Supplementary Appendix 144.1

Wilhelm Schlegel’s review of Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter, Schauspiele (1: Die stolze Vasthi; 2: Esther; 3: Die Basen) (Leipzig: Göschen, 1795), in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1796) 13 (Tuesday, 12 January 1796) 97–103 (Sämmtliche Werke, 10:91–98).

One peculiarity of our literature is that, despite our impoverishment within the dramatic genre, we do nonetheless possess a not inconsiderable number of extremely well-done plays whose authors from the outset did not intend them for the stage or whose stage success has in no way been commensurate with their actual value.

Although, on the one hand, we find hardly any of the works of our dramatic masters among our generally accessible plays, yet, on the other, it is nonetheless with a certain degree of confidence that trite mediocrity is permitted to appear in the theater, indeed, often taking over our theater entirely.

The great mass of actors, it seems, finds such triteness more commensurate with their own talents, while the great mass of spectators finds it equally commensurate with their own needs, needs with which, after all, they themselves are surely most familiar; and that which one feels has the greatest kinship with his own spirit invariably also has something extraordinarily cozy and comfortable about it.

No small degree of cultivation is required to return from time to time to what is genuinely excellent with renewed pleasure, and to find it new again through consistently more penetrating observation. Whence also the incessant desire for something new, even if its character be such that its entire merit — assuming it has such at all prior to the beginning of the first performance — has invariably already been lost by the end of that performance.

These remarks quite came to this reviewer’s mind while reading the plays mentioned above, though amid the exquisite entertainment afforded him especially by the first two he must nonetheless lament that while they do undeniably constitute an enrichment of our literature, they likely do not provide the same such enrichment of our theater.

The writer (one of those who as often, or rather, as rarely as they appear are always welcome, and in whom one might reproach only that, amid such fortunate facility are not more generous with their spirit — if such demands on wit and imagination [powers that shine forth only within the most unfettered excitation] were not always importunate and unreasonable), — this writer provides his own explanation in this regard in a brief preface. “These pieces were originally occasioned by the needs of a social [reading-circle] theater, and those who view them from this perspective will perhaps be more inclined to excuse various deviations from the strict rules of dramatic art as well as various other transgressions of wit and caprice.

Such applies especially to the first two pieces” (Vasthi, ein Lustspiel in einem Akte; Esther, ein Schauspiel in sechs Akten), “whose material is too noticeably at odds with its treatment to be commensurate with the goals of actual public performance.”

To wit, the story of that famous queen is here spiced by a peculiar, extremely original comic genre. Historical persons already familiar to us from early childhood by way of a particular venerable, respected document, and yet persons whose character does not really display anything particularly venerable about it — such that caprice can engage its mischief with them with some good success — appear here equipped with new-fashioned modes of perception, manners, and, in part, even folly. Although it might well be impossible to adhere strictly to costume in portraying events taking place in such distant times and among such strange peoples, any noticeable transgression in that regard, unwittingly committed in the midst of his otherwise tragic seriousness, does risk placing the writer in a ridiculous light.

It is quite another thing when, as is here the case, an author intentionally disarranges the age and customs for the sake of generating surprising contrasts through the juxtaposition of such otherwise disparate notions. This undertaking can be taken to the point of burlesque and is one of the preeminent auxiliary devices engaged by parody. Our present writer, however, understands how to maintain moderation in jest as well, and to present such contrasts with deft subtlety without drifting away from the higher element of the comic that he himself has posited in the characters. The shorter piece is to a certain extent a prologue to the second, the persons who appear there also appearing for the most part later as well.

There is little in the way of intricate development in the story, nor can there be such, and yet the numerous and irritating whims of the beautiful protagonist, in whom the arrogance of status is coupled with a boundless trust in the oft tested omnipotence of her charms; the welcome but neglectfully received flattery and futilely offered wisdom of her governess; the various sorts of courtly pedantry in the tone of the chamberlains dispatched to her; and finally the trite solemnity of the consultations on how the transgressoress is to be punished — all these features together deliver an extremely well-conceived tableau whose charming powers of attraction reside neither in its all-too-colorful character nor in any element of the overladen.

The story of proud Vasthi (in which nothing has been altered except that Haman and his wife already make an appearance, and that the queen pines for a beloved, who, as one learns in the following piece, “is strangled quietly according to the ancient custom”) has never seriously been viewed as tragic except by power-hungry women or tormented men, since Ahasuerus’s good intentions seem to have achieved little success for her. But Esther’s deed genuinely was already once adapted as a tragedy for the sake of edification, this time from the stage, for a devout and intemperately indulgent court. [1]

Moreover, in that piece Piétè praises Louis XIV in a magnificent prologue, and in order that the Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr might have the opportunity to display their skill in spiritual hymns, and that Madame de Maintenon might also be portrayed within the character of Esther, the latter — who, after all, depended so utterly on keeping her birth a secret — is made to instruct a whole host of young Jewesses in the royal palace in the religion of their fathers. Could the tragic muse, its considerable dignity notwithstanding, possibly keep from laughing when Racine expected such things of her? And indeed, not a few features of his tragedy would, but slightly altered or enhanced, certainly find an appropriate place in the Esther from which several scenes are performed in the Jahrmarkte zu Plundersweilern. [2] Who among us is not familiar with this incomparable farce? Who cannot help but laugh every time anew at the heart-rending conversations between Emperor Ahasuerus and his minister Haman, between Esther and her court Jew Mordecai?

Noting that they have doubtless provided our writer with the occasion for such an adaptation of this material in a fully rendered play requires no great critical acumen; but any who might linger not for the pleasure of comparison, but in order to denigrate this more recent Esther, could not but have utterly lost sight of the distinction between previously existing material that has nonetheless been engaged in a unique, ingenious fashion, and a mere imitation that struts with someone else’s possession — or simply be intent on failing to recognize such. The comic colors have been far more strongly applied in that particular fragment of a Haupt- und Staats-Aktion [3] than in the present tragicomedy (if one is to assign it the name of a particular genre); moreover, here the common characters undergo a completely different portrayal.

Beautiful Esther is wholly charming here with her shy simplicity, which occasionally elevates itself to devout heroic courage; or elderly Mordecai as a venerable old man without any admixture of national Jewish features. Similarly, the sultanic indifference and self-satisfied limpness in the character of Ahasuerus, although not entirely removed, is nonetheless significantly mitigated. One might almost say that his behavior toward Esther is too noble and empathetic not to contradict those particular features were it not that love, as we are told, does frequently work precisely such miracles. The sleepless night when Ahasverus, out of boredom, has his deeds read aloud to him, and then only through Chronicles and the histories must be reminded that Mordecai saved him from a conspiracy, confronted the tragic poet who believed himself bound to every point of a story attested this way with a desperate task.

Who cannot but laugh at Racine when his king has himself set on his throne as if on a Delphic pedestal and then utters the following nonsense: [4]

It must be own'd I nearly had forgot
The horrid plots of those perfidious men;
Yet twice at the recital I turn'd pale,
When the rememb'rance to my mind recurr'd.

By contrast, though the story is indeed followed here as well, it is also treated in the corresponding tone and enriched through various additions. The clever astrologer, the candid Greek physician, the singer with her charming royal lullaby, the cantor and the 648th chapter of the 1486th book of Chronicles, all of whom must entertain the monarch one after the other, provide one of the most entertaining and capricious scenes ever written. It has been prudently arranged for Ahasuerus to initially resist Haman’s suggestion to murder the Jews and for the manner in which the order is later surreptitiously obtained now to remain obscure.

In the true story, the same willingness with which he concedes first this bloodbath to Haman, and then makes a completely opposing concession to his Jewish successor, is truly revolting. Mordecai and the queen’s thirst for revenge is also prudently passed over. The request similarly to hang Haman’s ten sons, uttered as it is, moreover, by the vacant and heartless courtier to whom the writer has assigned it, is perhaps too horrific.

Fortunately, it is denied. Haman himself unavoidably had to be portrayed as a scoundrel; in return, however, one knows beforehand how imposingly poetic justice will be exercised on him. The daring move of seizing the abominable from its ridiculous side and presenting it comically through a portrayal of inhumanity, yet without transgressing against our moral sensibility, can hardly succeed any better than in the scene in which Haman announces the success of his efforts to his wife and her friend:

But now hark and be glad! In thrice twenty hours
They will all be slain and dead — dead — dead, like rabid dogs.

The way in which the intoxication of joy and wine simultaneously pours forth in his crude, selfish boasting is masterfully conceived and executed. “Now you see what I am capable of,” he says while patting himself on the stomach and drinking:

Across rocks did my path proceed: the mina cost sweat.
The guillotine is already prescribed from Paris.
It will arrive by express coach in three days.
And then behold: with but a single snap, a hundred will be dispensed!

A similarly ingenious creation, albeit a wordplay, but a witty one, is when Haman previously portrays for the king the descendants of Jacob as criminals and cries out:

Exterminate all Jacobins [Germ. Jacobiner]
From the ass driver to the head of the rabbis [Germ. Rabbiner]!

Zeresh, Haman’s wife, an old, wise lady of the court, who after her discharge as governess takes up moral and political writing, exhibits the deceptive veracity of a portrait; her friend, the chamberlain, whom solely the needs of his stomach fetter to the podagral beauty, also wholly belongs to this rubric. Among the plethora of traits as bold as they are subtle, whose portrayal could succeed only through the wit of an experienced connoisseur of human nature, it is difficult to choose the most excellent; moreover, they lose greatly when taken out of context. Zeresh gives the young queen, among other things, the following description of etiquette:

Thus the secret,
The slogan, the motto of courts far and wide;
The stone, rounded by phantom hand into the cornerstone;
Upon which Solomon's lost wisdom was based;
The image of Isis, who never unveils her head;
The talisman that resolves all magic;
And when from pole to pole the courts condemn one the other,
Persecute and split — this ring holds them together.

On another occasion she reproaches the lack of dignity and solemnity in her comportment:

Which is to say — the queen is ignorant of etiquette.
Sometimes seeking to outdo her chambermaids in embroidery;
Sometimes standing on the balcony, playing jeu-jeu by herself;
Caressing the monkey here, the cockadoo there;
Sometimes walking — no! running about at a gallop,
And putting on the purple robe like a casual fur.

And yet amid the surfeit of amusing ideas and comical portrayals, nowhere does one sense that the material has been coerced in order to squeeze such out; everything seems to flow on its own initiative. Everything that by the very nature of the material is serious, the writer has left as is; that said, in several passages he does demonstrate that he also has at his disposal impressions of a quite different sort, impressions with which here, however, he merely plays, then quickly destroying his own production by way of a fleeting transition, as it were out of sheer caprice. Perhaps he does occasionally drift a bit too far into the sphere of tragic drama. It says little to point out that the scene in which Haman, after Ahasuerus has just exited, pleads for compassion from Esther, exhibits far more pathetic strength here than in Racine; and yet this final adjuration exhibits something unpleasantly disturbing coming from such a scoundrel.

The lines cited above can at once also provide a sample of the versification to which readers are already accustomed in the author’s poems. Rhymed Alexandrines, which earlier reigned in almost all poetic genres among us much as among the French, have for a time now perhaps been excessively neglected. Yet just as all things ebb and flow, so also do Alexandrines now seem to be on the ascendancy once more. Although they are probably justifiably banned from the tragic stage, Herr Gotter has in his own tragedies provided an ideal example of how best to implement them.

Though this particular meter is already, quite in and of itself, too monotonous for the free, varied expression of passion, it would likely also be too arduous a task for our actors to recite it naturally, with its constant tonal alternation, and yet without disadvantage to its euphony. In a general sense, rhyming incessantly and excessively draws attention to the writer, whom we would prefer to forget behind his characters, though such considerations do perhaps apply less to comically dramatized treatments. Be that as it may, the enjoyment of readers of these plays (considering that, though they do indeed otherwise fulfill all theatrical requirements, the names will likely hinder actual performance) is doubtless considerably enhanced by the rhyme, whose subtler charms and, if one be permitted to say, whose graces the writer has wholly succeeded in evoking seemingly without requiring the least sacrifice. The animation and ingenious turns within the dialogue, instead of suffering under such, quite to the contrary radiate all the more.

The author’s own, all-too-modest explanations relieve us of the task of going on at any length about potential objections to, for example, the overall conception or execution, e.g., the lacuna between the first and second act, which allows an element of vagueness to emerge; or the improbability of Mordecai possessing an original document, afixed with the royal seal, secretly ordering the extermination of his people, etc. Alongside such merits as we here find, even considerably more grievous deficiencies would merely appear insignificant. Those who genuinely appreciate jesting entertainment must leave behind restraint; people like to laugh, even be it contrary to the rules.

Die Basen has been adapted from Les caquets by Riccoboni, [5] and, notwithstanding that the action remains wholly within the lower sphere whither all womanish gossip should be banned, has been subjected to a more subtle treatment of this material than in the treatment already extant in German. It merely should have been abbreviated a bit, since the weak plot leaves us rather cold, and it is solely the extraordinary verbal adroitness of the two heroines of second-hand junk that provides entertainment, adroitness the writer imitates by way of utter familiarity with both language and milieu without slipping into an unnecessarily insulting tone for the listener. This piece, which has been praised almost too much by its association with the other two, is in general less suitable for reading than for actual performance, and in that sense in its own turn would be less pleasing in public than in social [reading-circle] performance, where one might sooner hope to see that tone avoided in recitation and various features elevated by the performance — features to which mere allusions are made — that the true confirmed bachelor Schönemann [ed. note: character in play] might get his just due.


[1] At the request of Madame de Maintenon (Françoise d’Aubigné, Louis XIV’s mistress and morganatic second wife), Jean Racine composed the religious drama Esther (Paris 1689) for performance by the young ladies of the school of Saint-Cyr. Back.

[2] Concerning this connection, see Caroline’s letter to Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer on 24 October 1789 (letter 92), note 7. Back.

[3] Popular plays performed in marketplaces and other impromptu settings by strolling companies of actors, with story lines generally including the sudden fall of kings and princes, conspiracies, etc.; here: Goethe’s rendering of the material (Esther) in his Jahrmarktsfest von Plundersweilern. Back.

[4] Jean Racine, Esther (1689), act 3, scene 3; translation: Jean Racine, The Sacred Dramas of Esther & Athalia, trans. anonymously (Edinburgh 1803), 28. Back.

[5] Antoine-François (Antonio Francesco) Riccoboni, Les Caquets. Comédie en trois actes et en prose (Paris 1761). Back.

Translation © 2011 Doug Stott