Amphytrion

   by Heinrich von Kleist.
   Premiered 1899. Kleist completed his "comedy based on Molière" in 1807, and it was published that year; the delay before its premiere at the Neues Theater in Berlin nine decades later is due in part to the fact that Kleist's blank-verse treatment of the Amphytrion material has little resemblance to Molière's and indeed is not a comedy as Kleist claimed. It is instead a brilliant extrapolation on the comic device of mistaken identity.
   Kleist follows the Amphytrion legend, in which Zeus seduced and impregnated Amphytrion's wife Alcmene while her husband was on a military campaign. Zeus disguised himself as Amphytrion, and Alcmene gave birth to twin sons: one was Hercules, the son of Zeus; the other was Amphytrion's legitimate issue Iphicles. Al-cmene's failure to recognize Zeus's ploy has comic potential, but Kleist does not exploit it. Zeus's failure to seduce her on his own terms, i.e., as the ruler of the gods, is likewise theatrically effective but not comic. The truly comic is present in the confusion that engulfs Amphytrion's sergeant-at-arms Sosias when he finds himself the servant of two masters, and then he must confront the disguised Mercury as himself.
   Kleist's "comedy" led to several treatments subsequent to the 1899 premiere; the most well known is Jean Giraudoux's Amphytrion 38, which the French playwright claimed was the 38th dramatic version of the material. American Samuel Nathan Behrman (1893-1973) also wrote a comedy on the material, and so did German playwright Peter Hacks, whose blank-verse version enjoyed some popularity after its 1968 premiere in Göttingen. The best treatment of them all is the 1986 Off-Broadway musical Olympus on My Mind, with book and lyrics based on Kleist's play by Barry Harman and music by Grant Sturiale.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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