Ludwig Tieck Essay - Critical Essays


It is impossible to find a common denominator for Ludwig Tieck’s plays because his talents and interests explored every aspect of the stage. Disguised as a farce, the two-part, five-hundred-page play Fortunat (published in a volume of his collected works) has a didactic nucleus that explores not only the follies of human nature but also the relationship between the sexes, the generations, and the social classes. The tragedy Leben und Tod der heiligen Genoveva represents a dramatic treatment of a legend and has been perceived as an attempt to bridge the gap of religious understanding initiated by historical occurrences. It earned for Tieck the reputation of having spurred numerous conversions to Catholicism within the Romantic movement, as well as within his own family. Yet even in this hallowed setting, the playfully destructive element of Romantic irony is not lacking when at the very beginning, on being told the story behind the artistic depictions of martyr scenes, Benno exclaims: “Who knows whether everything really happened that way,” and Grimoald agrees: “I think so, too; it was long ago.” Doubt is being cast on the veracity of the legend and the play. The popular genre of the Schicksalstragödie (fate tragedy) is mirrored in the nihilism of Karl von Berneck, and the dramatization of the popular fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood (The Life and Death of Little Red Riding Hood) is far removed from the innocent entertainment its subject and length might suggest. The plot, adapted from the tale by Charles Perrault, contains so many political allegorizations and references to social inequities that critics have called the little red bonnet a Phrygian (Jacobin’s) cap.

Although Ludwig Tieck’s dramatic works have seldom been staged, they created an impact on literary developments in Germany because of their exemplification of Romantic postulates and techniques. Much of the satiric innuendo is lost for today’s reader because Tieck’s references to contemporary literary feuds, quips, and quotes are no longer identifiable. This, in addition to the difficulty involved in translating puns and jokes, has hindered acceptance of his dramatic work outside Germany—a circumstance partly overcome by good modern translations.

Among the plays by Tieck that are still read today are several of the fairy dramas. They also represent the Romantic style—not only because of the atmosphere of illusion and the grotesque that they convey but also because of the manipulative literary techniques they employ. Several of them also show a certain continuity of plot as well as thematic affinities and therefore lend themselves to a coherent discussion in limited terms. These are the dramatizations of Puss-in-Boots, Die verkehrte Welt, called a historical play, and Prinz Zerbino.


Puss-in-Boots is based on the familiar story of the cat who wins a kingdom for his poor and lowly master. Tieck wrote the play within one evening, Perrault having furnished the plot and Carlo Gozzi the spirit of the work. Despite its rapid genesis, it is not a simplistic piece but is created on three constantly interacting levels of consciousness. The first is the level of the fairy tale itself and its characters. The reader’s expectation of a romantic, charming tale is immediately destroyed by the appearance of the cat. This magic and quasi-supernatural figure astounds the audience with an utterly prosaic, bourgeois, and philistine personality, which mocks with its sobriety not only the reader’s, but also the other characters’ hopes and fears. This yoking of the magical and the realistic—an ambivalence that characterizes the entire play—is the basis for the Romantic irony with which the author manipulates the reader: Illusions or expectations are created only to be destroyed again and to give rise to new ones. No character in this play is safe from ridicule because of his office or function: The king, who has an insatiable craving for roast rabbit, the princess, who writes poetry but has not mastered grammar, the poet, who needs an official “Pacifier” to escape the wrath of the audience—all are mere puppets in the hands of their author, created to facilitate his display of wit and to foster an atmosphere of contrast and confusion intended to perplex and startle Tieck’s contemporaries. This is not a classical comedy but a Romantic negation of it, which scoffs at rules and proprieties and is an end in itself.

The second level of the play is that of a depicted reality that constantly encroaches on the action taking place on the level of the fairy tale. Tieck accomplishes this by making the stage itself the theater and the fairy tale a play-within-the-play. By creating a fictitious audience on stage that reacts with scorn, derision, and even violence to the production of the fairy tale, Tieck can imbue it with all the characteristics that he perceives as ridiculous or inane in contemporary individuals and society. At the same time, he maintains complete control over both sets of characters (those of the play and those of the play-within-the-play) and creates an objective distance between the reader and the depicted reality, subtly manipulating the reader toward a critical view of the real world.

The real world, seen through the playwright’s eyes, is grotesque and ridiculous. The audience on stage is composed of enlightened commoners—enlightened (not unlike Tieck himself) in the sense of eighteenth century citizens, educated in the virtues of reason and the classical arts, and armed with a set of philosophical and literary rules governing all aspects thereof. If Tieck exposes the nobility’s inadequacies in the play-within-the-play (critics have perceived parallels between the kind and Frederick William II of Prussia, between the princess and Wilhelmine Ritz, countess of Lichtenau, and between Nathanael von Malsinki and Czar Paul I), he derides the pervading rationalism of members of his own class in the characters who compose the fictitious audience. Their names are drawn from the sphere of workers and craftsmen: They include a “Schlosser” (locksmith), “Fischer” (fisherman), “Müller” (miller), “Bötticher” (cooper), and others.

These emancipated citizens criticize the play in a manner that shows their acquired “culture” and purportedly discriminating taste to be merely a confused repetition of professional critics’ opinions. Having no real understanding of artistic creativity, they cling to platitudes and mindless imitation in the discussion before the play’s beginning. Fischer expects an “imitation in the New Arcadian” (idyllic) manner, and Müller concurs: “That wouldn’t be bad, for I have long desired to see such a magic opera without music for once.” This is an obvious reference to the popularity which musical offerings such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflote (1791; The Magic Flute) enjoyed. Later, when pandemonium erupts among the disappointed audience, the Pacifier sings Mozart’s “In diesen heil’gen Hallen kennt man die Rache nieht” (“we know no thoughts of vengeance within these temple walls”) and brings decorations from the The Magic Flute on stage. Fischer disagrees with Müller’s judgment, arguing that only if accompanied by the “heavenly art” (music) is it possible “to swallow all these stupidities. Egad, strictly speaking we are beyond such distortions and superstitions; the Enlightenment has borne its fruits, as indeed it should.” This comment, which belies the later reactions of the audience, ridicules not only the rationalists but also Tieck’s own concoction. Schlosser expects a “revolutionary drama,” and indeed, Tieck occasionally uses political overtones such as the cat’s proclamation of a “tiers êtat.” Fischer and Müller agree that the age of phantoms, witches, and ghosts is past, as also is that of a Puss-in-Boots. Bötticher, named by Tieck with a sly reference to Karl August Böttiger and his book of praise for the then popular August Wilhelm Iffland, wishes to see a play in the classical sense: “We shall have a feast fit for gods. How this genius, who so intimately experiences and finely tints all characters, will carve out the individuality of this tomcat! As an ideal, undoubtedly, in the sense of the ancients, not unlike Pygmalion.” In this depicted reality of the theater, Tieck ridicules that contemporary, aloof rationalism and “vapidity which, devoid of understanding for depth and mystery, dragged everything it could not and would not understand before the bar of so-called human reason.” In 1828, more than thirty years after its publication, Tieck reminisced about the play: “All my recollections—what I had heard at different times in the pit, in the loges or the salons—awoke, and so this arose and was written in a few happy hours.”

The third level of the play is the level of literary criticism. Unless the reader consults an annotated edition, many of the witticisms that give the play its satiric edge will be lost. Indeed, even Tieck’s contemporaries were unaware of many of his allusions. On December 19, 1797, Nicolai wrote to Tieck: “When you allude to...

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