshaw! We like Curates, Common Councilmen,
"How? They cabal, lend money upon pawn,
"Where find you then that great gigantic Fate
By which our kind 's exalted even when crush'd ?”
"That's nonsense: our good neighbours, and ourselves
We seek, with all our troubles and distress."
"That you have more conveniently at home,
Why come you thence if you seek nothing else?"
The disgust and aversion here expressed for the then popular style of theatrical composition, probably excited in Schiller a warmer admiration for the ancient tragedians, than he entertained when he wrote "Die Räuber" and "Kabale und Liebe." He accordingly applied himself diligently to study the spirit of classical Tragedy, and the prinWith respect to the latter subject of his investiciples of Esthetic. gations, our readers will probably expect that we should afford them some explanation, but we trust they will not require it to be actually full and satisfactory, inasmuch as we must confess that we do not very well understand it ourselves. What we do know about the matter shall be faithfully imparted to them. The word aesthetic appears to have been taken from the Greek aloŋois, and it is used by some metaphysical writers, particularly by Kant, according to its original meaning, to denote sensible perception. Schiller, and other authors of the same class, with their followers, employ it to express scientifically and theoretically whatever relates to taste and the fine arts; perhaps having first naturally applied it to painting and statuary, and thence extended it, half metaphorically, to poetry and belles lettres in general. And this is really all we can venture to say explanatory of asthetic, with any confidence that we are not misleading our readers. We sincerely wish it may enable them to comprehend the statement we are about to give of Schiller's new opinions. In the course of these combined classical and asthetische studies, Schiller discovered extraordinary analogies between tragedy and statuary; he satisfied himself that the nature of the former was essentially plastic; and he logically concluded, that the one ought no more to agitate the mind and feelings than the other; that we ought to witness the representation of a tragedy as composedly as we gaze upon the Laocoon. We will now proceed to what will, we hope, prove rather more intelligible and interesting-the effect produced upon his plays by this system.
The first apparent consequence might have been hailed as a decided improvement by every lover of gorgeous Tragedy.' He adopted blank verse, and chose a loftier theme. His "Don Carlos," though inferior in passion and interest to his former productions, was still rich in both, and in every other respect far superior to its predecessors. But we have not leisure to trace the progressive influence of his new doctrines, in the progressively diminishing fire and pathos of "Wallenstein,' ," "Maria Stuart," &c. and will at once present their highest result to our readers, in "Die Braüt von Messina," or the Bride of Messina. This Tragedy is written as nearly upon the model of the ancients as the author seems to have thought compatible with modern history and manners. Its fable is founded upon the decrees of Fate, foretold It is provided by dreams and soothsayers, and originating in a curse. with a chorus, which, when not actively engaged in the business of the scene, moralizes poetically upon all that is passing, and indeed upon life in general; and the chief characters occasionally quit their regular blank verse, to take part in the lyrical strains of the chorus. This sounds most classical; but Moreover it is not broken into acts.
there are points of deviation. The scene sometimes changes, and the chorus frequently leaves the stage; but the great difference is in the chorus itself, which, instead of displaying the wonderful unanimity of its prototype, where all the separate heads literally appeared to think