Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz 1751-1792
Russian-born German playwright, novella writer, poet, critic, and essayist.
Lenz is considered a leading member of Germany's Sturm und Drang literary movement, which flourished for a brief period in the mid-1770s. The Sturm und Drang, or Storm and Stress, movement was characterized by experimentalism in its “open” form of drama, an emphasis on the expression of strong and uninhibited feelings, and a preference for naturalism over rationalism. Lenz's dramas, while largely neglected for a century after their composition, influenced numerous writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who appreciated their radical forms and unflinching social criticism. Although Lenz also wrote poetry and novellas, he is best known for two plays—Der Hofmeister oder die Vorteile der Privaterziehung (The Tutor: Or, The Advantages of a Private Education), which was written in 1774 and produced in 1778, and Die Soldaten (The Soldiers), written in 1776 but not produced until 1863—and a book of essays on dramatic theory: Anmerkungen übers Theater (1774; Observations on the Theater). Although he succumbed to madness and lapsed into obscurity long before his death, Lenz today receives considerable critical appreciation as a flawed genius.
The son of a parson and his wife, Lenz was born in Sesswegen in Livonia (then a Russian province). In 1759 the family moved to Dorpat, Estonia, where Lenz received his Latin grammar school education. At the age of fourteen he began writing religious poems. From 1768 to 1771 he attended the University of Königsberg, where he studied theology. He left the university one semester before he was to graduate in order to accept a position as tutor for two German nobles, Friedrich Georg and Ernst Nicolaus von Kleist. When he accompanied the young men to Strasbourg, Lenz found himself accepted into a literary group, headed by Friedrich Rudolf Salzmann, which included among its members Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who had not yet achieved fame as a writer. Goethe and Lenz began a long, troubled friendship during which Lenz fell in love with Goethe's girlfriend, Friederike Elisabeth Brion. Lenz wrote several love poems to her that critics long believed to be the work of Goethe. The next few years witnessed a burst of creative energy, during which Lenz composed almost a dozen works. Near the end of 1777, he first fell victim to mental illness, which would become more pronounced as the years passed. He was cared for by Goethe's brother-in-law, J. G. Schlosser, until 1779, when he was sent to his home province. There he lived in poverty until 1781, when he received an appointment as in instructor at a boarding school near Moscow. After enduring years of increasingly poor physical health and debilitating mental problems, Lenz died in 1792 in a Moscow street.
Der Hofmeister, drawn from Lenz's personal experience as a teacher, rails against the institution of private tutors. The play dramatizes the lack of freedom for tutors, who must be obsequious to their employers; the damage to the students, who are denied a genuine education; and the cost to society when funds are diverted from the public education system. Die Soldaten is a work of political analysis concerned with the organization of military forces. The play offers proposals for proper military conduct, in social settings as well as in warfare, and gained notoriety for its demand that prostitution be institutionalized. Lenz was not sure whether to call it a comedy or a tragedy, though he finally settled on describing it as a comedy. His theory of comedy and many other issues related to drama are outlined in Anmerkungen übers Theater, a work that evolved from notes made by Lenz for a lecture. In one essay in the work, Lenz explains that, for him, comedy is concerned with events, tragedy with characters. Anmerkungen übers Theater has been criticized for its scattered presentation but has also been praised for the insight and compelling arguments of certain passages, including one in which Lenz presents a case for the rejection of the traditional Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action.
Goethe's famous remark describing Lenz as “nur ein vorübergehendes Meteor” (“only a fleeting meteor”) reflects the attitude of many of Lenz's critics over the centuries, who have focused on the flaws and signs of mental illness that characterize a number of his works. A more apt metaphor is perhaps that of a comet, for Lenz has reappeared as the object of critical notice several times since the eighteenth century. Many critics now devote their essays to refuting the negative judgments of their predecessors. M. A. L. Brown has noted that, along with the heightened respect that modern critics have granted to the Sturm und Drang movement, appreciation of Lenz's work has increased. Brown has characterized Der Hofmeister as a classic play of its type, praising its structure and crediting Lenz for writing from experience, presenting clear themes, and unambiguously offering solutions to social problems. Edward McInnes has argued that, although Lenz was ignored by literary historians and critics for more than a hundred years after his death, a time that witnessed no German stage productions of his work, he was never dismissed by playwrights, who admired his revolutionary experiments. Richard Alan Korb has viewed Der Hofmeister as a “bitingly satirical sex comedy,” contending that many critics have overlooked this work's commentary on social injustice and instead have considered its sex and violence to be gratuitous. Bruce Duncan has explicated Lenz's unorthodox views on comedy, which he argued, have caused commentators to misunderstand the aims of his work. Alan C. Leidner and Karin A. Wurst have surveyed early criticism of Lenz's work, asserting that often his rejection by critics and theater producers was due to his “anti-neoclassical instincts” as well as his refusal to create powerful, heroic protagonists. Scholars focusing on other aspects of Lenz's work include Norman R. Diffey, who has discussed the ways in which Lenz broke with other figures associated with the Sturm und Drang movement. Brigitta O'Regan has explored Lenz's existential theory of the self. Helga Madland has analyzed the question of whether Lenz actually suffered from mental illness, a view of the playwright that has been based on or reinforced by Georg Büchner's novella Lenz, which has traditionally been unquestioned by the majority of critics. Madland has also analyzed some of Lenz's radical views on art, which include the rejection of widely followed literary conventions; the insistence on portraying all aspects of nature, not just those that are traditionally considered beautiful; and the advocacy of caricature as a means of realistically depicting life. In his critique of Lenz's major works Bruce Duncan has noted that modern audiences find his plays relevant because Lenz “portrays figures who are indistinguishable from their environment, who in their language and behavior conform to the societal and economic forces that shape them.”