Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich

(1759-1805)
   Playwright, drama theorist. Schiller's plays remain among the most widely performed in the German theater, most of them enjoying acceptance and popularity ever since their first performances. They bespeak Schiller's towering stature in the German theater, second only to that of Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Schiller is an altogether different personality, however, and his ideas about the nature of theater and its purpose within German social structures have had a wider influence than Goethe's.
   Schiller grew up in a military family and was sent to a military school in Stuttgart. By age 20, he had become an army physician. A year later he published Die Räuber (The Robbers), a play he had written while still a school pupil; Wolfgang Heribert von Dalberg premiered it in Mannheim in January 1782, and it became a nationwide hit of immense proportions. The Robbers represented the final impassioned exclamation of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement, though Schiller at the time had no direct contact with Goethe or other Storm and Stress playwrights. The Robbers is, however, the best of such plays and has remained popular in German repertoires for more than two centuries. Schiller went absent without leave to attend the play's premiere and was arrested. He returned to Stuttgart and began writing Fiesko, but he soon left army life for good and returned to Mannheim, this time to an estate where he hid from authorities and wrote Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love) and Don Carlos. These plays fully established Schiller as a significant figure in the German theater. Intrigue and Love did not gain immediate popular acceptance, but audiences soon realized it was a stunning indictment of aristocracy's misuse of inherited privilege. Don Carlos shares a similar historical background to Goethe's Egmont, namely, the Spanish occupation of the Low Countries (present-day Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium). It is a verse tragedy, however, though like Egmont it combines personal passions and large political predicaments.
   Schiller was intensely interested in European history and wrote a long narrative on the Spanish occupation, which helped him secure an adjunct professorship at the University of Jena. While in Jena, he wrote a popular history of the Thirty Years' War. In 1791 two Danish-German noblemen awarded him a generous lifetime pension, enabling him to work on lengthy theoretical treatises on the ideas of Immanuel Kant and to complete four major plays. Schiller used Kant's ideas to explain his own writing of tragedy and in so doing proved himself a remarkable thinker. His explications are extremely elaborate, yet they reveal a startling currency in his appraisal of modern man's moral obligation to choose appropriate action. Like a precursor to existentialism, Schiller advocated an unencumbered consciousness for the realization of man's full potential. He linked concepts such as liberty, morality, Nature, sublime, passion, and suffering in a systematic way to explain what actually happens both on stage and within the audience during performance. The theater, Schiller asserted, "teaches men to bear the strokes of fortune," giving audiences momentary pain at the sight of others' predicaments; in compensation, it provides a broader understanding of courage and endurance. Like Kant, Schiller insisted that there is within the human being an inherent moral sense to which tragedy appeals. It not only appeals to this sense but flatters it and gives satisfaction to the instinct of happiness "in the accomplishment of moral laws" by providing a means for the mind to focus on its own inherent moral sense. Theater is the only art form capable of accomplishing this task, according to Schiller, and it is thus a "moral institution," deserving—indeed requiring—state support in every phase of its creation.
   Such theoretical musings prepared Schiller for the last and most significant phase of his playwriting career. His late works combine philosophical complexity, fateful national conflict, and compelling blank verse to present climactic moments in a nation's history. The first of them were the Wallenstein plays: Wallensteins Lager (Wallenstein 's Camp), written in rhymed couplets and first staged in 1797; Die Piccolomini (The Piccolominis, 1799); and Wallensteins Tod (Wallenstein's Death, 1799). They depicted the catastrophic effects of the Thirty Years' War on the German nation. Though written in three separate parts and sometimes called the Wallenstein Trilogy, the cycle actually consists of a one-act prologue and two five-act plays. In toto, they treat the figure of Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein, who had it in his power to forge German unity, but who tragically overestimated his own capacities and relied heavily upon astrological predictions, resulting in the destruction of all hopes for unity. In Maria Stuart (1800), Schiller presented English history at a juncture when the forces of Catholicism and Protestantism confronted each other in a fictional yet dramatic meeting between Mary
   Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I. In Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid ofOrieans, 1801), Schiller presented French history at its turning point, when royal power became central to the emergence of a unified French state. In Wilhelm Tell (William Tell, 1804), Schiller treated the struggle for Swiss independence and the revolt of Swiss foresters against their Habsburg overlords, including Tell's assassination of a tyrannical Austrian governor.
   Goethe premiered Schiller's late plays in Weimar, but August Wilhelm Iffland gave them their first forceful and elaborate stagings in Berlin. Schiller's plays have fared better than Goethe's and have been far more numerous in production to the present day. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, nearly every theater in the German-speaking world featured at least one Schiller play in its repertoire every season. Schiller's plays have also been more frequently adapted as operas than perhaps any other German playwright's, with Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Rossini's Guglielmo Tell, along with Verdi's Don Carlo and Luisa Miller, among the most well-known examples.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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