Supplementary Appendix 344.1

August von Kotzebue’s play Die deutschen Kleinstädter (1803) and the Romantics

August von Kotzebue’s play Die deutschen Kleinstädter (Leipzig 1803), adapted after Louis-Benoît Picard, La petite ville: comédie en quatre actes et en prose (Paris 1801), contained, among other things, satirical remarks aimed directly at the Schlegels brothers (below: the frontispiece from the 1833 edition next to an illustration of costumes from the original French play: La petite ville, comédie de Louis-Benoît Picard: costumes de Perroud [Vernon] et Madame Pélicier [Nina Vernon] [Paris 1801]; Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Arts du spectacle):


Those anti-romantic barbs, however, are actually quite harmless, something even Caroline herself concedes (see Caroline’s letter to Wilhelm Schlegel on 18 March 1802 [letter 356] and to Julie Gotter on 15 June 1802 [letter 363]).

Wilhelm Schlegel reviewed the Berlin performances of Kotzebue’s translation of the original, Die französischen Kleinstädter: ein Lustspiel in vier Akten (Leipzig 1803) (performed 15–18 April 1802) and Die deutschen Kleinstädter: Lustspiel in vier Akten (Leipzig 1803) (performed 28 April 1802) in the Zeitung für die elegante Welt (1802) 79 (Saturday, 3 July 1802), 629–31 (Sämmtliche Werke 9:192–93):

Die französischen Kleinstädter and Die deutschen Kleinstädter, both by Kotzebue, the former adapted from the French, the latter an original piece, were performed in close succession.

The original of the former is by Picard, though it is by no means his best piece. It is a so-called pièce à tiroir [Fr., “comedy of episodes”], where only a thin thread holds the various characteristic scenes together. Considerably more ingenuity, frankly, might have been applied in this respect, and it was not a particularly good idea to shift the setting to Germany, since once the local veracity of such portrayals is lost, so also is any real interest they might elicit.

The only thing really holding the whole together was the excellent performances of Madam Unzelmann and Herr Iffland as two small-town characters of the most fashionable sort. By contrast, it was hardly credible that Herr Schwadke and Herr Bethmann were to represent two genuinely refined Parisians, and since the Hausverkauf was given as an epilog, one had the additional vexation of having to admire the incompetence of these subject twice on the same evening [see Caroline’s letter to Wilhelm on 20–21 December 1801 (letter 336), note 12].

Die deutschen Kleinstädter is a farce in which a few comical situations are purchased at the price of considerable triteness. If only these situations and the means of evoking them derived from the author himself! Alas, those familiar with dramatic literature can easily adduce whence this and that in fact derive. We do, however, owe Herr von Kotzebue an element of gratitude for his good will in trying to be Holbergian; such is always a grand step in his education, except that Holberg’s own pieces possess a element of thoroughgoing composition sadly lacking here.

The role of an inane, saccharine, Old Franconian poet, Herr Sperling, has been saddled with everything Herr von Kotzebue considers to be the most recent follies of a society of writers decried in society as being too revolutionary, a society some of whose members, it must be said, have indeed not dealt that kindly with Herr von Kotzebue himself.

Although none of it at all is on the mark, the intent of bringing personal satire onto the stage can indeed be noted with at least a modicum of praise, even if the requisite energy is missing; and those who represent the primary targets here [i.e., Wilhelm and his friends] would no doubt be the first to compliment Herr von Kotzebue in this respect.

The piece was performed throughout with uncommon skill, the audience laughed, and for precisely that reason found it flat and dull; the pillory [see below] caused considerable offense, representing as it undeniably did the most ingenious idea in the entire piece.

If we may make our wishes known to Herr von Kotzebue, we would kindly request something like this rather than pieces such as Octavia or Bayard [previous plays by Kotzebue, both Leipzig 1801]. — — Now, however, Ion is being anticipated.

Although a performance was scheduled in Weimar, Kotzebue withdrew it after Goethe deleted or changed those and other passages. At a concert for Anna Amalia on 25 February 1802, Goethe “alerted” the author Kotzebue concerning the changes made to the Die deutschen Kleinstädter.

Goethe wrote a short note to Franz Kirms on 26 February 1802 requesting he “pass on to the author the enclosed piece [Die deutschen Kleinstädter] after you yourself have had a look at it; at a concert yesterday I alerted him to the changes I made.”

Schiller similarly defended the changes to Kotzebue, writing to him on 26 February 1802 (Schillers Briefe, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. Fritz Jonas, 7 vols. [Stuttgart 1892–96], 7:91, incorrectly dated to 1803):

Since you had already authorized me to do so, two days ago I went ahead and requested Herr Geheimrath Goethe loan me the Kleinstädter to read through. After careful reading, I find nothing arbitrary in his changes; he deleted no other passages except those that might provoke partisanship, something he intends to ban from the theater here. Nor has the piece thereby lost any of its theatrical value, since those passages are necessary neither for the action itself nor for character portrayal.

As far as I myself am concerned, I can assure you yet again that I find nothing in the piece that might refer to me, even though I have been assured that those bent on provoking strife between us will take as a broadside against me that particular stanza with which you conclude one of the acts, and in connection with which you can hardly have been thinking of me alone.

And even were such indeed the case, I myself would see no need to begin a war over it, since the freedom enjoyed by such comedies is indeed quite broad, and the good humor is certainly permitted considerable latitude; passion alone must be excluded.

This is my sincere opinion both on this particular case as well as on similar ones, and I might add that in my view, you can have the piece performed without any reservations just as it is now, and that your flexibility in this regard can only do you honor.

Respectfully yours,

Goethe writes resolutely again to Franz Kirms on 28 February 1802 (Weimarer Ausgabe 4:16:45–46):

I am really quite sorry that I am unable to share the author’s opinion with respect to the Kleinstädter, and since in such cases one seldom comes to any agreement, let me but briefly present my own convictions in the matter here.

All German theater producers, directors, managers, and censors have claimed for themselves the right to delete various passages from plays according to their own circumstances and customs, and indeed have exercised this right to such a lively extent that the word delete has even become a technical artistic term in its own right. I made use of this traditional authority with respect to the Kleinstädter as well, understandably leaving to the author’s own judgment the assessment of how to fill the gaps necessarily resulting from these deletions.

I can relinquish that initial editing, however, all the less insofar as I have firmly resolved not to allow anything to be uttered in the future in the Weimar theater that, for good or ill, has a personal reference or any reference to contemporary literature, all the more so since such references generally involve solely personal relationships.

If by contrast Herr von Kotzebue could not fail to notice in Die theatralischen Abenteuer [Goethe’s and Christian Vulpius’s adaptation of an Italian opera, performed in Weimar in 1797 and thereafter] the actress who parodied more herself than his character of Gurli [see below], I can say only that I never really paid any further attention to that particular scene in this old and oft-performed piece, but that I am certainly prepared to delete that scene and replace it with another.

I believe I have in this way best presented my own inclination for preserving the peace, which I would like to maintain as long as possible.

Weimar, 28 February 1802
J. W. von Goethe

Kotzebue’s mother, Christina Kotzebue, wrote to Goethe on 3 March 1802. After first complaining about the denial of access to the town hall for the shipwrecked celebration of Schiller, Kotzebue’s mother then continues as follows in her letter (Weimarer Ausgabe 4:16:413):

Perhaps this happened without your knowledge, which is why I am writing you these lines. That it might have been vengeance on your part prompted by petty disagreements, how could I possibly believe such a great man capable of such?

As far as the affair with the Kleinstädter is concerned, your esteemed sir was utterly in the wrong; that is not the mother speaking, but my own great love of impartiality. . . .

Please just do not be so partial to people who court your love only through servile flattery. My son would never be capable of that, but any praise of you coming from him would be all the more true.

Goethe immediately responded on 3 March 1802 with (so Erich Schmidt, [1913], 2:637) the coarsest letter he ever wrote to a woman (Weimarer Ausgabe 4:16:):

Since you presume, esteemed Madam Legationsrätin, to tell me frankly that I am utterly in the wrong with respect to a matter in which I am in fact executing my office according to my convictions, I must in response assure you with equal frankness that I neither can nor will suffer such comportment, and that I explicitly refuse to tolerate this sort of rash importunacy both now and in the future; all the more so insofar as I find it extremely unpleasant when through such discourtesies someone forces me to exceed the boundaries within which I otherwise prefer to remain.

Weimar, 3 March 1802

Karl August Böttiger gossiped to Johann Friedrich Rochlitz on 8 March 1802 (cited in Schmidt, [1913], 2:637–38) concerning the “arbitrary corrections” in

passages where Goethe sniffed allusions to his pets, the Schlegels; moreover the influence of the Schelling-Schlegel clique — which Goethe is currently allowing to completely rule him — is daily making him increasingly imperious and violent in all such measures.

Kotzebue himself now also attacked Goethe in a series of articles in the journal Der Freimüthige. Friedrich Karl Julius Schütz writes to Friedrich Jacobs on 19 April 1802 (Goethe: Begegnungen und Gespräche, vol. 5, 1800–1805, ed. Renate Grumach [Berlin 1985], 247):

Shortly thereafter [after the performance of Ion], Herr von Kotze-boue [a play on Kotzebue’s name: Germ. kotzen, to vomit] delivered to the director [of the Weimar theater] a satirical comedy, void of satire, contra the Schlegels etc., Die [deutschen] Kleinstädter.

Goethe returned it to him not only corrected, but altered such that his pranks were turned back as heavy blows on the head of Kotzebue himself. “Only thus is it to be performed!” You can imagine how vehemently Herr von Kotzebue rejected the manuscript, and how powerfully he now manifested misanthropy without remorse [an allusion to Kotzebue’s earlier play, Menschenhass und Reue [Berlin 1789]; Eng. trans. The Stranger. A comedy. Freely translated from Kotzebue’s German comedy of Misanthropy and repentance (London 1798)]. Instead of the Kleinstädter, it was Kotzebue’s Ill Humor that was now really performed.

Kotzebue himself wrote the following in his article “Über einen Zwist, welcher durch das Lustspiel, die Deutschen Kleinstädter, zwischen Herrn von Göthe und Herrn von Kotzebue enstanden,” Der Freimüthige (1803) (20 May 1803), 318 (cited in (Goethe: Begegnungen und Gespräche, 247–48):

The piece was kindly received by the director, the roles assigned and distributed according to the author’s instructions. Soon thereafter he was also solicited to conduct a read-through himself in order to indicate to the actors the particular tone in which he wished the piece to be performed.

Herr von Kotzebue was obliging; the read-through was conducted along with other rehearsals as well, the set for the fourth act was painted, and even the day of the first performance fixed. A few days before, at a social gathering, Herr von Kotzebue chanced to see Herr von Goethe, who took him aside and quite courteously explained to him that he had had to delete several passages in Die deutschen Kleinstädter, whence also he requested the parts back in order to note these deletions.

Herr von Kotzebue was not a little taken aback, responding that he had already deleted everything inappropriate to the circumstances; if, however, such had indeed remained in the manuscript, he was of the opinion that it was now too late to delete it, to wit, after the read-through and the other rehearsals, since doing so now would mean treating him in a contemptuous fashion in front of the actors. In his opinion, the director should have read the piece before having it copied and distributed etc.

To which Herr von Goethe responded that in principle he never allowed anything to be uttered on stage that referred to a specific party, or that contained any reference to contemporary literature. — Kotzebue countered that, as a matter of fact, such had not always been Herr von Goethe’s principle, since, e.g., in the opera Die theatralischen Abenteuer [Goethe’s and Christian Vulpius’s adaptation of an Italian opera, performed in Weimar in 1797 and thereafter] he explicitly allowed a scene to be inserted in which the character of Gurli [the naive female character from Kotzebue’s play Die Indianer in England, (Leipzig 1790)] was satirized.

This counter took Herr von Goethe by surprise; embarrassed, he then remarked — to avoid remaining utterly silent — that “the character of Gurli already belongs, as it were, to the whole world.” Although Kotzebue did not quite understand what this statement was supposed to mean, he did suggest that one might say that of any role. Several other words were exchanged on the subject, the decision being that Herr von Kotzebue should see the changes for himself, which he did promise to do. — Herr von Goethe kept his word, returning to Kotzebue the piece, which he had, with his own hands, destroyed and then recreated.

Kotzebue had also written to Franz Kirms on 27 February 1802 (ibid., 246):

I must indeed on this occasion repeat yet again what I had the honor of telling him [Goethe] the day before yesterday, namely, that if it was not inappropriate to parody a character such as Gurli in the Weimar theater in the presence of the author himself [Kotzebue], and to portray that character as tasteless, indeed even to insert a scene specifically to do so, it can be even less offensive to chastise a few instances of folly that are recognized precisely as such by the majority of the public, and the portrayal of which, unlike that of pseudo-Gurli, exposes not an individual — moreover an individual who is even present in the theater — but merely chastises such folly in the larger sense.

Finally, Goethe’s version of the incident reads as follows (Tag- und Jahreshefte) with respect to 1802 (Weimarer Ausgabe 35:121–22; see the supplementary appendix on Ion, for the preceding paragraph in Goethe’s entry here):

We were absolutely determined never to tolerate current gossip on our stage, whereas the opposing party was interested in quite the opposite, namely, in degrading that very stage into a battleground for its own ill will. Hence the grand battle that emerged when I deleted everything in Die deutschen Kleinstädter directed against those persons who on the whole concurred with my own positions, even though I myself was unable to approve everything those persons did or praise everything they produced.

The opposing party became violently distressed, maintaining that if an author were present in such cases, one certainly ought to consult him; since such had allegedly been the case with Schiller, any other author might claim the same privilege. This peculiar conclusion, however, was not really valid; Schiller presented for the stage only that which excited noble passions and strived for that which is higher, whereas everything this party presented was calculated to pull down, distort, and destroy the complex elements of that which is good; and precisely that is what constitutes the artifice of such fellows, namely, that in disregarding every pure, true relationship they manage to disguise their malevolence in the casual indulgence of congenial propriety.

But enough; those particular passages remained banned, and I myself went to the trouble to fill out the resulting gaps with general jests and wit, whereby I did indeed manage to prompt laughter in the audience.

Ultimately there was only a private performance on 3 June 1802, at which Amalie von Imhoff recited a verse prologue; the performance and verses were recounted in the anonymous article “Muster gesellschaftlicher Unterhaltung in Weimar” (“Model of social entertainment in Weimar”), Zeitung für die elegante Welt (1802) 74 (22 June 1802), 593–96).

In Kotzebue’s romantic comedy, the mayor’s daughter, Sabine, is to marry Sperling, a low-level but titled official in a tiny, narrow-minded and self-conceited German provincial town. Sperling can, however, compose poetry and it is in this character that Kotzebue satirizes the Schlegels, albeit not at all at length.

Sabine resists the engagement, finding Sperling to be a “fool” and preferring to wait for a man — Karl Olmers — whom she met during a brief stay in the residence town (illustration from the 1850 edition in the series Théatre contemporain illustré [Paris 1850]):


Herr Staar, Sabine’s uncle, and Frau Staar, her grandmother, try to convince her otherwise, and the ensuing description of Sperling clearly targets Friedrich Schlegel’s fragments and “axioms” from Athenaeum and his recent attempt to lecture in Jena on transcendental philosophy; the references to sonnets and reviews in the Erlanger Litteratur-Zeitung are targeting Wilhelm.

The conversation commences when Frau Staar mentions a criminal recently hanged in the town (first illustration: scene from Die deutschen Kleinstädter from Taschenbuch für das Jahr 1810: Der Liebe und Freundschaft gewidmet [Frankfurt]; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung; second illustration: Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand Unzelmann in the role of Herr Staar (Almanach fur Theater und Theaterfreunde auf das Jahr 1807; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):


Herr Staar [Sabine’s uncle]. Quite right, Frau Mother, and I can tell you confidentially that I am just now in the process of dramatizing his life. Sperling will compose the romances for it. He is not a bad poet at all. He is especially good at wheeling and dealing with sonnets, forcing rhymes out of things even if he has to tear their hair out by the roots.

Frau Staar. Do you hear that, my child? Do you hear?

Herr Staar. Bubbles over with axioms, retches out fragments; I would like to see the fellow who could do it more crazily than he!


Frau Staar. Well, Sabine? Well?

Herr Staar. In a word, my good girl, he will become your husband, my nephew, my heir, my assistant in the lending library [shortly before this conversation, Sabine mentions that she realizes how her uncle knows the big wide world because, after all, he has a lending library]; we will write, compose poetry, review the Erlanger Litteratur-Zeitung; we will elevate our friends high up into the lofty reaches of heaven and kick the common folk into the dust.

Concerning elevating one’s friends, see Wilhelm’s remark in connection with Ion:

People have accused me and my friends of praising each other. That is certainly correct but cannot be changed, since from the very outset we chose bright people as our friends to whose works one can and indeed must consistently accord praise.

See in this context especially the supplementary appendix on Ion, note 61.

Although the character of Sperling speaks lines throughout the play in which Kotzebue satirizes various literary fashions of the day, it is really only in the final scene of the play that he returns to allusions to the Schlegels, when Sperling, having renounced his engagement with Sabine after she and Olmers are discovered hiding behind a lantern together at night.

This renunciation frees her to marry Olmers, who not only is titled after all (an important prerequisite for commanding respect in the town), but also offers to save the town the disgrace of having allowed a woman — a “delinquent” — to escape prison after nine years the day before she is to be freed after being publicly pilloried.

Sperling now speaks the final lines of the play after futilely trying to get someone to listen to the poems he had composed for that occasion; Sabine has just requested a wedding poem and exited:

Sperling. But wait! I will even compose a Triumphal Gate! a work of art! . . . Herr Klaus, come up to my room! I would like to read you my “Triolet to the Gallows”!

Herr Klaus. Aye, your trio is not worth the devil! Get my ham back for me [which the “delinquent” had stolen when she escaped]. [Exits.]

Sperling. [Alone.] But surely I cannot have composed it for nothing — If only the night watchman would come. [To the audience with exaggerated, saccharine politeness.] Is there no one who would like to come up on stage and hear my triolet?

Concerning Wilhelm’s triolet contra Garlieb Merkel, which was distributed privately around Berlin, see the supplementary appendix on Garlieb Merkel and the Schlegels. Concerning the “Triumphal Gate,” see Kotzebue’s caricature “The Most Recent Aesthetics,” which appeared on 21 July 1803.