Supplementary Appendix: Reactions to Friedrich Schlegel’s Alarcos

Reactions to Friedrich Schlegel’s Alarcos (Berlin 1802)


Friedrich’s play Alarcos premiered in Weimar on 29 May 1802 with Friedrich in attendance; he and Dorothea Veit had just arrived back from Berlin. Although the play was not performed again in Weimar, it was performed in Lauchstädt on 13 July 1802 and in Rudolstadt on 16 September 1802. [1]

In 1913 Erich Schmidt [2] maintained that there was

no need to deal at length with Friedrich Schlegel’s Spanish romanze tragedy, Alarcos (Berlin 1802), which though certainty grotesque enough is nonetheless considerably more interesting than the desolate correctness of Wilhelm’s Ion. Ein Schauspiel (Hamburg 1803), nor with the exemplary sampling of verses with whose excruciatingly obligatory meter the arbitrary theater director, Goethe, palliates the performance on 29 May 1802, a performance that even in Schiller’s judgment considerably compromised Goethe, nor with the scandal involving the theater and press — not least because Caroline cloaks her own position in silence, and even Schelling writes with considerable reserve to Wilhelm Schlegel about it, albeit also quite contrary to the real state of affairs, when he maintains that Alarcos was performed four times in Lauchstädt “to infinite applause.” [3]

Schelling writes from Jena to Wilhelm in Berlin on 4 April 1802: [4]

As far as Alarcos is concerned, when you have the chance please pass along to your brother my thanks, just as I thank you. It certainly belongs to his most remarkable productions, with its wholly unique, particular construction and wondrous joining of different styles, at once so ancient and yet so modern in a way I have hitherto not seen. At the moment, however, I am not yet able to form any judgment concerning it.

Concerning the premiere on 29 May 1802, see Josef Körner: [5]

A few months later, this same scenario was repeated [as with Wilhelm Schlegel’s Ion earlier in the year] when a dramatic attempt was performed with which Friedrich Schlegel had entered the ranks of the tragic playwrights. His willful Alarcos had been published in mid-March 1802, and the elder Schlegel had immediately sent a copy from Berlin to Goethe. He decided on the spot to have the play, whose succinctness “greatly delighted him,” on the Weimar stage, already alerting August Wilhelm on 3 May 1802 concerning the imminent performance. Peculiarly, he exchanged not a word of correspondence with the author himself, who had left Jena in late November 1801, spent December and January in Berlin, and had then gone to Dresden. The play was rehearsed in late May and then performed on 29 May. On his way to Paris, Friedrich Schlegel and his companion, Dorothea, passed through Weimar precisely the day before the premiere in Weimar; hence they remained there for a couple of days to attend the performance. Friedrich himself published an account of the performance in his periodical Europa 1 (1803), praising the “masterful arrangement of the whole, the successful performance of individual roles, costumes and decoration . . . everything contributed to eliciting an impression in me that I will not soon forget . . . With respect to theatrical art as such, one should perhaps especially point out that the declamation of verses, which may well appear to some to make any performance of this tragedy difficult, was absolutely excellent, indeed . . . irreproachable.” [6] Although Goethe, too, expressed his satisfaction, he was rather alone with that opinion in Weimar, since all documentation suggests that Alarcos was a dismal failure.

Körner refers the reader to a contemporary account in a letter written on 2 July 1802 from Weimar: [7]

Schlegel’s Alarcos was a complete failure in the Weimar theater, despite Goethe’s patronage. When Goethe asked Falk what he thought of the piece, he answered that Schlegel had more reason to be satisfied than dissatisfied. “You no doubt know that Schlegel is constantly talking about sophisticated, impenetrable irony. Well, Alarcos is through and through nothing more than precisely that. The more refined public sensed this, smiled, and laughed from the very outset, and it was a triumph for Schlegel to be thus understood; but then the less cultivated part of the public, namely, those who did not understand that sophisticated irony, whistled and stamped [i.e., booed and jeered], thereby disrupting the entertainment of the former, and Schlegel in his own turn had cause to be dissatisfied.” During the performance, an unknown man sat next to Falk and asked the latter whether he did not find that these constant murders and deaths “simply happened too quickly one after the other.” “Not at all,” Falk responded, “for since the piece has only 2 acts, everything that is to happen does indeed have to happen quickly or not at all.” “You are quite right,” the man said, “I had not considered the matter from that perspective.”

Körner continues by citing in part the eyewitness account below, supplied by Countess Henriette von Egloffstein: [8]

The closer the day came that was set aside for the performance of Alarcos, the more animated was everyone’s eagerness to see this play that had been so extensively discussed and criticized, and when it finally appeared, half of Weimar streamed to the theater, so much so that the theater could hardly hold the throng.

Despite the many years that have passed since that day, today I can still, in the unclouded mirror of memory, see the overflowing theater as clearly before me as in reality that day, — Goethe, in the middle of the parterre, serious and solemn, enthroned in his high armchair, with Kotzebue high up in the overflowing balcony and leaning far out over the balustrade, gesticulating animatedly trying to make his presence known.

At the beginning of the performance, the audience remained utterly passive; the further along the performance went, however, all the more restive did those in the gallery and the parterre become. I know not whether the barbarian contents of this old Spanish tragedy simply did not sit well with the refined, cultivated taste of the Weimar public, or whether Kotzebue’s efforts to disrupt the performance were not entirely without some success — in a word, in the scene when it is reported that the old King — whom Alarcos’s spouse, murdered on his orders, has summoned before God’s judgment — “for fear of dying, he died”: the crowd erupted into thundering laughter, so much so that the entire building shook, while Kotzebue applauded incessantly, as if possessed.

But only for a moment. Goethe immediately jumped up and shouted with an equally thunderous voice and threatening gestures: “Quiet! Quiet!” — — which worked like a magic formula on the insurgents. The tumult died down momentarily, and the performance of unfortunate Alarcos proceeded with no further disruptions, but also without the slightest sign of applause.

Goethe, who attributed its unfavorable reception to the wily intrigues of his adversary [Kotzebue], thereby felt the affront to his own pride far more keenly than would have been the case with another failed piece to which he had accorded his special patronage, and Kotzebue, goaded by the most senseless vanity, frothed with inner rage at this new, irrefutable demonstration of the dominion his powerful adversary was able to exert overt the entire public.

The anti-Romantic and anti-Goethe Berlin periodical Der Freimüthige could not refrain from reporting this incident, allegedly based on an eyewitness account: [9]

Before we continue with the account, we must first acquaint our readers with several arrangements in that theater. To wit, all loud expressions of dissatisfaction are forbidden; applause alone is allowed. Here, too, the loges rarely participate; the parterre alone applauds, or is silent. Hence neither the author nor the director need fear any stamping, whistling, or hissing [signs of dissatisfaction]. But even that is not enough; in the case of certain pieces, brooding silence acquires quite unpleasant significance.

Hence to ensure and prompt appropriate applause, the Herr Director [Goethe] had an excellent round armchair made and situated in the middle of the parterre; if needed, he himself sits in it, raises his arms as high as possible, and gives the signal for applause as loudly as possible. Now, because the Herr Director simultaneously exercises considerable influence in other respects as well, all those pay attention who fear that influence or would be pleased to otherwise use it; and as soon as the signal sounds, they dutifully respond. Since, however, Alarcos so obviously resists any occasion for such applause, even the most zealous and admirable efforts on the part of the Herr Director on this evening were unable to elicit anything more than at most six of seven pairs of hands now and then being heard in surreptitious applause. For the owners of said hands simply could not overcome a certain element of shame. The rest of the audience remained quiet and serious, and was utterly undeterred in this silence that prompted not inconsiderable despair. — And thus the play was performed further, all the way to the end. At the end, however, when all the characters die off like flies, a messenger unfortunately appears on stage and relates concerning the king:

For of fear of dying, he died.

This line ran through the entire assembly like an electric spark, and one could not but fear universal suffocation were the laughter to be repressed even a moment longer. In this ultimate situation of the direst distress, everyone forgot the easy chair along with the gentleman sitting in it, and the audience suddenly erupted in deafening, resounding peals of laughter. In vain did the Herr Director turn directly toward the audience (our source saw this gesture himself); in vain did he engage the fiercest looks and loud shushing trying to command silence [footnote: another journal reports that he cried out, “There is to be no laughing” etc.]. But he was forced to allow the storm to rage until it could rage no more. And it was not until after the tears of laughter had dried that the piece then proceeded toward its blissful conclusion. When the curtain fell, the Herr Director’s signal was again followed by those who considered it their duty, perhaps a dozen audience members. The rest looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and went quietly home. [10]

Körner continues:

Although the piece was never reprised in Weimar, it was repeated in guest performances in Lauchstädt [and Rudolstadt]. There, too, as Goethe’s wife recounts, an anti-Schlegelian group inspired by Kotzebue tried to disrupt the performance; but the Jena students in attendance, who were in the majority, shouted them down, thereby assisting the piece to a triumphant performance, through even their admiration, according to the words of one of the participants, “being based more on principle, was thus rather cool.” In the autumn of that year, a decree from the duke himself seems to have banned both Alarcos and Ion from the Weimar stage forever.

As mentioned above, Goethe makes no mention in his diary of the author — Friedrich — having been present at the performance: [11] “29 [May]. Rehearsal of Alarcos. Midday Hofrath Schiller and Cotta. That evening performance of Alarcos.”

When the play was actually published, Friedrich asked Wilhelm in Berlin, in a letter from Dresden on 18 March 1802 to secure complementary copies for the following persons: [12]

You yourselfthe sculptor — the BernhardisSchleiermacherFichteMadame UnzelmannMademoiselle LeviHülsenGrattenauerSchütz. I know not whether Unger had any vellum copies printed, but I do hope he did, and if so please give the persons underlined above such copies. Send the rest to me. But since I will not have enough in any case, might I ask you to do me the favor of buying 6 or 8 copies for me as well. As soon as I know how much that will cost, I will remit payment to you in Berlin to cover your expenses. If one can also buy vellum copies, include several in the copies you buy and then also give one on vellum to Madam Unzelmann and the Bernhardis as well. — Please extend my warm regards and gratitude to Madam Unzelmann and Grattenauer for the interest they have taken in this piece. . . . Tieck reads Alarcos more beautifully than anything else.


[1] Das Repertoire des Weimarischen Theaters 44–45. Back.

[2] (1913), 2:638. Back.

[3] Plitt 1:377; Fuhrmans 1:257; the first performance in Lauchstädt was on 13 July 1802 (Das Repertoire des Weimarischen Theaters 44). Back.

[4] Plitt 1:363; Fuhrmans 2:397. Back.

[5] Romantiker und Klassiker. Die Brüder Schlegel in ihren Beziehungen zu Schiller und Goethe (Berlin 1924), 116–18. Back.

[6] Friedrich Schlegel, “Reise nach Frankreich. Erinnerungen,” Europa. Eine Zeitschrift, ed. Friedrich Schlegel, I/1 (1803), 5–40; here 7. < Back.

[7] L. Bobé, “P. A. Heiberg an K. L. Rahbek,” Goethe-Jahrbuch 24 (1903), 76–79; here 78–79. Back.

[8] “Goethes Cour d’amour. Bericht einer Theilnehmerin nebst einigen Briefen. Mitgetheilt von Freiherr Carl von Beaulieu-Marconnay,” Goethe-Jahrbuch 6 (1885), 59–83; here 72–74. Back.

[9] “Alarcos auf der Weimarischen Bühne,” Der Freimüthige (1803) 5 (Monday, 20 January 1803), 19–20, in which Henriette von Egloffstein’s account (see below) of Goethe’s having prompted applause and squelched laughter is brought to the attention of the Berlin public. Back.

[10] See especially the portrayal of the “changeling” Alarcos in Kotzebue’s 1803 caricature “The Most Recent Aesthetics.” Back.

[11] Weimarer Ausgabe 3:3:57. Back.

[12] Walzel, 492; KFSA 25:338. Back.

Translation © 2016 Doug Stott