German Drama Since the 1600's Analysis

Johann Christoph Gottsched and German Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

For German drama, the eighteenth century marks the beginning of a new era that culminates in the unprecedented achievements of Weimar classicism. The credit for having moved literature onto this course must be given to Johann Christoph Gottsched, who is the dominant figure of the early Enlightenment, a time when supreme faith was placed on the exercise of reason.

Though trained as a theologian, Gottsched’s real interest was in literature and aesthetics. His productivity began early. At age twenty-four, he arrived at Leipzig, then an important intellectual and cultural center. He soon involved himself in the literary and academic life of the city and became a dominant force. When he published his highly influential Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst vor die Deutschen (1730; attempt at a critical poesy for the Germans), it became the recognized authority for the writing of poetry and drama. The work, a practical guide for the aspiring author, prescribes principles of composition and discusses elements of style. Its basic premise is that literature is the product of the mind acting in accordance with preestablished laws of composition. Gottsched’s primary aim was to introduce into German drama something of that beauty of form that he admired in the plays of the French tragedians Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine. To put his theories into practice, he formed an alliance with the acting company of Karoline Neuber . Together they set out to reform German...

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Rebellion Against Gottsched’s Rules

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although Gottsched made important contributions to the development of theater, his theory of dramatic composition proved to have a serious flaw. He sought to reform literature externally, by imposing rules on it. He had little use for imagination, which he, like many of his contemporaries, regarded as a recollective or reproductive faculty rather than a creative one. Furthermore, his efforts to create a German drama modeled on the French did not reflect the national taste. In the 1740’s his views were challenged by two Swiss theoreticians, Johann Jakob Bodmer and Johann Jakob Breitinger . Both agreed that drama needed to be reformed, but, unlike their opponent, they sought to accomplish the task from within. They pointed out that great works are not the product of rules but that the rules arise from the product. Each work of art is a self-contained entity, a law unto itself. Hence, they called for more flexibility in form and for more freedom in the exercise of the imagination. As more writers sided with Bodmer and Breitinger, Gottsched’s influence declined. His more talented disciples fell away and struck out on their own. The most gifted of them was Johann Elias Schlegel . Instead of imitating the French, he chose ancient Greek tragedy as his model. His tragedies Hermann (pb. 1743) and Canut (pb. 1746) reflect the more liberal trend in the judicious use of imagination and feeling. He also wrote two comedies, Die stumme Schönheit (pb....

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Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Both a dramatist and a critic, Lessing had a decisive influence on the development of German drama. Lessing joined those opposing the more restrictive canons of the Gottsched school in calling for greater freedom in the choice of subject matter and greater flexibility in form. He also insisted that tragedy need not deal with kings, princes, or heroes to be tragic. He then illustrated his point by writing Miss Sara Sampson (pr. 1755; English translation, 1933), a play about the seduction of a young woman of the middle class by an aristocrat. The drama marks the beginning of a new genre, the bürgerliches Trauerspiel (middle-class, or bourgeois, tragedy). Here Lessing breaks with tradition not only in the choice of subject matter but also in the use of everyday language instead of the Alexandrines favored by the Gottsched school. He maintained this novel practice for Emilia Galotti (pr. 1772; English translation, 1786). For the rest of the century, the possibilities of this genre were successfully exploited by many authors. Its influence is recognizable in the nineteenth century in Friedrich Hebbel’s prose tragedies, the social dramas of Henrik Ibsen and Gerhart Hauptmann, and, in modified form, in the mass-man dramas of the 1890’s.

Lessing made two other lasting contributions. The first concerns his introduction of blank verse for tragedy, first employed for Nathan der Weise (pr. 1783; Nathan the Wise, 1781). Blank verse caught on quickly, and after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had demonstrated its potential in Iphigenie auf Tauris (pb. 1779; Iphigenia in Tauris, 1793), it became the standard form for tragedy. Lessing’s second major contribution is to be found in the critical essays of his Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767-1768; Hamburg Dramaturgy, 1879). Through analysis of specific plays combined with his reinterpretation of Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), he was able to free his contemporaries from the domination of Gottsched’s theories and the rules of French tragedy while at the same time providing them with more liberal guidelines. In so doing, Lessing supplied the ammunition the next generation of writers needed to revolutionize drama.

Sturm und Drang

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

As is the case with so many literary movements, the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement was a revolt against the ideas and standards of the preceding generation. The young writers of this group assaulted the tyranny of reason, advocating the cultivation of the emotions and the imagination and calling for their expression in drama. Instinct and intuition should be trusted, they proclaimed, for humanity’s true nature is to be found in the irrational depths of the heart. Whatever the mind failed to grasp, the imagination would. Next, they rejected the Enlightenment tenet that great art results from following rules. Hence, they denounced all traditional standards of dramatic composition—standards that, in their view, suffocate the creative spirit. They called on the authority of Lessing, who had written that the creative genius is a law unto himself. As their model they chose William Shakespeare, whose poetry and drama, they pointed out, broke every law in the book.

In the social sphere, these writers demanded equality and raised their voices against the privileges of the nobility. Individuals, they held, have the right and the duty to realize their potential, which they can only do if they are unrestricted by the class system. On another level, they claimed that people endowed with the strength and the talent to achieve greatness are not subject to the same standards of conduct as average people, who order their lives according to the prevailing values of the day. The only guide for extraordinary individuals is their own...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The spirit of Athens and Rome that entered German drama in the late eighteenth century was the culmination of a trend in aesthetics that had its beginning in the work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann . In his influential Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764; History of the Art of Antiquity, 1849-1873), he had maintained that the only way a society could achieve greatness was to imitate the Greeks. His ideas caught on quickly and served as the basis for the introduction of the Greek ideal into education and art. Through Lessing, Winckelmann’s ideas found their way into drama. Winckelmann’s often quoted definition of the Greek ideal as “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” also held great attraction for Schiller and Goethe, who had grown weary of the excesses of the Sturm und Drang.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s classical period covers the years between 1779 and 1810. His first piece of that period, Iphigenia in Tauris , underwent three revisions, in which his transition to classicism is evident. His turn from the Sturm und Drang became decisive after two years in Italy (1786-1788), where he was able to study antiquity at first hand. In Italy, he recast the prose of the first two versions of Iphigenia in Tauris into an elevated blank verse that ultimately became the standard form for German tragedy for more than a century. Inspired by Sophocles and Aristotle’s Poetics, he incorporated features characteristic of Athenian tragedy. By exploiting the possibilities offered by...

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Friedrich Schiller

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

An even greater contribution to German drama was made by Friedrich Schiller , one of Germany’s foremost dramatists. A lyric poet in his own right, a theoretician and philosopher of renown, he brought to drama a combination of philosophical insight, poetic power, and regularity of form that has perhaps never been exceeded.

Schiller began his career as a playwright when still an unwilling cadet at the military academy founded by the unimaginative despot Karl Eugen of Württemberg. Schiller wrote his first play, The Robbers, in secret because the explosive subject matter was sure to incur the duke’s displeasure. For the same reason, he published it outside the duchy under a pseudonym. The play soon caught the...

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Heinrich von Kleist

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Next to Schiller and Goethe, the other leading dramatist of the period is Heinrich von Kleist . Active during the classical and the Romantic periods, he does not stand in the mainstream of either, yet he displays characteristics of both. The most striking feature underlying his early pieces is the notion that humans have little power to determine their destiny. According to him, human beings are subject to the workings of mysterious, and often malevolent forces. This feature is manifest in Die Familie Schroffenstein (pr. 1804; The Schroffenstein Family, 1916), in Penthesilea (pb. 1808; English translation, 1959), and in his two comedies Amphitryon (pb. 1807; English translation, 1962) and Der...

(The entire section is 287 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The Romantic movement is best viewed as a continuation of the revolt against the Enlightenment initiated by the Sturm und Drang. The two movements are similar in that both stand in opposition to the overemphasis on reason and to the procrustean, limiting laws governing dramatic composition. Both movements advocated the cultivation of humanity’s emotional side. The difference between the two is one of degree. The Sturm und Drang frequently went too far in its categorical rejection of all rules and often carried the depiction of emotion to excess. The Romantics, by contrast, sought to strike a balance between intellect and emotion, adherence to rules and freedom to experiment. In order to curb emotional excess, the concept of...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Biedermeier and Young Germany

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

German drama between 1820 and 1850 was in many ways a drama in transition. The Romantic movement was waning, and the new approach to come, realism, was yet undefined. The two movements filling the gap were Biedermeier and the Junge Deutschland (Young Germany) movement. Both represent a specific orientation to the reactionary political climate that set in after Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated in 1815. Biedermeier, predominantly middle class, reflects the widespread acceptance of established authority. The Young Germany movement, by contrast, attacked the establishment and clamored for political reforms. It called for universal suffrage and agitated for the unification of the German states into one nation. The Biedermeier produced no...

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Austrian Drama of the 1800’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

With the untimely death of North Germany’s most gifted dramatists—Schiller, Kleist, and Büchner—the center of dramatic activity shifted to Vienna. The capital of Austria had a dramatic tradition extending back some two hundred years. There, Italian Renaissance opera and the commedia dell’arte had flourished. The religious drama of the Jesuits had found an audience, and so had the works of the masters of the Spanish Baroque, Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Lope de Vega Carpio. The inheritor of this long tradition was Austria’s most talented dramatist, Franz Grillparzer.

Grillparzer was born in Vienna and spent most of his life there. His first successful drama was The Ancestress. This fate tragedy is...

(The entire section is 935 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although fiction was the preferred literary form during the period between the 1840’s and the 1880’s, three eminent dramatists, Friedrich Hebbel , Otto Ludwig , and Richard Wagner, were active during these years. Hebbel is known for his novel conception of tragedy. He rejects the traditional idea that misfortune is the result of a specific error or moral deficiency on the part of the hero. Rather, it is the result of an individual’s exerting his or her will. Hebbel conceived of the world as governed by universal forces, which he sometimes calls the Idea, sometimes the Whole. It may manifest itself as custom, tradition, or simply the status quo. When people assert their will against the Whole, they separate themselves from it....

(The entire section is 748 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Naturalism was in large measure a literary response to social conditions of that time. When the German states were at last welded into a single nation in 1871, the new country embarked on a concerted program of rapid industrialization. An unfortunate side effect was the emergence of a proletarian underclass, whose welfare the industrial barons ignored. Safety conditions were appalling, and workers’ rights were yet to be formulated. Most people of this class lived in poverty and squalor. A number of writers and intellectuals of the 1870’s and 1880’s addressed this problem in newspapers and pamphlets. As spokespeople for the oppressed, they denounced the incongruity between the stark realities of everyday life and a world of...

(The entire section is 802 words.)

Neo-Romanticism and Neoclassicism

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although Hauptmann was the foremost dramatist of naturalism, he was well aware of its limitations from the outset. As early as 1893, he digressed to write a neo-Romantic drama, Hanneles Himmelfahrt (pr. 1893; The Assumption of Hannele, 1894) . Hannele, the child of a drunken bricklayer, tries to drown herself. She is pulled from the water and taken to a hospice for derelicts. Dying, she has a series of hallucinations that she takes for reality. The hallucinations, which are presented to the audience, show what her life might have been in better circumstances. The play derives its power from the juxtaposition of scenes of abject poverty with dream images of an idyllic life. In a similar neo-Romantic vein is Die...

(The entire section is 336 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bennett, Benjamin. Modern Drama and German Classicism: Renaissance from Lessing to Brecht. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979. Still a valuable, comprehensive guide to German drama up to the middle of the twentieth century. Bibliography, index.

Berghaus, Gunter, ed. Fascism and Theatre: Comparative Studies on the Aesthetics and Politics of Performance in Europe, 1925-1945. Providence, R.I.: Berghahn Press, 1996. Contains good essays on the Nazi impact on theater in Germany and the staging of Nazi party rallies as a form of theatrical spectacle. Bibliography.

Brandt, George W., ed. German and...

(The entire section is 562 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The primary concern of the expressionists was the fate of humanity in a world that has gone awry. Western society, they said, is rushing toward its destruction, and if nothing is done it will not survive. They placed the blame for this situation on industrialization, which, in their view, transformed the individual into a faceless, machine-tending robot. In an industrial society, enjoyment is divorced from labor, means from end, effort from reward. Consequently, the expressionists did not clamor for social reforms or agitate for the improvement of conditions in the workplace. They called for nothing less than a regeneration of the whole human race, a transformation and purification of character that would emancipate humanity from...

(The entire section is 832 words.)

Blut und Boden

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in January, 1933, reversed the literary and intellectual currents in Germany within a matter of months. Literary activity was brought into line with National Socialist dogma. Many eminent writers, fearing for their lives, fled into exile. Those who remained and refused to cooperate were forbidden to publish. The few who openly defied the authorities, such as Ernst Wiechert, were sent to concentration camps. Henceforth, the only type of literature acceptable was that which promoted the Nazi viewpoint. Plays glorified German power and Aryan superiority and vilified everything Jewish. These efforts are summed up in the epithet Blut und Boden (blood and soil) in that Aryan blood and German soil...

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The Immediate Postwar Era

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The collapse of the Third Reich was accompanied by the permanent eclipse of most of the playwrights who had cast their lot with it. Although many lived on for years, they all found it difficult, if not impossible, to make the transition to the postwar climate. Of the older generation that had fled into exile, a significant few lived to return. Chief among those who did were Bertolt Brecht and Carl Zuckmayer . When Zuckmayer arrived in 1946, he brought a new play, Des Teufels General (pr. 1946; The Devil’s General, 1962) . Set in Germany during the early years of World War II, it dramatizes the life and suicide crash of the Luftwaffe test pilot Erich Udet, called “Harras” in the play. It examines the question...

(The entire section is 330 words.)

Swiss Playwrights

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

While Germany was coming to terms with its past, there emerged two Swiss dramatists of considerable talent, Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt , the first playwrights from that country ever to achieve international fame. Both authors have viewed the theater as a didactic institution, a vantage point from which to approach political and social problems. In their view, the purposes of theater are to expose and to educate. Perhaps both profited from the influx of German theatrical talent to Switzerland during the Nazi years. With its German-speaking audience, the Zürich Schauspielhaus provided a rare haven for non-Nazi plays to be produced, and exiled Germans found a creative outlet there.

Although Frisch had written...

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1960’s: Documentary Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the 1960’s, there emerged a generation of German playwrights relatively unburdened by the Nazi past and deeply involved in the political and social issues of the day. Their favorite genre became the documentary drama , which strove to dramatize real-life conflicts. Their political attitudes tended to lean toward the Left. Of note is Heiner Kipphardt, whose most important work is In der Sache J. Robert Oppenheimer (pr. 1964; In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1967). The play examines the events leading up to the cancellation of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance because he was suspected of harboring communist sympathies.

One of the few playwrights of the 1960’s to attract...

(The entire section is 236 words.)

Later Twentieth Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The author whose pieces were most often performed during the 1970’s and 1980’s was Franz Xaver Kroetz , who believes that the world’s basic problems can be comprehended and presented on the stage in order to bring about social improvement. Taking as his subject people from society’s substratum, or underclass, Kroetz has contrasted their attitude to that of traditional morality on such matters as murder, infanticide, abortion, and rape. The matter-of-fact manner in which these deeds are staged make them appear as part of life’s routine, no more worthy of note than eating and drinking. In this way, the author is able to illuminate how the pressures of modern society erode traditional values. Representative of his view are...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

East Germany, 1945-1990

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

When the victorious Red Army occupied East Germany at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union mandated the establishment of a Marxist theater. Playwrights and directors who were willing to work under this regime were welcome to return, and theaters were quickly rebuilt to house revivals of Socialist Realist productions and plays agreeable to the Soviet agenda. Brecht and his wife, actress Helene Weigel, whom contemporary critics credit with much previously unacknowledged creative help for her husband’s plays, founded the Berliner Ensemble in 1949. Led by Weigel after Brecht’s death in 1956, it became the most influential East German theater in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

After the foundation of the German...

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Political Drama after Reunification

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The mid-1990’s saw the powerful emergence of new playwrights whose dramas were explicitly about Germany. Klaus Pohl ’s Die schöne Fremde (pr. 1991; The Beautiful Stranger, 1996) deals with the issue of xenophobia. In the play, after witnessing the racially motivated murder of a Polish man and suffering a sexual assault herself in a small town in the middle of Germany, a Jewish American woman, the beautiful stranger of the play, returns to exact her revenge. Pohl’s Wartesaal Deutschland: Stimmenreich (pr. 1995; Waiting Room Germany, 1997) is a play manufactured entirely out of the real-life conversations overheard by the playwright while traveling through reunified Germany on an unrelated...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

The Private, the Psychological, and the International

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

German drama of the 1990’s and the early twenty-first century encompassed more than political drama. Tankred Dorst, who as a teenager got kicked out of a Hitler Youth Camp for reading drama while on guard duty, started out as a puppeteer and always disdained documentary or political drama. Politics enters as an outside force in the richly imagined and detailed private lives of his characters. Beginning in 1972, he and his dramatist wife Ursula Ehler wrote many well-received plays examining the intricate inner worlds of an amazing variety of imagined people. The question of what constitutes truth is a recurrent theme in Dorst and Ehler’s plays. Their witty Fernando Krapp hat mir diesen Brief geschrieben: Ein Versuch über...

(The entire section is 624 words.)

German Drama Since 2000

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the early twenty-first century, contemporary German playwrights faced certain difficulties in getting their plays produced. Of all the plays put on the regular stage, half are foreign translations, and only a fraction of all major productions are by original playwrights from Germany, Austria, or German-speaking Switzerland. There also is the temptation to write plays for television or to write for experimental, nonmainstream outlets like university, amateur, or prison productions. Cutbacks of once very generous budgets for local theaters further challenge dramatists to create plays that can draw audiences and carry a serious message.

Among the established dramatists, Botho Strauss is considered one of reunified...

(The entire section is 398 words.)