Ferdinand Jakob Raimund Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ferdinand Jakob Raimund 1790-1836

(Born Ferdinand Jakob Raimann) Austrian dramatist, poet, and actor.

Raimund was an outstanding playwright of the golden age of the Alt-Wiener Volkstheater, the Old Viennese popular theater, in the 1820s and 1830s. A well-known actor in his day, Raimund composed a series of Zauberspiele, or "magic plays," ostensibly to create new comedic roles for himself, but which succeeded in elevating the genre of the magical farce by adding a moral dimension to these plays. His greatest stage triumphs came with the humorous, somewhat sentimental, and gently didactic Der Alpenkönig und der Menschenfeind (The King of the Alps and the Misanthrope; originally performed in 1828) and his final drama Der Verschwender (first performed in 1834 and later translated as The Spendthrift in 1949).

Biographical Information

Raimund was born to a craftsman, Jakob Raimann, and his wife in Vienna, Austria, on 1 June 1790. He grew up in Mariahilf, a suburban district of Vienna, and was educated in his youth at the school of St. Anna in that city. The death of his parents when he was fourteen years of age coincided with the beginning of his trade apprenticeship to a confectioner; but, unhappy with this profession and now able to ignore his father's counsel to avoid the life of the theater, Raimund made plans to become an actor. Unable to secure roles in Vienna because of a slight speech impediment that prevented him from pronouncing the letter 'r' correctly, he spent the years 1808 to 1814 touring with provincial theater companies. After gaining valuable acting experience on the road, Raimund returned to Vienna and began playing smaller comedic and villainous roles at the Josefstädter Theater. Exhibiting comic versatility on stage, he eventually made his way to the prestigious Theater in der Leopoldstädt by 1817, where his theatrical virtuosity and penchant for extemporaneous humor made him one of the most admired actors in Vienna. At this time Raimund performed in a variety of productions written by the city's most well-known and respected playwrights: Adolf Bäuerle, Josef Alois Gleich, and Karl Meisl. By late 1822, however, the actor had become increasingly dissatisfied with the roles these authors had provided for him and determined to write plays of his own. His first, Der Barometermacher auf der Zauberinsel (The Barometer-Maker on the Magic Isle), was performed in 1823 and proved to be popular with Viennese theater-goers. He followed this work with the even more successful Der Diamant des Geisterkönigs (The Diamond of the King of Spirits) the next year. Raimund continued to write and perform throughout the 1820s, but his Die gefesselte Phantasie (The Chained Fantasy or The Inhibited Imagination) and Moisasur's Zauberfluch (Moisasur's Magic Curse) had failed to win the same approval from critics and audiences at the Leopoldstädt as had Der Bauer als Millionär; oder, Das Mädchen aus der Feenwelt (The Peasant as Millionaire, or The Maiden from the Fairy World) and his first two plays. Meanwhile, Raimund—who had increasingly been subject to bouts of depression, severe headaches, and fits of hypochondria—began to experience a decline in his personal life. His 1828 production Der Alpenkönig und der Menschenfeind signaled a return to popularity, though it was followed by the critically panned Die unheilbringende Zauberkrone (The Mischief-Making Crown) in 1829. He wrote his final play, Der Verschwender, in 1834, and its success along with that created from many guest performances in Austria and Germany allowed him to purchase a country home in his beloved town of Gutenstein located outside Vienna, and to live there with his lover, Toni Wagner. It was while he was in Gutenstein in late August of 1836 that Raimund, after being bitten by a dog that he suspected was rabid, shot himself in the head with a pistol. He died seven days later on 5 September 1836.

Major Works

Raimund's literary output consists primarily of the eight popular dramas he wrote in the 1820s and 1830s for the Wiener Volkstheater, Der Barometermacher auf der Zauberinsel, his first Zauberposse, or "magic farce," concerns a somewhat inept Viennese barometer-maker, Bartholomäus Quecksilber. Determined to find success outside Vienna, Quecksilber departs by sea only to become shipwrecked on a magical island inhabited by fairies, where he humorously continues to live his life in the manner of a Viennese petit-bourgeois. Der Bauer als Millionär; oder, Das Mädchen aus der Feenwelt features Raimund's comical musings on the fleeting nature of wealth and material possessions. Its hero, Fortunatus Wurzel, a peasant made into a millionaire by the allegorical spirit Envy, loses all of his money and the love of his fairy-daughter when he refuses to let her marry a poor fisherman. Raimund moved further into allegory and began to dramatize the conflict of good versus evil with Die gefesselte Phantasie and Moisasur's Zauberfluch. The first features a chained fairy of inspiration called Fantasy, and the second offers a comic study of avarice set into motion by the demon Moisasur's magical curse. With Der Alpenkönig und der Menschenfeind, Raimund dropped allegorical representation in favor of individual characterization, with much popular and critical success. In this play, Astragalus, the King of the Alps, creates a mirror image of the misanthropic Rappelkopf in order to help the rattle-brained fellow reform his misguided ways. The tight-fisted main character of Raimund's final play, Der Verschwender, is named Julius von Flottwell. Though his beloved, the fairy Cheristane, attempts to cure him of his greed by showing him what he will become by the age of fifty—a destitute beggar—he refuses to alter his path. In addition to his comic and moralistic Zauberspiele, Raimund also composed a handful of verse, including two notable poems entitled "An Gutenstein." In these works Raimund revealed the darker and melancholy qualities of his personality, including his general dislike of society and his desire to escape its confines in exchange for the more peaceful, and well-ordered world of nature.

Critical Reception

As an actor and playwright in early nineteenth-century Vienna, Raimund was immensely popular. His theatrical versatility and comical folk-plays earned him a considerable reputation in German-speaking Europe, until the appeal of his at times sentimental and moralizing pieces was supplanted on the Viennese stage by the witty, satirical, proto-Realist comedies of his chief rival, Johann Nepomuk Nestroy. In the years since, critics have observed that Raimund transfigured the genre of the magical/romantic farce by imbuing it with allegorical and moral significance, and later by more fully exploiting the techniques of individual characterization in his works. The limitation of Raimund's literary contribution to stage comedy in the late Baroque and early Romantic periods, however, has since been questioned by some contemporary scholars, who see in his poetry a capacity to dramatize the tragic dimension of human life. As some critics have maintained, Raimund's talent extended beyond mere local parody and confronted issues of wider concern, such as loneliness, artistic creativity, and pessimistic determinism.