Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz Lenz, Jakob Michael Reinhold - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Die Landplagen: Ein Gedicht in sechs Büchern, nebst einem Anhang einiger Fragmente (poetry) 1769

Anmerkungen übers Theater [Observations on the Theater] (essays) 1774

*Der Hofmeister oder die Vorteile der Privaterziehung [The Tutor: Or, The Advantages of a Private Education] (play) 1774

Der neue Menoza oder die Geschichte des cubanischen Prinzen Tandi [The New Mendoza] (play) 1774

Pandaemonium Germanicum (satire) 1775

Die Freunde machen den Philosophen (play) 1776

Petrarch (poetry) 1776

Die Soldaten [The Soldiers] (play) 1776

Zerbin oder die neuere Philosophie (novella) 1776

Der Engländer (play) 1777

Der Landprediger (novella) 1777

Myrsa Polagi oder die Irrgärten (play) 1782

Tantalus (play) 1798

Der verwundete Bräutigam (play) 1845

Briefe von und an J. M. R. Lenz. 2 vols. (letters) 1918

*This play was first produced in 1778.

†This work was first published in 1819.

‡This play was first produced in 1863.

M. A. L. Brown (essay date 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Brown, M. A. L. “Lenz's Hofmeister and the Drama of Storm and Stress.” In Periods in German Literature: Volume II: Texts and Contexts, edited by J. M. Ritchie, pp. 67-84. London: Oswald Wolff, 1969.

[In the following essay, Brown explains what makes Der Hofmeister a classic Sturm und Drang drama.]

The choice of a drama to represent the Storm and Stress in a work of this kind is not surprising. Despite the undoubted affinity which existed between the Storm and Stress conception of creative genius and the poetic form of the lyric, an affinity reflected in the finest poems written by Goethe between 1770 and 1775, drama was the most popular...

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Helga Madland (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Madland, Helga. “Imitation to Creation: The Changing Concept of Mimesis from Bodmer and Breitinger to Lenz.” In Eighteenth-Century German Authors and Their Aesthetic Theories: Literature and the Other Arts, edited by Richard Critchfield and Wulf Koepke, pp. 29-43. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1988.

[In the following essay, Madland analyzes Lenz's theory of literary creativity.]

Eighteenth-century poetics from Bodmer and Breitinger to Lenz represent a reaction against the aesthetic theories of Johann Christoph Gottsched whose thought dominated the early decades of the eighteenth century. According to Gottsched, the best rule for the dramatist is to observe...

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Norman R. Diffey (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Diffey, Norman R. “J. M. R. Lenz and the Humanizing Role of Literature.” In Man and Nature: Proceedings of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Volume IX, edited by Hans-Günther Schwarz, David McNeil, and Roland Bonnel, pp. 109-17. Edmonton: Academic Printing and Publishing, 1990.

[In the following essay, Diffey explains Lenz's ambivalence, even pessimism, concerning the role of literature in improving society.]

The name J. M. R. Lenz stands in a symbolic relationship with the Sturm und Drang. In life and work, his destiny was intimately linked to that of the movement in a way less true of his contemporaries. His provocative plays...

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Edward McInnes (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: McInnes, Edward. “Lenz and the Development of Dramatic Realism in the 19th Century.” In Lenz: Der Hofmeister, pp. 72-81. London: Grant & Cutler, 1992.

[In the following essay, McInnes examines Lenz's influence on nineteenth-century theater.]

Das Schicksal thront nicht mehr über und außer der Welt, das Schicksal ist nichts Anderes als die herrschende Weltlage selber von der jeder Einzelne abhängt; es sind die aus dieser Weltlage entspringenden Sitten, Begriffe und Zustände, die für den Einzelnen als Einzelnen durchaus undurchbrechbar und deshalb für ihn eine tragische Macht sind.


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Richard Alan Korb (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Korb, Richard Alan. “Der Hofmeister: Lenz's Sex Comedy.” In Space to Act: The Theater of J. M. R. Lenz, edited by Alan C. Leidner and Helga S. Madland, pp. 25-34. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993.

[In the following essay, Korb discusses how Lenz used parody and satire in Der Hofmeister to deal with taboo sexual topics.]

Sexuality and the question of genre may seem to be unlikely bedmates—unless we are considering a play in which a wife tries to make her husband jealous by chasing after the young gentleman who is supposed to marry her daughter, a play in which a young woman strips a young man, who in turn climbs into the window of another...

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Helga Stipa Madland (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Madland, Helga Stipa. “Lenz and the Question of Madness.” In Image and Text: J. M. R. Lenz, pp. 1-16. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 1994.

[In the following essay, Madland considers whether or not Lenz suffered from schizophrenia or another sickness, or whether he feigned illness. She also contends that Georg Büchner's fictional account of Lenz's madness is granted too much credence.]

“Lenz lenzelt noch bei mir.”1

Of all the events in Lenz's personal and literary life, it was his January 1778 mental breakdown that left the deepest imprint on literary history. All biographical accounts...

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Brigitta O'Regan (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: O'Regan, Brigitta. “The Paradox of Existence.” In Self and Existence: J. M. R. Lenz's Subjective Point of View, pp. 97-105. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997.

[In the following essay, O'Regan contends that Lenz used ambiguity and paradox in his works in order to call attention to human self-deception and the mystery of existence.]

Kierkegaard's employs a dialectical style to convey his existential truths and more often than not he makes use of paradox to communicate his insights. In addition, he insists that a subjective thinker's style of writing must have a relationship to his existence:

The subjective thinker has...

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Bruce Duncan (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Duncan, Bruce. “Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz.” In Lovers, Parricides, and Highwaymen: Aspects of Sturm und Drang Drama, pp. 116-50. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 1999.

[In the following essay, Duncan provides a biography of Lenz and an overview of his major works.]

The world took little note when Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792) died alone on a Moscow street. Few people still remembered the one-time enfant terrible of German letters, and those who did often assumed that he had passed on long before. One publication had in fact mistakenly announced his demise twelve years earlier.1 Extremes of fame and oblivion have continued to...

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Alan C. Leidner and Karin A. Wurst (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Leidner, Alan C., and Karin A. Wurst. “The First Reviews.” In Unpopular Virtues: The Critical Reception of J. M. R. Lenz, pp. 1-19. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, Inc., 1999.

[In the following essay, Leidner and Wurst survey early criticism of Lenz's work.]


When Der Hofmeister, Lenz's first published drama and the first of his major dramas to be performed (in 1778) appeared in 1774, modern literary criticism was still in its infancy. Although it had been a half century since Joseph Addison called the imagination more germane to the theater than neoclassical rules, and since Jean Baptiste Dubos declared...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Blunden, Allan. “Language and Politics: The Patriotic Endeavours of J. M. R. Lenz.” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 49 (October 1975): 168-89.

Speculates on Lenz's motives in promoting patriotism and analyzes his contention that a nation's language indicates the character of its people.

———. “A Case of Elusive Identity: The Correspondence of J. M. R. Lenz.” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 50, nos. 1-2 (April 1976): 103-26.

Claims that Lenz's style does not neatly fit into the category of Sturm und...

(The entire section is 1117 words.)