Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim

   Playwright, dramaturg, theorist. Lessing was a pastor's son who became the German theater's most accomplished playwright and critic during the mid-18th century. His influence and accomplishments were so substantial that he almost single-handedly raised German drama and criticism from its previously insular and parochial status to one of European distinction. Lessing's plays were instrumental in establishing the cultural legitimacy of troupes for which he wrote, especially Konrad Ernst Ackermann's. Ackermann premiered Lessing's first big hit, Miss Sara Sampson in 1755; other successful vehicles for German troupes followed, most notably Minna von Barnhelm in 1762 and Emilia Galotti in 1772. These three plays, along with the dramatic poem Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise, 1779), have remained among the most frequently performed in German repertoires since the 18th century.
   Lessing first attracted attention as an Enlightenment thinker when he began working for a Berlin newspaper in 1748 and in the process made Voltaire's acquaintance in Potsdam at the court of Frederick the Great. Lessing was then formulating ideas about rejecting French influence on German theatrical activity, however; instrumental in that formulation was a rereading of Aristotle and a rediscovery of English theater, particularly its applicability to the needs of the Germans. While Lessing agreed with Johann Christoph Gottsched about the need for a "national" theater, Lessing felt that English development of the "domestic tragedy," for example, Lillo's The London Merchant, was most suitable for German audiences. His treatment of the Medea plot and character material, transforming it into the domestic tragedy that became Miss Sara Sampson, was a new departure for the German theater. It was not only enormously popular with audiences throughout German-speaking Europe but also provided career-shaping roles for actors and actresses. Miss Sara Sampson initiated Less-ing's involvement with the Ackermann troupe, one that continued through the foundation of the Hamburg National Theater in 1767.
   In Hamburg, Lessing served as the first dramaturg, writing a series of essays that eventually became the Hamburgische Dramaturgie (Hamburg Dramaturgy). In it, Lessing poses a number of questions about what kind of theater the Germans should be developing—and in the process made a complete break with Voltaire. He concludes that Shakespeare's "play-world" was more authentic than anything the neoclassical strictures could provide. Acknowledging that reason tells us that ghosts do not exist, Shakespeare carefully re-creates all the conditions in which we normally expect ghosts to appear. In Shakespeare's world, the spectator furthermore experiences the inner worlds of characters, thus expanding the spectator's understanding of the world outside himself. Rejecting the neoclassical unity of time, he stated that time's passage is irrelevant to a character's actions: even in "small" actions, he noted, character can be revealed—and that is the real test of great drama, he says. The names of princes and kings lend majesty to a play, he notes, but if we pity kings, we pity them as human beings. Though their positions make their troubles more important, their social or political status does not make them more interesting. Whole states and nations may be involved, but "state" or "nation" is far too abstract to "touch our feelings." On the unity of place, Lessing felt it was all a matter of geographical literacy on the part of the audience. "Discrepancies can only be observed by those who know the distance of the locality . . . [but] not everybody knows geographical distances . . . [while] everybody knows if the distances just don't feel right" (Lessing, Kritik und Dramaturgie [Stuttgart: Reclam, 1967], 63). In these and similar deliberations, Lessing was obviously addressing his concerns to a specifically German audience and its capacity to discern significance in dramatic performance.
   Lessing had a remarkable intellect, capable of complex theoretical musings such as the above, found also in Laokoön (1766), a discussion of "the limits of painting and poetry." As such, Laokoön was among the first large-scale explorations of aesthetics in German. His Nathan the Wise was the first play in German to use iambic pentameter; it was a plea for religious tolerance that was published posthumously.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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  • LESSING, GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM° — (1729–1781), German dramatist, philosopher, and critic. One of the outstanding representatives of the Enlightenment in Germany, Lessing was   devoted to the principle of toleration. One of Lessing s earliest literary ventures was Die Juden (1749) …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim — Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, einer unserer größten Dichter und Prosaisten, ein Genius, auf welchen die deutsche Nation stolz zu sein Ursache hat. Sein Riesengeist überflügelte seine Zeit und er gab der Literatur eine Richtung, die national wurde,… …   Damen Conversations Lexikon

  • Lessing,Gotthold Ephraim — Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. 1729 1781. German playwright and critic. A leader of the Enlightenment, he wrote the plays Minna von Barnheim (1763) and Nathan the Wise (1779). * * * …   Universalium

  • Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim — born Jan. 22, 1729, Kamenz, Upper Lusatia, Saxony died Feb. 15, 1781, Braunschweig, Brunswick German playwright and critic. After writing several light comedies, he became a theatre critic in Berlin in 1748. His play Miss Sara Sampson (1755) was… …   Universalium

  • Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim — (1729–81)    Dramatist and Theologian.    Lessing was the son of a Lutheran pastor and was born in Saxony. He became a wellknown literary critic and playwright and was regarded as a leading figure of the German Enlightenment. A personal friend of …   Who’s Who in Christianity

  • Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim — (1729–81)    German advocate of religious toleration. Lessing was a poet, critic, dramatist and philosopher, and one of the leading figures in the German enlightenment. At the beginning and again at the end of his career he wrote pro Jewish… …   Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament

  • Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim — (22 ene. 1729, Kamenz, Lusatia Alta, Sajonia–15 feb. 1781, Braunschweig, Brunswick). Dramaturgo y crítico alemán. Después de escribir varias comedias ligeras, se dedicó a la crítica teatral en Berlín en 1748. Su obra Sara Sampson (1755) fue la… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • LESSING, GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM —    a German author, and founder of modern German literature, born at Kamenz, Saxony, son of the pastor there; sent to study theology at Leipzig, studied hard; conceived a passion for the stage; wrote plays and did criticisms; wrote an essay on… …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

  • LESSING, Gotthold Ephraim — (1729 1781)    German ENLIGHTENMENT PHILOSOPHER, publicist, playwright, critic, and art theorist. He worked for the free and democratic development of the German people and their CULTURE and was highly critical of the possibility of HISTORICAL… …   Concise dictionary of Religion

  • Gotthold Ephraim Lessing — Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Gemälde von Anton Graff (1771) …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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