August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue was born on May 3, 1761, in Weimar, Saxony, the son of a well-to-do, middle-class bureaucrat who died while Kotzebue was still young. Under the doting care of his mother, he spent his childhood and youth in Weimar, going to school at the local gymnasium until he was sixteen and acting with his sister Amalie in one of Goethe’s plays. After spending a year at Jena, he matriculated at the University of Duisburg in 1778, returned to Jena in 1779, and finished his studies of law there in 1780. In Weimar he opened a law practice but showed little enthusiasm for his chosen profession and became involved in legal difficulties as a result of his sharp tongue. He left for St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1781.
There his career took a decidedly favorable turn. Originally the private secretary of a well-to-do German, he later became assistant director of the German theater at St. Petersburg. Before his employer died in 1783, he recommended Kotzebue to Catherine the Great, who made him assessor to the high court of appeal in Reval (now Tallinn). There he founded a private theater in 1784, wrote several stories and plays, and edited a journal. In the same year, he fell passionately in love with Friederike von Essen, to whom he was married despite the objections of her parents. In 1787, he was promoted to president of the magistracy in the province of Estonia and was ennobled by Catherine the Great. For reasons of health, he went to Pyrmont on the advice of Dr. Johann Georg Zimmermann, who soon became his friend. Shortly thereafter, two of his plays, The Stranger and The Indians in England, made him world-famous—the former competing favorably with Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779) for public success. Other plays followed in quick succession, including The Virgin of the Sun, and Kotzebue boasted that he could write a play in three days. His biting wit and a satiric pen, along with his success, brought forth the envious as well as the admiring. Two occurrences of 1790 hurt his reputation for some time to come: His wife died in childbirth, and Kotzebue, not awaiting her final moments, left for Paris to console himself, writing an autobiographical account, Meine Flucht nact Paris im Winter 1790 (1791; flight to Paris), which was received as the epitome...
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