Goethe, Johann Wolfgang

   Playwright, director. Goethe bestrides the German theater like a colossus, not only because his plays possess a high dramatic quality, remain frequently produced, and are the subject of intense, ongoing scholarly inquiry but also because his work as a director marks Goethe as an extraordinary figure in German culture as a whole. His long life, the enormous variety of his activities and interests, the magnitude of his artistic output, and the poetic record of his numerous tempestuous affairs with notable women have all contributed to his near-legendary status.
   Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main to a wealthy family who educated him at home. He attended the universities of Leipzig and Strasbourg, earning a law degree at the latter institution. His interests in the theater began as a child, attending performances with his parents. His first success as a playwright came with Götz von Berlichin-gen, published in 1773 and first performed in 1774. It established his playwriting career and his leadership of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement among young playwrights who wanted to both imitate Shakespeare and rid the German theater of French neoclassical vestiges.
   The quality of Goethe's subsequent plays was uneven, with only Clavigo (1774) and Stella (1776) enjoying much success. Goethe subtitled Stella "A Drama for Lovers" and its characters manifest proclivities for intense passion similar to those in Clavigo. The plays' passionate characters probably explain their popularity among German audiences in the 1770s and 1780s. At the same time, Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) was an unambiguous success throughout Europe in many translations. It solidified his reputation as Germany's most extraordinary writer. Goethe continued writing plays, but he often let them "digest" in his mind for years after he started work on them. A good example is Egmont, which he began in 1775 and worked on intermittently for the next dozen years. It finally premiered in 1791.
   Many of his works remain fragmentary, perhaps because in 1775 he accepted an invitation from the 18-year-old Duke Karl-August of Saxony-Weimar to become an official at the Weimar court. Goethe directed amateur theatricals at the Weimar ducal theater (and even appeared as an actor on occasion), but his most important assignment was to serve as the duke's chief courtier. Karl-August raised him to the aristocracy in 1782, allowing him to add "von" to his name.
   Only when he departed for a two-year sojourn to Italy in 1786 was Goethe able to concentrate fully on playwriting. The results were reworkings of Iphigenie auf Tauris and several other plays.
   When Goethe returned to Weimar in 1788, however, he had changed his outlook from Sturm und Drang to a conviction that embraced a kind of "classicism" based on restraint, harmony, and balance. He attempted to put that classical viewpoint into action when he became director of a professional troupe Duke KarlAugust had established at what became the Weimar Court Theater in 1791. Goethe remained the theater's director for the next 26 years, though his most significant efforts there were his stagings of Friedrich Schiller's late plays in their world premieres. Goethe and Schiller had known each other previously when Schiller had briefly lived in Weimar from 1788 to 1789. Schiller had then moved to the nearby university town of Jena, where with Goethe's help he was appointed to an adjunct professorship in history. By 1794 Goethe and Schiller had established a close friendship, and in 1799 Schiller moved back to Weimar. Between 1799 and Schiller's death in 1805, Goethe turned the Weimar Court Theater into one of the country's most celebrated.
   The "classicism" Goethe favored as a theater director had little to do with classical Greek drama and even less with the staging of works by ancient Greek playwrights. Instead he was concerned with a clarity in performance that enabled audiences to see more distinctly the implications of significant patterns of action taking place on the stage. "The actor must realize that he should not only imitate Nature," he wrote in Rules for Actors, but also "present it in an idealized form, thereby uniting the true with the beautiful in his performance." Goethe also laid down other rules for actors aimed at eliminating discrepancies in proper enunciation, regionalisms in pronunciation, and idiosyncrasies in movement. Most humorously, in "Avoiding Bad Habits," he wrote: "The actor should never allow his handkerchief to be seen on stage, still less should he blow his nose in it, still less spit in it. It is disgusting for audiences to be reminded of such bodily functions in a work of art." He insisted on disciplined rehearsals, especially for his Schiller stagings, beginning in 1798 with Schiller's Wallenstein Trilogy.
   With his concern for clarity, Goethe moved vigorously against contemporary currents in staging for the German theater—currents he had helped set in motion. At the same time, Goethe realized that the kinds of plays he favored, and the stagings for them he preferred, would attract few paying customers to Weimar, his fame and Schiller's notwithstanding. He therefore did several stagings of popular fare by August von Kotzebue and August Wilhelm Iffland, along with musical offerings of operas, operettas, and Singspiele. Kotzebue was by far the most frequently performed playwright in Weimar under Goethe. Goethe's acquiescence to popular taste had its limits, however: he resigned his post when a touring company was scheduled to perform an adaptation of a French melodrama that featured a talented dog in the leading role. Goethe felt that a dog onstage—especially in a leading role—was a violation of everything he stood for.
   Goethe used the additional time he then enjoyed to complete what many consider his masterpiece, Faust. The first performance of sections of Faust, Part 1 took place in 1819 at an aristocrat's private theater in Berlin, and its first complete performance was staged by August Ernst Klingemann in Braunschweig in 1829. That production toured to several cities to widespread acclaim. Goethe staged a version of it himself in Weimar in 1829 on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He completed Faust, Part 2 in 1831, but forbade its performance until after his death; its first complete performance had to wait until 1854 in Hamburg. The first complete performance of both parts of Faust together did not take place until 1875, in Weimar.
   Goethe worked on the two parts of Faust intermittently for a period of 60 years, and it was a culmination of all the ideas that had intrigued or occupied him during those six decades. The play has since gained an exalted status as one of the great works of Western civilization, in many ways the ultimate expression of anything possible in the theater. It has natural and supernatural characters, episodes from the Trojan War, interplanetary travel, in vitro fertilization, and locations that range from Faust's study to the throne of Heaven. Several German actors have reached the pinnacle of their careers by placing their individual stamp on the role of Mephisto. The most famous performances of Mephisto in the 19th century were by Karl Seydel-mann and later by Bogumil Dawison. The most riveting Mephisto of the 20th century was Gustaf Gründgens, who began performing it in 1932 and continued playing the role until his death 31 years later.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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