August von Kotzebue Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

August von Kotzebue’s position in literary history is unique. Although his 230 plays were immensely popular in Germany during his lifetime and scarcely a theater director could afford to ignore the public’s favorite playwright, he was ostracized not only by his contemporaries of the literary schools (classicism, Romanticism and its major representatives) but also by later generations of critics. Kotzebue’s cosmopolitanism and his recalcitrant spirit, combined with his enormous success as a dramatist, created for him at once a favorable climate outside Germany and an envious and hostile atmosphere within. His major influence as a writer therefore was exerted chiefly outside his homeland, notwithstanding his box-office success within Germany.

In England, German authors were fashionable and popular at the turn of the eighteenth century; more than fifty German writers in all genres had their works translated between 1790 and 1810. Of these, Kotzebue, with 170 editions (plays, novels, and biographies) of his works appearing in the English language, by far outnumbered all others in popularity. Between 1796 and 1842, thirty-six of his plays were translated into English—many of them several times—and twenty-two were produced onstage. In many instances, the plays were severely altered in the process of making them palatable to English audiences. Characters were added or deleted, plots were changed and various other adulterations were committed in order to present in Kotzebue’s name plays that would be congenial to English tastes.

Kotzebue wrote his first successful play, The Stranger, between October and November of 1788, while he was very ill. By 1860, it had been translated eighty times. After it was given in London for the first time on March 24, 1798, it was staged more frequently than were the plays of William Shakespeare. Undoubtedly Kotzebue’s popularity resulted in large part from the liberties that the translators took in adapting his plays for English audiences, which ensured their lasting success, for the critical reviews praise exactly that element that the German critics perceived as lacking: the morality. Although one of the main critical objections to Kotzebue in Germany was that he so freely depicted vice and immorality, thus undermining public virtue, the London Times of March 25, 1798, declared: “The heart is improved, and the fancy entertained, while a confirmed detestation of conjugal infidelity, which forms the chief moral of the play is irresistibly impressed.” While the Times critic noted that the characterization lacked originality, he also pointed out that “there is novelty of sentiment, passion, diction, and above all, there is that which we but rarely meet with in our modern dramas, novelty of virtuous principle and edifying morality.” English audiences, like their German counterparts, wanted to be entertained and not confronted with conflicts that required profound intellectual involvement. They wanted to be moved to tears, to see repentance and forgiveness, misunderstandings and happy endings. They perceived the complicated plots with separated lovers and families, fantastic familial interrelationships, and the all-pervasive, all-powerful manipulative factor of chance as a pleasant escalation of dramatic tension. In Kotzebue’s work, they saw their own social views vindicated and their expectations met while being pleasantly entertained.

Kotzebue’s box-office success in England prompted imitation by native playwrights. L. F. Thompson, in Kotzebue (1928), lists a substantial number of English plays that borrowed from Kotzebue’s plots, characters, and scenes. For example, Richard Cumberland’s The Wheel of Fortune (pr., pb. 1795) borrows the character Penruddock from Kotzebue’s The Stranger; a play by George Colman, the younger, contains the attempted seduction of a poor officer’s daughter—a parallel to Kotzebue’s play The Writing Desk. In addition to serving as a model for similar native productions, Kotzebue added some new perspectives to English theater, including scenes from lowlife alternating between the farcical and the tragic. He liberated English dramatists from an excessively moralistic perspective and thereby furthered a more realistic depiction of life onstage, and while he did not initiate it, he certainly contributed greatly to the development of the melodrama.

France and the Playwright

In France, the situation was somewhat different. Rather than being imitated, Kotzebue was to a great extent an imitator. He was, for example, greatly indebted to Molière, but many of the characters and situations that Kotzebue adopted can be found in prerevolutionary French plays in general. Although he probably also borrowed from Louis-Sébastien Mercier and Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, he apparently also exchanged ideas with contemporary writers such as Louis-Benoît and Alexandre Duval. As in England, The Stranger initiated Kotzebue’s success in France. It was first staged on December 28, 1798, at the Odéon, and was performed sixty times in its initial season. Its immediate impact was felt in the parodies that it engendered. Among them are Hyacinthe Dorvo’s La veille de Noces: Ou, L’Après-souper de Misanthropie et Repentir (1799), which was performed at the Théâtre Molière; Marc Antoine Desaugiers’s Cadet Rousselle misanthrope et Manon repentante (1800); and Paul Aimé Chapelle Laurencin’s Édouard et Clémentine, une comédie en trois actes mêlée de couplets (1842). For the French stage, the novelty of this play consisted chiefly of the weight and color that Kotzebue gave to supporting characters. More than forty of Kotzebue’s stage works were translated into French between 1790 and 1840, of which The Reconciliation rivaled The Stranger with some three hundred performances at the Comédie-Française between 1797 and 1845. Even between 1840 and 1902, Kotzebue’s The Good Citizens of Piffelheim saw more than twenty editions in print.

To a much greater extent than in England, Kotzebue shared the faults and merits of contemporary dramatists in France, although he was more versatile and considerably more successful than many of his French colleagues. French critical opinion, too, was divided. In his Erinnerungen aus Paris im Jahre 1804 (1804; Travels from Berlin Through Switzerland to Paris in the Year 1804, 1804), Kotzebue recalls the conflicting statements about his work and concludes that his plays...

(The entire section is 2694 words.)