Romanticism

   The romantic strain in German theater and drama was a multifaceted thing, with manifestations in drama, performance, and theory. It was initially apparent in the plays of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement, which involved a conscious rejection of neoclassicism and an equally deliberate embrace of emotional excess and unrestrained lyricism. That movement was finished by the 1780s, but its effects remained in the thinking and publications of several playwrights, directors, and theorists. Most significant among the theorists were the brothers August Wilhelm Schlegel and Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829). Friedrich laid out theoretical groundwork for the desired characteristics of Romantic drama in the late 1790s; August Wilhelm addressed himself specifically to German drama in his Vienna Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature in 1808. In that volume, Schlegel echoed Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling (1775-1854) in his call for an intentionally mixed tragic-comic genre.
   August Wilhelm Schlegel's most significant contribution to German Romanticism was his advocacy of William Shakespeare— though one must also note his admiration for the irrationality he found in the work of Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681). Ludwig Tieck was Schlegel's most well-known collaborator on the translations of Shakespeare (though Tieck was personally responsible for only one translation), but Tieck was among the most significant Romanticists in German theater practice. His Kaiser Octavianus (Emperor Octavianus, 1804) was among the first programmatic Romantic plays, with various verse forms, alternating tragic and comic episodes, and a loosely connected plot set in several European cities. It became a model for subsequent efforts by lyric poets such as Achim von Arnim (1781-1831) and Josef von Eichendorff (1788-1857) when they tried their hands at playwriting. Tieck's most successful play was the comedy Der gestiefelte Kater(Puss-in-Boots, 1797), which featured all manner of theatrical conventions in addition to varied verse forms. Actors, audience, a playwright, a stage technician, the tomcat Hinze, and even a revived Hanswurst take turns puncturing theatrical illusion. Tieck's Das Leben und Tod der heiligen Genoveva (The Life and Death of St. Genevieve, 1799) concentrates on the suffering of a medieval saint, though Tieck again employed a wide variety of meter and verse.
   Johann Wolfgang Goethe's contributions to German Romanticism were also significant. Many critics attribute to his novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Weither, 1795) an influence that far overshadows the worth of the novel itself. As an exercise in sentimentality, it made Goethe famous far beyond the borders of Germany. Napoleon claimed to have read the novel seven times and made a point of visiting Goethe in 1808 to discuss it with him. The success of that book led some writers to employ some features of it in dramatic form, resulting in something called the Schicksalstragödie ("fate tragedy"). In Der vierundzwangzigste Februar (The 24th of February), written in 1806 by Zacharias Werner (1768-1823), a curse visits members of a family in a series of unfortunate events that take place on 24 February over a period of years. Many others like it featured an individual fated to suffer; many cite Friedrich Schiller's Die Braut von Messina (The Bride of Messina) as one, and Franz Grillparzer's Die Ahnfrau (The Ancestress) is widely acknowledged as another.
   Many consider Heinrich von Kleist the greatest of Romantic playwrights, though he eschewed any programmatic Romanticism approach in his work. His tragedies and comedies, however, manifest many Romantic benchmarks. Prinz Friedrich von Homburg (The Prince of Homburg, 1811) features a hero whose suffering is certainly obvious, though Kleist's mastery of verse allows Prince Friedrich to transcend the sentimentality of Werther-like preoccupations with self. Prince Friedrich is nevertheless fated to fulfill his Prussian duty. In a Romantic vein similar to Tieck's St. Genevieve, Kleist's Käthchen von Heilbronn (Kathy of Heilbronn, 1810) features a background of medieval splendor replete with angels, courts, castles, and emperors.
   Tieck was a gifted director, but the most accomplished director of German theatrical Romanticism was probably August Wilhelm If-fland, who not only premiered many of the Schlegel translations of Shakespeare but also presented productions of Schiller's plays in a splendor that was as elaborate as it was unprecedented. Iffland's productions of Kleist and August von Kotzebue were no less splendid, often featuring enormously large casts and orchestral music he had commissioned to accompany the proceedings.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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