Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz Essay - Critical Essays


Most of the significant plays written in German-speaking Europe during the eighteenth century are set far from the contemporary scene, distanced either in time or space, or both. Whether a writer belonged to the Enlightenment, to Sturm und Drang, or to classicism, any new publication was subjected to intense scrutiny by the censors of an absolutist prince who usually reacted swiftly and harshly to the very suggestion of criticism. It was typical of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz that he threw all caution to the winds and set his major plays in the here and now. They bring into sharp focus the venal, dehumanizing, exploitive organization of society in German-speaking Europe. Each play uses a family to provide both formal structure and an empathetic touchstone for the writer’s critique.

Other Sturm und Drang playwrights treat the tragic conflict between the dynamic, artistic genius and an insensitive, even hostile, social environment. The drama of German classicism teaches philosophical lessons based on ideals that transcend mere reality. This mild contempt for everyday society is unknown to Lenz and the Enlightenment, whose child he clearly is. Instead, the exposé is presented so thoroughly and in so pointed a fashion that the audience retains only a secondary interest in the fate of the characters. Those characters, far from being masters of their own destinies, are the inevitable products of a badly flawed society.

The Tutor

In Lenz’s comedy The Tutor, the title figure is trapped between his physicality and society’s contradictory expectations. A university student in theology, Läuffer takes a position as a tutor in the home of a nobleman, the Major von Berg. He is engaged to instruct the two children of the house, Leopold and Gustchen, in academic subjects and in the social graces. To the sophisticated, Francophile wife of the major, Läuffer seems clumsy, provincial, and, in the condescending sense, bourgeois. Even more dissatisfied with the appointment is the major’s brother, Privy Councillor von Berg, who scolds the young tutor’s father for having suggested the arrangement.

The action of the play begins when the privy councillor’s son Fritz leaves to begin his studies at the university in distant Halle. Before leaving, he and Gustchen swear eternal fidelity to each other. It proves impossible for the fickle young Gustchen to keep her word; soon, she feels abandoned. Her pique, Läuffer’s boredom, and long hours of contact lead to the inevitable liaison. When the girl discovers that she is pregnant, she and Läuffer flee to two separate hiding places. Gustchen bears her child in the forest hut of an impoverished, old, blind woman, and Läuffer finds lodgings with the simple, honest village schoolmaster, Wenzeslaus. Gustchen’s melancholy descends into despair, and she is on the point of drowning herself when she is pulled from the water by Major von Berg. The distraught father has been searching for her since her disappearance. Meanwhile, blind Marthe takes the child to Wenzeslaus’s schoolhouse, where Läuffer recognizes the child as his own. In a fit of guilt and depression, he castrates himself.

Throughout the action, Lenz inserts scenes from the riotous undergraduate life of Fritz von Berg and his fellow students. At the play’s conclusion, Fritz returns to his family circle to forgive Gustchen and accept her child as his responsibility, while Läuffer remains in the remote village with the completely innocent Luise, who is content to be his life’s companion.

The initial response to The Tutor was highly favorable, in part because the anonymously published work was thought to be the latest sensation from the pen of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The influence of William Shakespeare was detected in character development, in plot structure, and in the integrity of individual scenes. By 1774, the rejection of the unities of time and place by the Sturm und Drang movement was familiar to the small audience for drama in German-speaking areas. Readers and spectators had become accustomed to the use of many settings and extensive spans of time, and Lenz was able to introduce a range of empathetic characters into the epic panorama favored by the movement.

That the range itself was important to Lenz is evident in the title figure: Läuffer is not a hero whose personal crisis obscures the development of the other characters; rather, he serves as a catalyst whom forces beyond his control hurl into one web of interpersonal relationships after another. For his own family, for the von Berg family, for the teacher-pupil relationship with his charges, for the young couple, for Wenzeslaus and his pupils, for the nubile Luise and the children she will never have—for each set of interrelationships, he represents chaos and potential tragedy. His very name, which means “runner,” suggests a lack of control as well as the frenetic pace of the action. The belief that social circumstance, instincts, and events themselves determine human happiness was a radical departure from Enlightenment philosophy with its naïve faith in the ultimate power of reason. Lenz takes his confrontation with the postulate of human perfectibility into the realm of the ironic by making his chaos-bringer a teacher, the very incarnation of the Enlightenment’s hopes. Still, his grotesque, despairing act should not be viewed as symptomatic of complete pessimism. Lenz does have a lesson to teach; however, he is keenly aware of the obstacles in society’s path.

One such obstacle is the mentality of the ruling class as represented by Major von Berg and his wife. Again, the name is significant: They act as though they are “from the mountain,” lofty lords of all they survey. The woman is arrogant and supercilious; her French affectations serve only to accentuate her superficiality and stupidity. The major’s one redeeming feature is his dogged devotion to his compromised daughter; otherwise, he conforms to the type of the miles gloriosus, the old braggart soldier whose greatest source of pride is his own unthinking obedience to his sovereign. His wife wants a private tutor for their children because people of rank are expected to have such a servant. The major is concerned that his son receive the amount of instruction necessary to follow in his father’s footsteps. Whenever the two are together, the older man barks orders to keep the head high, the posture bolt upright. In the major and his lady, Lenz mounts a scathing critique of two major components of the upper class—the officer corps and the Frenchified lady of leisure. Yet the presence of the privy councillor indicates that the playwright was not prepared to dismiss the aristocracy as being completely without merit.

Nor was he content to give up on the teaching profession. Wenzeslaus is offered as an alternative to the half-educated, obsequious Läuffer. The village schoolmaster’s dedication to his duties is made very apparent, as are the breadth and depth of his preparation. He is a solitary old bachelor who lives in rural simplicity, surrounded by books from which he loves to quote from memory—indeed, all too fluently. The price of isolation has been pedantry and self-centered ways. Still, Wenzeslaus’s humanity and courage shine forth when he confronts a party of armed men who are in pursuit of the fugitive Läuffer.

The Tutor finds fault with several aspects of eighteenth century German society. The nobility supports an educational institution, the private tutor, that is actually deleterious to its children. The academic preparation and pedagogical ability of a tutor is unimportant as long as he is willing to accede to his employer’s every whim. In the major, the hypermasculine loutishness of the blindly loyal officer corps is on display. In this context, what was at this point in the history of German literature a commonplace depiction of wild student life takes on added significance. The atmosphere in Halle cannot be counted on either to reform the aristocracy or to reorder society.

One major, pervasive problem is the ambivalent, and even pusillanimous worldview of the middle class. It is a tribute to the playwright’s clear understanding of the complexity of the real world that he uses an aristocratic character...

(The entire section is 3397 words.)