You must have at least enough patience to allow me to describe to you the play have so excited me. The audience consisted of both the distinguished and the common people among the residences of the small locale, most of them workers who after their day’s work were still in their aprons and dirty hats and refreshed themselves from large beer kegs. The stage was set up in a large room and illuminated with only sparse lighting.
The title of the play was Die Höllenbraut [“Bride of hell”]. When the curtain rose after a piece of music played by several ill-tuned violins, a woman sitting in front of a mirror was admiring and commenting on her own charms and considerable beauty in the most arrogant language. Several of her lovers soon appeared, among whom one young man in particular exhibited particular faithfulness to her, yet all of whom she turned away with the most cutting derision, considering not a single one of them handsome, rich, and noble enough.
An elderly woman, her friend, later chided her dastardly behavior and advised her to turn more toward God and piety. She received only laughter in response, whereupon the old woman prophesied an unhappy fate for the woman, then left her. She had hardly left before the arrogant woman once more turned to her best friend, the mirror, and began adorning herself anew, forgetting amid laughter all the good advice, pious thoughts, and fear of God. —
This harsh scene, performed without any warning or transitions, enflamed most of the spectators against the woman, and all welcomed the prophecy of her elderly friend. I myself simply allowed myself to be swept back into the unaffected childhood of the theater and accepted these rather wondrous impressions without further examination.
[Ed. note: Here illustrations from a later treatment of the same thematic complex (frontispiece and concluding illustration to Ludwig Delarosa, Höllenbraut oder die gespenstigen Rächer im Riesengebirge: Historisch-romantische Sage aus den Zeiten des dreissigjährigen Krieges (Vienna, Prague 1841):]
The faithful young lover then reappeared in his green outfit and lamented his suffering to the air and wind, in the process paying no attention to his foolish manservant, Lipperle, who drew numerous reasons for consolation from all the spheres of nature. This manservant, however, did not exactly remain with the boundaries of modesty and propriety with these comparisons, instead parodying in several metaphors the unhappy passion of his own master
One can easily enough imagine how the scene ended, namely, with Lipperle being chased away by a sound beating so that he would not further burden such a delicately tuned disposition. Although this particular incident has been rather overused in the theater, it was a necessary part of the flow of action here.
This story with the spurned lover continued, and the beautiful woman’s behavior finally resulted in her faithful green lover been stabbed to death in a duel by another. Now, you should have witnessed Lipperle’s grief at the death of his dear master. He wailed and tore out his hair, and I have never seen grief portrayed with such veracity. And yet he always remained entertaining with his stupidity. “Did I not tell you so? did I not tell you so?” he cried out in every conceivable expression of grief, weeping and sobbing, at the same time greatly anticipating the beautiful coffin and all the people who would be coming to see his master and the beautiful coffin, and then it occurred to him that love was in fact responsible for his master’s death, whereupon he again cried out, “Did I not tell you so?” All this was touching and comical at the same time.
The beautiful woman was happy about this incident because through it she got rid of the lovers she thought unworthy of her. Suddenly a respectable man entered, clothed entirely in black and with a large feather in his cap, and introduced himself to her as the lord of a great kingdom and many subjects. She treats him quite courteously and is also quite accommodating toward him, trying to win him over; he himself declares his love for her, and she is not at all brittle.
The audience, however, has an uneasy feeling when he says some quite peculiar things, and it seems strange indeed that the woman is not bothered by it. Misfortune seems in the air. The man reveals increasingly more about himself in secretive words, which the woman, blinded, still understands only as references to his worldly status. She finally gives him her hand, they become engaged, he promises to pick her up that night and she exits in joy to adorn herself even more beautifully, all her thoughts focused on the prospects of her high future status.
Unfortunately, there is no more doubt about the status of the groom. His personality was already suspicious, his manner of speaking, a certain Schadenfreude he was unable to conceal, for he is Satan himself.
Night comes, the lady is discomfited by dreams and anxiety, she summons Lipperle in order to pass the time, but his jokes never really work because he feels afraid and, against his own will, continually begins talking about his dead master. He finally leaves, trembling, advising her amid tears to take up a good prayer book. She despises all that is good. The spirit of her green lover appears and warns her, she has a fright but remains determined in her course.
The spirit departs, and now, in the lonely night, she feels surrounded by dread, with no human help, no sympathy, she is at her wit’s end and now wishes her groom would arrive. Then, suddenly, one hears his voice, calling her name; she feels dread, then joy, but does not trust her own senses. She calls out, he answers and enters. Once more he asks for her love, she voluntarily assures him of it and that she loves him more than all other human beings, more than herself, indeed more than God, extending her hand to him with these last words. He takes it and tells her who he really is, she screams but cannot save herself, and is taken away by hellish spirits and her groom amid their exultation and hue and cry.
Every member of the audience was intensely moved by this performance, especially when the invisible, terrible groom calls out to the heroine of the piece by name in the middle of the night. Some of the girls grew quite pale, several were even close to fainting even though weakness of nerves was not really their strength. And it is quite certain that a grand truth must reside in this allegory, for on my way home I, too, was unable to shirk a sense of dread, even though I also had to laugh whenever I thought of how following the performance the devil reappeared to announce that yet another terrible tragedy would be performed the following evening, adding that Lipperle would have the honor of appearing in all his comic glory yet again.
For me, everything, every element had contributed to making this play complete and perfect. It was performed with a single set because the company possessed but one set in any case; it portrayed a kind of gallery of columns with a completely indistinct background wall enabling the spectator to imagine almost anything, all of which considerably enhanced the wondrous, rather peculiar indefiniteness of the play. The most effective element, however, was the way the actors themselves performed the piece.
The singular character of Lipperle was nimble and adroit, the rest rather dry and almost awkward. The presumed beauty of the lady contrasted well with the ugliness of the actress such that one sense quite vividly the contemptuous quality of all worldly vanity. Lipperle represented the natural view of things, the view that most vividly contradicted the poetic world and hence had to be portrayed with ease and naturalness if the playwright’s goal was to be attained.
For as unnaturally written as the roles of all the other characters were, all the more natural and comprehensible were the expressions amid which the character of Lipperle moved. The most incomparable of all, however, was the devil himself, whose frigidity and calm demeanor in the play and the minimal modulation of whose voice were extraordinarily effective. He presented himself without any sign of effort and spoke his lines like someone accustomed to ensnaring and spoiling.
It was only when he unexpectedly called out the name of the heroine from a distance did he raise his voice more than previously, that he might better enjoy the horror of this poor, seduced woman who had fallen away from God, a woman with whom the spectators, because of her ugliness, did not really feel much sympathy as she was carried away. Nor was her ugliness really unnatural, since those who become so blinded as to view their own beauty as the highest good may also quite easily see beauty that is in fact not there at all; in any event, at least in this performance this wrongheadedness of disposition was portrayed quite skillfully, notwithstanding also the fact that rarely do even distinguished theater companies have beauties in any case corresponding to the idealizing imagination of the playwright.
But enough about this play. It is merely that I have realized anew the extent to which our own theater has come down since it has become so fixated on probability and exactitude in sets as well as on motivation and the psychological development of its characters, how amid such transformations there is almost always an element of awkwardness, and how amid all the exactitude and correctness the element of simple entertainment has been lost.