The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
by Elsa D'Esterre-Kelling
IX. THE COMMENCEMENT OF GERMAN DRAMA AND ITS DEVELOPMENT.
The history of German drama in its commencement is the same as the history of English drama. The Church in both cases is the first theatre, the priests are the first actors, and the first stories dramatised are Bible-stories. The dramatised Bible-stories are followed by dramatised legends, and these by dramatised allegories; in other words, we have, first miracles, then misteries,* then moralities.
The name kirchliche Spiele, ecclesiastical plays, covers all these species of early drama. They first came into vogue about the year 1300, and, from being performed at Christmas, in Passion week, and at Easter, have some to be divided into Weihnachtsspiele, Passionspiele and Osterspiele. They were originally composed and spoken in Latin, but by degrees German words and phrases found their way into the dialogue, and finally the vernacular language carried the day. Yet another thing. They were at first serious and impressive, but gradually here a sneer and there a jest crept in, till finally most of the earnestness vanished and the ecclesiastical plays became mere farces.
Among the best of them are three, each of which is named after the place in which it was first acted. "Das eisenacher Spiel von den zehn Jungfrauen" (the Eisenach Play of the Ten Virgins), "Das alsfelder Passionspiel" (the Passion Play of Alsfeld), "Das innsbrucker Osterspiel" (the Easter Play of Innsbruck).
Eisenach, as everyone knows, is the pretty town in Saxe-Weimar, so famous in connection with Martin Luther. Quite close to it is the Castle of the Wartburg. A very fitting town this for the performance of a "geistliches Spiel" (spiritual play), and never did the performance of any play effect aught more strange than did that of the play of the "Ten Virgins" at Eisenach. The Margrave of Meissen presided at it, and was so filled with pity for the foolish virgins that he was borne away from the spectacle a sick man, and never recovered.
The Passion Play of Alsfeld takes us to the so-called Hessian garner (hessische KornkammerWink, that is the valley of the Schwalm or "schwalmer Grund," one of the prettiest and most fertile spots in Germany. In this Passion Play we are given a curious glimpse of Mary Magdalene, prior to her conversion, with not a thought except for dress and dancing. She has just danced till her partner stops quite out of breath. She looks at him, and then looks round the room.
"O, O Sir, O!
The Easter Play of Innsbruck is an Austrian contribution to German drama. Most tourists to the Tyrol know its pleasant capital, Innsbruck. The people there, and the Tyrolese generally, are simple, pious folk, and it is not surprising to find that the Kirchenspiel flourished in their midst.
Naturally the most beautiful character in the old ecclesiastical play is the Mother Mary. The lament which is put into her lips often approaches true poetry. Here is a quaint mother's thought (I translate from the old German):--
"Ah, thou hard and cruel tree,
A very curious early German play is that of Frau Jutten, the work of a priest, dealing with Pope Joan, and very earnest.
We are shown how a host of devils lead the Papstin* (Popess) into sin, and how she then does solemn penance.
We have come now to the year 1400 or thereabouts, at which time the Fastnachtsspiele (Shrovetide plays) came into fashion. The history of the word "Fastnacht" is not established beyond a doubt. It looks as if it meant eve of fasting, and the German priesthood upheld this notion. Kluge, however, regards the t as an intruder, and considers the first component of the word to be connected with the verb faseln, to fritter away time, to merry-make. Most certainly there was always, and is still, great merry-making in Germany at Shrovetide.
Two men are important in connection with the Fastnachtsspiele--the master-singers Rosenplut and Folz. Both of them lived at Nuremberg, where one of them was a sign-board painter and the other a barber. The plays of Rosenplut--who won for himself the name of "Der Schnepperer," which freely translated, becomes poll-parrot ** --are, typically enough, mere talk, sometimes witty, sometimes tedious, too often coarse. The name of one of them is "Des Konigs von England Hochzeit" ("The King of England's Wedding";)
The best-know play of Folz is "The Play of Wedlock as it Used to Be and Is Now" (Das Spiel von der alten und neuen EheWink.
In the sixteenth century, the time of the Reformation, German drama is still chiefly in the hands of the clergy. Paul Rebhuhn, who died in 1535, and whose "geistliche Spiele" became very popular, was a native of Berlin, who studied theology in Wittemberg, where he was the "Hausgenosse" (house-mate) of Luther. He afterwards became pastor in Oelsnitz in Saxony, and rose to be "Superintendent." *** Susanna and the Marriage of Cana are his best plays. In the first he deals, not altogether unskillfully, with the fine story of that woman who was made the victim of a false accusation, sentenced to death by the Jewish elders, and saved by Daniel, who proves her innocence and brings her slanderers to justice. A story this which lent itself to dramatic treatment.
Not so the Marriage of Cana. Here the theme is better suited for a painter than a poet, and another Paul of this same century, the Italian master, Veronese, made this marriage the subject of a superb picture. In dealing with it dramatically, Rebhuhn acted in the spirit of his time, when German dramatists aimed at the spectacular above everthing else, and their plays were what Lessing maintains that plays should be, speaking pictures.
Nikolaus Manuel, who died in 1530, the contemporary of Rebhuhn, was a painter and poet in one.* A native of Berne, he became the pupil of Holbein and Titian, preferring, it is evident, the German master, like whom he painted a "Dance of Death." A poem-companion to this picture in the sense of being equally eerie is the play of "Die Todtenfresser" (Feeders on the Dead). The burly Protestantism of Manuel is shown in his play called "The Difference between the Pope and Jesus Christ." Not only was Manuel painter and poet, but he was a clever statesman and brave soldier.
In the seventeenth century we find Germany overrun by englische Komodianten--English players. These, it is interesting for us to know, were the first professional actors who made their appearance in Germany. They introduced a new species of drama, in which the tragic and comic were mixed, not, alas, after the manner of Shakespeare, but after the manner of his worst contemporaries. The horrible was by them represented as the tragic; a clown--Hans Wurst--supplied comedy. Sometimes there was no serious element whatever in these plays, which became mere Hanswurststucke or Pickelharingspiele. This name
was one given in the beginning of the seventeenth century to comic actors, many of these being Englishmen, who had, it is maintained, brought pickled herrings with them from their island home. The Pickelharingspiele were a sad sequel to the plays of Hans Sachs and Jacob Ayrer, which, however rude in style, and here and there gross in thought, were often interesting, and showed undeniable humour. True, the cobbler were too erudite; though he did once turn a home-story--that of "Siegried of the Horned Skin"--into a play, he preferred classic myths, and did not hesitate to rush in where master-poets of ancient Greece had trodden in dealing with the story of Clytemnestra. If, however, in this work his ambition soared too high, in others he deals happily with subjects happily chosen. His "Unlike Children of Eve" is a clever comedy, and the Shrovetide-play called "Fooling" (Das NarrenschneidenWink is a good specimen of this species of drama.
To Hans Sachs' contemporary, Ayrer, we owe thanks for having introduced the Singspiel, or Song-play, which is at the beginning of German opera. He also dramatised a home-story, that of Ortnitt,* and for students of Shakespeare has an interest as the author of a play, "The Fair Sidea," in plot so resembling "The Tempest" that Tieck, the great Shakespearian scholar, considered it to have probably been derived from an old English play, now lost, the source whence Shakespeare borrowed his store. In both plays there is a magician with an only daughter and an attendant spirit, in both there is a change of fortune, the result of banishment, in both there is a "patient logman"--his name is Engelbrecht in the German play--in both the girl makes the astonishing announcement, "I am your wife if you will marry me."
If Hans Sachs, Jacob Ayrer, and their contemporaries had many faults, it must be admitted that they also had some merits. Even when their subject was not German, their manner of treating it was German. They were patriots at heart. In the sad period which followed, patriotism all but died out in Germany. Throughout the seventeenth century, until, indeed, the middle of the eighteenth century, when Klopstock rose up and cried shame upon them, the Germans bore a foreign yoke. It is deplorable to read the productions of the First and Second Silesian Schools. This name, "Silesian," was given to a class of pedants calling themselves poets, many among whom hailed from Silesia. 1624-1660 are the dates which cover the first Silesian School, the Sir Oracle of which was Martin Opitz, of whom I shall have more to say at another time. Like every other branch of poetry, the drama met with sorry treatment at the hands of the Silesians, the most esteemed dramatist among whom was Andreas Gryphius, whose tragedies--among them "Karl Stuart," written immediately after the execution of that king--are, if the plain truth be said, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Better are his comedies, two of which--"Peter Squents" and "Horribiliscribrifax"--have become famous. Of these the first deals with a simple clown, who undertakes to superintend the performance of a piece before a prince. The piece he fixes on is Pyramus and Thisbe. Most English folks reading this will be riminded of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The author of"Peter Squents" was born in 1616, in which year, it will be remembered, the author of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" died. How closely at times the German poet follows upon the steps of the English poet may be seen in the following extract. Peter Squentz calls over the roll of his fellow-actors.
Peter Squentz, Pickelharing, Meister Kricks uber and uber, Meister Bulla-Butan, Meister Klipperling, Meister Klotz-George.
Elder, Wohledler, Hochedler, Wohledelgeborner Herr Pickelharing, von Pickelharingsheim und Saltznasen.--P.H. Der bin ich.--P. Sq. Arbeitsamer und Armmachtiger Mester Kricks, uber and uber, Schmied. M. Kr. Der bin ich.--P. Sq. Tugendsamer, auffgeblasener und windbrechender Mester Bullabutan, Blasenbalckenmacher.--Bu. Der bin inc.--P. Sq. Ehrwurdiger, durchschneidender und gleichmachender Mestr Klipperling, Wohlbestellter Schreiner des weitberuhmten Dorffes Rumplels-Kirchen.--M. Kl. Der bin ich.--P. Sq. Wolgelahrter, vielgeschwinder und hellstimmiger Mester Lollinger, Leinweber und Mester-Sanger.--Loll. Der bin ich.--P. Sq. Treufleissiger, Wolwurckender, Tuchaffter Mester Klotz-George, Squlenmacher. M. Kl. G. Der bin ich.--P. Sq. Verschraubet euch durch Zuthuung eurer Fusse und Niederlassung der hindersten Oberschenckel, auf herumgesetzte Stuhle, schliesset die Repositoria eures Gehirenes auf, verschliesset die Mauler mit dem Schloss des Stillschweigens, setzt eure 7 Sinnen in die Falten, Herr Peter Squentz (cum titulis plenissimis) hat etwas nachdenckliches anzumelden.--P. H. Ja, ja, Herr Peter Squentz ist ein tieffsinniger Mann, er hat einen Anschlagign Kopff, wenn er die Treppen hinunterfallt, er hat so einen ansehnlichen Bart, als wenn er Konig von Neu-Zembia ware, es ist nur zu bejammern dass es nicht wahr ist.--P. Sq. Nachdem ich zweiffels ohn durch Zuthuung der alt Phobussin und ihrer Tochter der grossmaulichen Frau Fama Bericht erlanget, dass Ihr Majest. unser Gestrenger Juncker Konig ein grosser Liebhaber von allerley lustigen Tragodien und prachtigen Comodien sey, als bin ich willens, durch Zuthuung euer Geschicklichkeit eine jammerlich schone Comodi zu tragiren, in Hoffnung, nicht nur Ehre und Ruhm einzulegen, sondern auch eine gute Verehrung fur uns alle, und mich in spcie, zu erhalten.--B. B. Das ist erschrecklich wacher! ich spiele mit, und solte ich 6 Wochen nicht arbeiten.--P. H. Es wird uber alle massen schone stehen! wer wolte nicht sagen, dass unser Konig trefflich Leute in seinem Dorffe hatte.--M. Kr. Was wollen wir aber vor eine trostliche Comodi tragiren?--P. Sq. Von Piramus und Thisbe.--M. Kl. G. Das ist ubermassen trefflich, man kan allerhand schone Lehre, Trost und Vermahnung daraus nehmen, aber das argest ist, ich weiss die Historie noch nicht, geliebt es nicht E. Herrlichkeit dieselbte zu erzehlen.--P. Sq. Gar gerne.
The brilliant German critic, Herder, has spoken of English poetry as "puffed out with adjectives"; there are a fair number of adjectives in this passage. England's Herder--Coleridge--has said that there is "a too-muchness" in all Germans, and there is certainly a too-muchness in the work of Gryphius. One joke in the above extract might escape the reader not quite at home in German: "er hat einen anschlagigen Kopf, wenn er die Treppen hinunterfallt--"he can make a hit, when he falls downstairs."
Pickeharing speaks. Like Bottom in the English play--he can "gleek upon occasion." The wit here is not very bright, but sheds a little ray through the gloom that could not but be expected amid such a forest of words. The gracious reader will say with the princess in Shakespeare's poem: "Well shone, Moon. Truly the moon shines with a good grace."
The Second Silesian School lasted from 1660-1725, and its most representative poet was Hoffmann von Hoffmannswaldau, whose favourite word was sugar, hence the wonderful compounds Zuckerrosen, Zuckermundlein, Zuckerworte, Zuckersilben. This is terrible, and no man did more to suppress this kind of sugar-poetry than the foremost dramatist of the Second Silesian School, Christian Weise, albeit he, rushing into another extreme, wrote in a style so cold and flavourless as to win for himself the name of water-poet. Weise, however, prepared the way for Gottsched, and to Gottsched belongs the honour of opening up a path for those six poets--Klopstock, Wieland, Lessing, Herder, Schiller, Goethe--who are the glory of Germany at this day, and three among whom, those three the best, are dramatists.
With reference to Lessing as a writer of drama, it is hardly possible not to admire and praise him when we remember that prior to his time no single good German play existed. This being so, it was inevitable that much of Lessing's work should be tentative, but the comedy of Minna von Barnhelm is a good masterpiece, and, though a classic, holds the stage.
Goethe's plays, magnificent as poems, are lacking in dramatic qualities. As a poem, "Faust" is almost as inspired as "Hamlet," but "Hamlet," while a superb poem, is also a good play. This cannot be said of Goethe's great work. With play-goers "Egmont" is the favourite among Goethe's dramas, and yet even it is so lacking in dramatic action that it has been called* "a narrative in dialogue."
Inferior as Schiller is to Goethe as a poet, he is undeniably superior to him as a dramatist. His most ambitious play is "Wallenstein," but "Wilhelm Tell" is perhaps his best play.
Work for Club-Students.
Books of Interest:--
Typed September 2013