Ferdinand Raimund entered the theater as an actor, and he became a playwright almost unintentionally. His plays must be seen as an attempt to synthesize the Viennese Popular Theater with the classical German drama of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. John Michalski (Ferdinand Raimund, 1968) observes that Raimundobtained his effects by means of a picturesque, sometimes melancholy idiom, which combines the delightfully musical Viennese dialect with standard High German. Allegorical figures and characters from the Viennese milieu speak and act in a manner that suggests no division between the worlds of reality and imagination. The action . . . is frequently treated from the vantage point of a naïve, almost child-like human being.
It has been suggested that Raimund’s suicide in 1836 was not only brought on by his hypochondria, but that it was also prompted by a change in theatrical taste, which threatened to take him out of the limelight very soon. Ever since the success of Der böse Geist Lumpazivagabundus (the evil spirit Lumpazivagabundus) in 1833, the star of Johann Nestroy had risen brighter and brighter on the theatrical skies of Vienna. Raimund’s ability—and willingness—to adapt, to accommodate changing tastes, was in question. Raimund was disturbed by what he saw happening on the stage, and when he went to see Nestroy’s play, he was horrified. The title alone had offended him with its suggestions of low life, drunkenness, and slovenliness. In a letter to Toni Wagner, Raimund observed that Viennese audiences had been led astray by charlatans. Honest talent was being subverted through “the cabals of these theatrical bushrangers.” He ended by stating that “my physical and moral life is inseparable from my honor.”
Raimund’s plays were the product of a political age of innocence; his success as an actor and a playwright fell into a time when the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Congress of Vienna had brought peace to the troubled city. Prince Metternich attempted to maintain peace and prosperity by means of espionage, censorship, and the repression of liberal ideas, and the populace sought distraction in the theater. Here one could catch concealed allusions to the real political conditions interwoven with fantastic fairy tales or harmless farces. Nevertheless, the moral of most plays was that, however exciting other places around the world might be, Vienna was still the most delightful abode.
The Barometer-Maker on the Magic Island
This is exactly the sentiment expressed in Raimund’s first play, The Barometer-Maker on the Magic Island. Raimund’s authorship was disputed at first, forcing him to state publicly that he had indeed written the play. The music was composed by Wenzel Müller, with whom Raimund collaborated on several of his later plays, notably Mountain King and Misanthrope. Raimund played the lead of Bartholomäus Quecksilber in the premier performance at the Leopoldstädter Theater on December 18, 1823.
The Barometer-Maker on the Magic Island depicts the conflict between the Viennese wit and trickster Bartholomäus Quecksilber and the cunning princess Zoraide of the enchanted isle. Bartholomäus has obtained three magical gifts from the fairy Rosalinde, who must dispense them once every one hundred years. One by one, Zoraide succeeds in stealing these gifts from him, but she is forced to return them in the end when Bartholomäus appears at her court with figs that produce enormous noses on everyone who eats them, and for which only he holds the antidote. The fig magic was nothing new; it had appeared in a number of baroque court operas and also was a well-known motif in fairy tales. Zoraide’s father, King Tutu, seems to be a soul mate of Georg Büchner’s famous King Peter in his Leonce und Lena (wr. 1836, pb. 1850; Leonce and Lena, 1927), and critics did not fail to notice his resemblance to the ruling Austrian emperor, Francis I. In all events, the play contained little to distinguish it from the usual comedy fare of the time.
The Diamond of the Spirit King
In his second play, The Diamond of the Spirit King, Raimund succeeded in the creation of a servant role (Florian) that hinted at the author’s superior talent in drawing believable characters for the stage. He played Florian in the opening performance at the Leopoldstädter Theater on December 17, 1824. The music was written by the theater’s resident composer, Josef Drechsler. Florian’s counterpart, the servant maid Mariandel, was portrayed by Therese Krones, one of the leading actresses of the period. Both of these servants deviated from the norm because they were not only cunning but also faithful servants of their master. Again, the plot is simple in its synthesis of the real and the imaginary world. Master Eduard, the son of a deceased magician, has inherited six valuable magic statues from his father and must obtain the seventh, the most valuable, from the Fairy King Longimanus. This seventh statue has been fashioned from a rose-colored diamond. Longimanus is willing to part with it if Eduard in turn can find him a girl who has never lied in her life. She is finally found: She is the English girl Amine, on the Island of Truth, who is just about to be cast out to sea because she does not pay lip service to its king, Veritatius. The Island of Truth and its king resemble some venerable traditions in Metternich’s Austria that could not bear too much scrutiny. In the end, Eduard has recognized that love is more important than wealth, and he is willing to give up the statue for his beloved Amine. The play ends with the double betrothal of Eduard and Amine and of their servants Florian and Mariandel. In the character of Eduard, Raimund seems to have summed up his philosophy of life when he has him declare that “true virtuousness is not a matter of outward form, it lives innermost in the heart.”
The Maid from Fairyland
On November 10, 1826, Raimund appeared as Fortunatus Wurzel in the premiere of his third play, The Maid from Fairyland. The title role was suited to his talent, especially as he was able to show off his versatility in changing from a middle-aged man to an old man, from pride to remorse, from millionaire to ashman. Two songs from the play became popular folk songs virtually overnight: “Brüderlein fein” (my fine little brother) and Wurzel’s famous “Aschenlied” (ash song). The plot concerns the fairy Lacrimosa and her baby girl from a marriage with a mortal man. According to her mother’s wish, this “Girl from the Land of the Fairies” should marry the Prince of the Fairies. The Queen of the Fairies, outraged by this presumption, has deprived Lacrimosa of all her magic powers and...
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