Théatre allemand, ou recueil des meilleures pieces dramatiques, [...] (4 Bände, Paris 1785) [Rezension]. In: The Monthly Review. Volume 74. London: Griffiths 1786. Appendix (Foreign Literature). S. 503-505.
Theatre Allemande [sic!], i. e. The German Theatre; or a Collection of the best Dramatic Pieces, Ancient and Modern, which have been published in the German Language. To which is prefixed, a Dissertation concerning the Origin, Progress, and present State of Dramatic Poetry in Germany. By Messieurs Junker and Liebault. 8vo. 4 vols. Paris. 1785.
The first and second volumes of this collection were published some years ago, and then escaped our notice. The two last have lately appeared.
When we consider the present progressive motion of taste and genius in Germany, we suppose the editors will not stop here; for the dramatic productions of several modern poets of the first note are not placed in this collection. The compilement, however, has great merit, and the dissertation prefixed to it exhibits a curious history of this branch of German literature, interspersed with critical remarks, which are sometimes ingenious, but frequently offend us, when Shakespeare is brought before the tribunal of French taste, and judged by the laws in which Nature is so much cramped in the French drama.
In this dissertation we learn, that before the 8th century, no traces of dramatic poetry are to be found in the literary history of Germany. Those which appear in the three succeeding ages are obscure and ambiguous. In the year 1322, the clergy of Eisenach exhibited publickly in (what they called) a pretty show, the parable of the ten virgins, on which occasion the fate of the five foolish ones threw Frederick Marquis of Misnia into a violent passion, which was followed by an apoplexy, of which he died upon the spot. It was common in the ages of barbarism to bring upon the stage religious subjects, and particularly the remarkable events recorded in sacred history. Of this practice our Author gives us several very absurd and laughable specimens, from the German dramatists of the 15th and 16th centuries, which he considers as the first period of the German theatre. During this period Hans Sachs, a shoemaker of Nuremberg, composed 76 comedies and 59 tragedies, which are still extant, in five enormous folio volumes. The disputes between the Romanists and Calvinists furnished materials for dramatic compositions at the dawn of the Reformation; and the former more especially vented their polemic spleen in this manner. Luther and Calvin were exposed to popular hatred or ridicule in tragi-comedies and farces; and though the Protestants were less disposed than their adversaries to support their cause, by such methods of attack and defence, which they deemed inconsistent with the gravity of religion, yet they sometimes brought the Roman Pontif upon the scene, with a fool's cap on his ghostly
noddle; and if ridicule could ever be a test of truth, it had a large field for the display of its powers in the Vatican.
On this occasion our editors have imparted to the public, in their preliminary dissertation, a literary anecdote which is new to us; and which, though it may not be true in fact, carries nevertheless strong lines of probability. They tell us that Dr. Swift drew the plan of his Tale of a Tub from an old German romance, of which the subject is as follows: »A certain king, named Emanuel, had three sons, Pseudo-Peter, Martin, and John; of whom the eldest travelled into Italy, the second into Germany, and the third into Switzerland. During their absence the father dies, after having made a will, in which he leaves his kingdom to his three sons, and prescribes to them the rules and method they were to follow in governing their subjects. The eldest son, on his return home, takes possession of the kingdom, as if it belonged to him alone, treats his subjects with the greatest cruelty, and shews no regard to his father's will. Soon after this Martin returns, and, shocked at the repeated acts of violence committed by his brother, he accosts him with the most serious remonstrances, which Pseudo-Peter treats with indignation and contempt. In the midst of this contest, the youngest brother arrives from Switzerland, and, instead of accommodating matters, puts all into confusion by his impetuosity and petulance; at one time rejecting the testament as null and void, and at another interpreting its contents in the strangest manner. Finding, however, that this turbulent method of proceeding only served to prolong the contest, he bethought himself of an expedient for deciding it; this was, to dig up the body of their deceased father, and set it up as a mark at which the three brothers were to shoot successively, in consequence of a previous agreement, that he who touched it nearest the heart should be the sole possessor of the disputed kingdom. Pseudo-Peter consented to this proposal, but it was opposed by Martin, who respected his fathers remains, and hence the contest became more violent than ever. Martin's generous opposition to the proposal of his brothers, rendered him the object of their aversion, and they persecuted him with unrelenting cruelty; but by an act of divine justice, the deceased father was exhibited in a formidable apparition to his three sons, and chastising the eldest and the youngest with cruel torments, rewarded the filial affection of Martin, by putting the crown upon his head.« – The moral of this fiction, which is a keen satire against the Romanists and Calvinists, is evidently similar to that of the testament in the Tale of a Tub. Swift may have taken the hint from this farce; or, as wits jump, he may have conceived a similar plan in his own droll fancy. Utrum horum, mavis accipe. [i. e. which of these you prefer accept; F. F.]
The second period of dramatic poetry was introduced by Martin Opitz of Boberfield, the first German bard who felt the sublime beauties of Grecian and Latin poesy, and attempted to transplant them into his own language. In the year 1615 he translated the Trojan Women of Seneca; and in 1636 the Antigonus of Sophocles. In correctness and elegance his stile was so much superior to that of his predecessors, that he was called the father of the German drama; but his example was not followed by his successors. They preferred the affected, tawdry ornaments of the Italian poets, to the noble simplicity of the ancients; they were perpetually either fermenting in froth and bombast, or falling into burlesque; and in many of their tragedies Harlequin acts a principal part.
When Germany had laboured for more than a century under the just reproach of bad taste and ill-directed genius, Gottsched, who was a philosopher, a grammarian, and a critic, and held an eminent rank among men of wit and letters in his day (until better days came), attempted to reform the German theatre; and here begins the third period of the German drama. Gottsched was a correct writer, but he had not that warmth, nor that force of genius, which produce the pathetic and the sublime. He translated several pieces of Corneille, Racine, and Moliere, and seemed zealous to form the German theatre upon the model of the French. But this would not do with the grave and energic Teutons; and though Gottsched was seconded by a part of the nation, who, for a while, considered him as an extraordinary genius, yet there was always a predominant party against him, who looked upon the bold and free spirit of the English drama, as most suited to the genius of the Germans, and who therefore took Shakespear rather than Racine for their model. The consequence of this contest was, for some time, that several German dramatists imitated the French stage, others the English; some, with certain restrictions followed both, and attempted a mixture of English energy and pathos, with French elegance and precision. Thus the dramatic taste fluctuated in Germany, under the influence of different models. It is not yet perhaps arrived at a fixed state of consistence; but as imitation is daily giving place to invention and genius in that country, and the German bards are getting out of their leading strings, we may soon expect to see the national character, and the high improvements it has of late years received from the rapid progress of taste and true science, stamped in more original lines on the dramatic productions of the German poets. They have already published many pieces of great merit, of which the collection exhibited in the work before us is an evident proof. The French translation of these pieces here given by Messrs. Junker and Liebault, is much superior to that which was published at Amsterdam.