Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock Essay - Critical Essays


After The Messiah, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s name was almost exclusively associated with lyric and epic poetry. His often stated intention was to demonstrate that German poets were capable of producing poetry that could equal the works of the ancient masters. The Messiah was to rival the epic poems of Homer, Vergil, and Milton; his odes attempted to reach the grandeur of the works of Pindar and Horace. It was therefore logical for him to extend his ambitions to dramatic poetry and to show that an original German tragedy could be created from a synthesis of classical tragedy and German-Christian cultural material. In pursuit of this ambition, Klopstock wrote six plays that are evenly divided between religious and patriotic subjects. In his biblical tragedies (The Death of Adam, Solomon, and David), Klopstock attempted to preserve the main precepts of Aristotelian dramatic theory while replacing Greek with Christian mythology; in his Hermann trilogy (Hermanns Schlacht [Hermann’s battle], Hermann und die Fürsten [Hermann and the princes], and Hermanns Tod [Hermann’s death]), he goes one step further by claiming to create a new, typically Germanic dramatic genre, the Bardiet, to deal with a heroic subject from Germanic mythology.

The Death of Adam

Klopstock’s contemporaries were taken aback by his first attempt at drama because it defied all expectations and conventions of the theater of his time. The Death of Adam has only three very short acts instead of the conventional five; it deals neither with the heroic subject matter of neoclassical tragedy with its elegant Alexandrine verses, nor with the middle-class subjects of the bourgeois tragedy in the fashion of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Miss Sara Sampson (pr., pb. 1755; English translation, 1933). Instead it is a static, very simple play, in elegant prose, without much of a plot, vaguely related to the French “lyrical tragedy” of the early part of the eighteenth century.

The tragedy of Adam lies in the fact that, after having lived for nearly nine hundred years, he must now face death, keenly aware that his original sin has led to the introduction of death into the world and made him responsible for the death of all future generations. Adam’s apprehensions about his impending death alternate with highly poetic praises of the beauty of earthly life. There are only two truly dramatic episodes in the play to keep the audience in suspense: the disappearance of a child who is eventually found unharmed and the return of Cain, who has come to curse his dying father but is later overcome by filial devotion and runs away.

Eve does not appear until the very end, and the obvious devotion the couple have for each other introduces a sentimental element to mitigate the harshness of Adam’s impending death. Finally, as has been prophesied, the rocks of the surrounding hills come crashing down to bury Adam.

The Death of Adam strictly observes the unities of time, place, and action of neoclassical drama: Adam’s death is foretold in the morning, and he dies in the evening. The cycle of nature reflects the cycle of human life: On the day Adam dies, his son Seth marries Selima, and the child Sunim, believed to have died in the wilderness, is found unharmed. Adam’s (and all humans’)...

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