Christian Dietrich Grabbe Essay - Critical Essays


What puts Christian Dietrich Grabbe far ahead of his time as a historical dramatist is that he does not feel compelled to simplify history in order to meet moralistic needs—as did Schiller with his Wilhelm Tell (pr., pb. 1804; William Tell, 1841), reducing a vast politicosocial drama into one of individual morality and personal, family self-defense—or to subsume the action under a single overriding thesis-antithesis dramatic tension—as did Hebbel in Judith (pr. 1840; English translation, 1974), turning a religio-national heroine into an erotically fascinated superwoman. On the contrary, when Grabbe revises history, as he does in Hannibal, the reason is not to tighten the material within an idealistic force-counterforce dramatic scheme but to condense historical time in order to elucidate the variety of external social and material factors that constitute the dramatic situation. This awareness of complexity is at the heart of Grabbe’s theater; he abandons the traditional dramatic bipolarity or positive-negative dualism in favor of multiple ethical and sociopolitical vectors, each depicted in detail according to its own specific reality and not distorted under bipolar constraints. The vehicle for this kind of drama is Grabbe’s “open” form, much studied by other dramatists since his time. This form consists of no rounded plot and no classical unities, but instead numerous separate short scenes to capture the multifaceted disparity of the forces brought to bear on the central character, and no streamlining or idealization, but instead a critical, dispassionate scrutiny of a rich and complex character and his or her cultural world. The result is greater historical accuracy and critical validity.

Herzog Theodor von Gothland

Grabbe’s first extant play, Herzog Theodor von Gothland, is rich in reminiscences of Shakespearean and other dramas, especially the fate tragedies (for example, Adolf Müllner’s Die Schuld, pr. 1813; Guilt, 1819), a genre that it rejects in principle in favor of a destiny ruled by chance.

The play’s main character, like Karl Moor in Friedrich Schiller’s Die Räuber (pb. 1781; The Robbers, 1792), is a man disillusioned by a catastrophe precipitated on him by a treacherous enemy, and who turns bitterly against God and humankind. Misled into believing that his older brother has murdered his younger one, Gothland sees it as his duty to commit fratricide to avenge the first crime. Raging with grief and remorse when he discovers his error—“I believed I was acting most justly, and I murdered my innocent brother”—Gothland revolts against God for having permitted him to sin; indeed, he regards God as an evil being who has created humankind only for the sadistic pleasure of destroying it. Tormented with guilt and hating everyone, he takes command of the enemy forces against his own nation and indulges in sadistic cruelty and destruction. After having, in an elegiac description, admired the idyllic existence of a weary farmer plodding homeward, the envious Gothland reasons: “I don’t see how he deserves this beautiful destiny more than I do; if he had been tempted as I was, he would have fallen as I did,” and he maliciously orders the farmer’s house to be torn down and his fields trampled. Succumbing to a powerful destructive urge in a frenzy of slaughter that presages the Nazi horrors, Gothland orders the massacre of five thousand Swedish prisoners. He denies the existence of God and of any transcendental realm of objective values. He has totally lost his “faith in mankind, without which there is no love, only eternal hatred, . . . and which alone makes him humane.”

This first play of Grabbe, circulated in manuscript in the literary circles of Berlin, shocked his contemporaries. Even the cultured salon hostess Rahel von Varnhagen found its crude portrayals of vice and crime so repugnant and alarming that she wanted the manuscript removed from her house immediately, for “she could not sleep a wink as long as that atrocious work was there.” In a sense, this play was an antidote and reply to the sugary, prudish Romantic fare of the German stage at the time. In Grabbe’s vision, insipid idealistic love in sylvan Arcadias is replaced by perfunctory sex with a beautiful prostitute, and “sweet and glorious” patriotic death is transformed into senseless brutal slaughter described in all its gory details; one character is even locked inside a tomb and hears the worms gnawing on the corpses. The net effect is one of post-Romantic Weltschmerz, or disillusionment: The need for ideals is strongly felt, but the real world is now perceived as totally devoid of them, with a resulting despair and pessimism.

Jest, Satire, Irony, and Deeper Significance

Jest, Satire, Irony, and Deeper Significance, written in 1822, immediately after Herzog Theodor von Gothland, presents the same bleak, nihilistic world, but in the guise of a Romantic literary comedy (lampooning contemporary literature, especially that written by and for women). Rising above the genre, it directs the brunt of its irony and satire not at literature but at the world itself.

The plot is hilarious, using traditional motifs in a new ribald, ironic manner, scintillating with barbs in every direction. A drunken schoolmaster tries to present a stupid farm boy as a genius because the boy’s father has promised him a vat full of brandy. Four natural scientists discover the Devil wrapped in a thick fur coat and frozen stiff on a hilltop; he has had to leave his warm home in Hell temporarily because housecleaning is taking place there. The scientists dispute the Devil’s identity and decide that such an ugly face could belong only to “a German woman-writer.” When revived, the Devil identifies himself as a churchman “honored with a papal order,” and he is taken to the castle of Baron von Haldungen. Here the main plot begins to unreel. Liddy, the baron’s intelligent, beautiful niece, is courted by three suitors: Warnthal, who is willing to sell her for money; Mordax, who lusts for her body and is willing to kill to get it; and Mollfels (Soft-Rock), ugly but sincere, intelligent, and decent, who in the end wins the lady. The Devil makes a deal with Warnthal and Mordax, giving Liddy, who is to be abducted, to the latter. This plot is foiled when the schoolmaster, at a cabin in the forest, the romantic scene of Liddy’s intended abduction, captures the Devil in an iron cage, using as bait either prophylactics or Casanova’s works, depending on the version. The Devil’s grandmother, a beautiful, elegant young lady (“Don’t you know that we immortals remain eternally young?”), comes to his rescue and takes him home to Hell, as the housecleaning is now finished. Mordax and Warnthal escape into the audience, and author Grabbe appears before the curtain falls, carrying a lit lantern, amid the schoolmaster’s jeers:That is the damned Grabbe, or, as he really ought to be called, the dwarf-crab, the writer of this play! He is stupid as a crowbar, criticizes all writers and is himself worthless, has bow-legs, cock-eyes and a pale monkey-face! Let’s lock him out, Baron, let’s lock him out.

As the play ends, Liddy rebukes him: “Schoolmaster, schoolmaster, how bitterly you scold against the man who wrote you!”

The play abounds in jokes and makes very lively stage fare, which is why, since its rediscovery, it has remained in the German repertory year after year. Much slapstick comedy is connected with the Devil. He loses a horseshoe from one of his hoofed feet and must go to the blacksmith to be reshod. More than once he absentmindedly amuses himself by sticking his finger in the candle flame, and he smashes a valuable chair to light a fire in the oven, where he is discovered lying in the fire to warm himself. All this amusing activity is in the mode of the low comedy of the medieval Fastnachtsspiele (carnival plays).

At times, exaggerations almost suggest the modern Theater of the Absurd. The schoolmaster draws a long ink mark across his face to give the impression of being absentmindedly devoted to his pedagogical tasks. He has a wide knowledge of contemporary literature because every other week his cousin sends him half-rotten herring “wrapped in the fresh galley-proofs of the most miserable poetic works and periodicals”—which happen to be the best literary products of the time. The poet Rattengift (Rat-Poison) explains his greatest inspiration—namely, to write a poem about his total lack of inspiration. Warnthal, the venal suitor, in a very comic scene, bargains with the Devil to sell Liddy at a price based on her attributes item by item: The Devil is willing to pay two thousand talers for her beauty; seven thousand talers for her fine, soft hand (because that will make her slaps softer); but only thirty-one cents for her innocence because that was the going rate on the streets of Berlin; and only three cents for her imagination, since that ruins the complexion, causes rings under the eyes, and spoils the soup. Liddy herself is virtually the...

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