Caroline’s Review of August Wilhelm Iffland

Caroline’s Review of August Wilhelm Iffland

Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1797)
188 (Wednesday, 14 June 1797), 681–87.

Leipzig, b. Göschen: Das Vermächtniss. Ein Schauspiel in fünf Aufzügen. By August Wilhelm Iffland. 1796. 224 pages. 8vo. (16 gr.).

Ibidem. Die Advocaten. Ein Schauspiel in fünf Aufzügen. By A. W. Iffland. 1796. 206 pages. 8vo. (10 gr.).

Ibidem. Dienstpflicht. Ein Schauspiel in fünf Aufzügen. By A. W. Iffland. 1796. 220 pages. 8vo. (15 gr.).

It is generally acknowledged that from the very beginning of his career, Herr Iffland has remained steadily focused on the primary goal of all his portrayals, namely, moral instruction. The desire to be useful permeates all his works, even into their tiniest details, and the writer’s own freedom has often, undeniably with a measure of self-abnegation, been sacrificed to the rigorous justice of the moral judge. Civil and domestic discipline, straightforward uprightness, and sensible contentedness have been variously inculcated to us through repeated contrasts, in every possible shading, indeed even through inserted discourses that our public instructors could easily enough have incorporated into their own.

In this context, Herr Iffland, at least through the dexterity of his dialogue and through certain characters, has managed to preserve dramatic life in his plays well enough for the public hitherto to have little problem putting up with these sermons. Certain striking expressions and surprising turns of phrase added spice to those sermons, evoking new admiration even when Herr Iffland in his own turn did not necessarily present any new side of himself.

Yet though as an actor he is capable of taking on the most varied characters, as a writer we invariably find him in but a single one. In the last few years especially, he has, so to speak, had himself published in immoveable type. As regards content, course of action, primary theme, and execution of details, the past dozen or so of his plays have been more or less interchangeable. The only thing becoming increasingly pronounced is his original inclination to bring the ugliness of evil more to light than the amiability of the good.

Nor is Herr Iffland, as far as he himself is concerned, entirely wrong in indulging his artistic pleasure with such portrayals, since they are precisely those with which he is most successful. In his pieces, the good consistently appears restricted and conditional, often at the expense of any more lofty cultivation, or indeed accompanied by simplicity, distorted by exaggerated excitability, or robbed of all grace through harsh, rough, arid forms. By contrast, vice manifests itself quite without restriction. Villains have always been generously engaged on our stage, though for the most part as a class of sincere villains who merit their position through strength or passion and one portion or other of morality, and who can to a certain extent also be called honest

Herr Iffland, however, has coupled the depraved with the powerless, the vile with the ridiculous. One might perhaps even maintain that this treatment is itself detrimental to his good intentions. For who will not leave such a scene with loathing toward human nature after having been sated with disgust toward its potential degeneration and yet been offered such paltry, brief relief? The exercise of so-called poetic justice (which is often anything but poetic) does not remedy the malady. Though the good may well be victorious, the actions and humiliation of evil leave behind a disheartening impression that prohibits all triumph, sullies the imagination, and clips the wings of the soul.

Quite in this sense, the main character in the first piece, Das Vermächtniss, is an abomination of a woman who for an entire lifetime and throughout these five acts mortally torments a poor man to extort an inheritance from him, having earlier already plunged her spouse and two sisters into ruin and indeed into the grave. A pedantically roguish magistrate assists her. When the curtain falls, are we satisfied for any other reason than that it will conceal from us any more such painful scenes? If this woman continues consistently to act thus, we cannot even view the piece as having ended. There are still threads enough with which she can ensnare the tormented man again, having also sold him her child, and having already worn him down through the suffering he has endured.

And the counterbalance? A couple of upright farmers, a guileless fellow who at most might worthily serve almost any master, and a touchy, innocent fellow who has probably always lacked resolve and who is still excessively sensitive and fretful in the face of evil. The rescue of the child is the only thing that might provide some joy, were the mother not still to be feared. Instead we must witness scenes such that anyone capable of watching them without his stomach turning could hardly, at least without some affectation, object to witnessing an execution as well.

Moreover, the creative power and witty abundance Herr Iffland possesses in such situations elicits admiration even from one’s aversion. The wife of the Hofrath describes (p. 213) how she intends to have her brother-in-law locked up: “Seized, led away, incarcerated, bled, medicated, harassed, deprived of food, administered blistering agents, purgatives, bled again, no books, no knife, no buckles, no shaving, adjudicated, money taken; — in a week he would have been absolutely mad, crazy, that much I know.” The notion of a Fury is mild compared to what we must think of a woman who speaks thus. The goddesses of revenge, even when decreeing infernal torments, nonetheless still had something divine, indeed something human in their nature; but for a human being as degenerate as this woman, we can find no other designation than that which simultaneously stigmatizes her crime with the most profound contempt. Her character is opprobrious. —

Quite peculiarly, on page 103 this entire wretched situation is attributed to the manner in which people marry in cities; although the explication of this notion does provide a nice piece of self-sufficient morality, it seems wholly and completely out of place here. — Moreover, it also seems to us that had the daughter of the deceased beloved of that unfortunate man appeared in person, she could have exerted a beneficent influence on the piece.

In Die Advokaten [“The lawyers”], we are dealing with a villain who surreptitiously obtains a last will and testament from a sick woman who was already out of her senses, thereby cheating underage orphans out of their rightful inheritance.

[To open a gallery of period illustrations to Iffland’s Die Advocaten, click on the image below:]


To conceal this deception, which the pangs of conscience of a dying man and the uprightness of a lawyer threaten to divulge, he tries, before our eyes, to poison the lawyer with a bottle of wine. One cannot plausibly explain why things had to progress to this extreme point in order to untie the play’s knot, a play whose other roles are filled by a weak, good-natured Geheimrath, his father, an upright tradesman, and a couple of young women, one of whom especially, by meriting genuine respect, is thus not a familiar sight in an Ifflandian play. Rarely do women in his plays rise above the ordinary. Where they are supposed to be good, either their passivity or their overwrought nature elicits pity; and often they sink below the ordinary or base, thereby eliciting revulsion, or they wholly disappear into insignificance and insubstantiality.

By contrast, Mademoiselle Reissmann comes across as a noble-minded, independent being. It is simply that the lack of independence in the Geheimrat over against her brings about an even more serious ill insofar as she so clearly and repeatedly holds this shortcoming up to him; and even though this severity did not make her seem entirely disagreeable, one nonetheless could not but have doubts concerning her future happiness. Even if the weakness of the Geheimrath was required for the play’s economy, one might nonetheless have spared him the helpless statement at the end of the fourth act, where he embraces a man who has not approached him with even a single word, simply because the man happens to be standing there. [1]

That said, however, Herr Iffland certainly does not spare the poor sinners he presents from being humiliated. He has absolutely no reservations about breaking the sense of honor in order to complete the contrition. Although we do not ask that a murderer such as the Hofrath be spared, we would have preferred to be spared him in the first place. Herr Iffland, it is true, composes not comedies, but dramatic plays, though without reckoning at all with the truly tragic. [2] The risk is that a poisoning might appear to us like any other normal, everyday occurrence if we encounter it precisely where we have reason to expect a portrayal of quotidian life.

Herr Iffland has given the lawyer Wellenberger a grand and almost comical skillfulness in engaging the conscience of a criminal, even though one cannot really view the Hofrath’s anxious fear as being a manifestation of pure conscience. He himself says to the latter, “Here stands the evidence of the crime, there the delinquent, and here I stand . . . as judge . . . Kneel down this moment, the sword of justice hangs over your head!” [3] And later he says about him: “He has stood before the executioner.” [4] Will the powerful words and maxims of uprightness with which we are sent home be able to compensate for this impression? And is this really the impression the public so urgently needs?

The third play, Dienstpflicht, distinguishes itself quite admirably through the role of an honest Jew. Nothing about this character is caricatured, including the noble-mindedness; the human and the national elements are fused together with true art, and produce an extraordinarily favorable effect if performed in the same sense as the role was written.

The other characters again put us in familiar company. A steadfast, just man, an upright friend, several villains, and a weakling, though also a noble prince, a good woman, and a child, the latter of whom is a welcome and pleasing sight, especially in the final scenes, where its presence provides a mitigating effect.

The just man might be reproached, as becomes clear in his first question to his son, for having always treated the son like such a child, thereby robbing himself of the son’s trust, whereby the disaster then arises. The son, as the prince himself [5] says to his face, a “weakling; one of those people without character who would rather perish the day after tomorrow than risk a bold step today. — Your bad actions deserve no contempt, your good actions no respect. One can feel sorry for you, but not follow you. One cannot count on you, you are a suffering creature. — Villains do not depend on you, good people do not trust you enough.” —

What disposition or countenance is the poor actor to assume while listening to such a discourse? It is as if we see him physically disappearing while he is being thus emotionally wholly destroyed, and one instinctively lowers one’s eyes, as if standing before a person in a pillory. Is this really the way a wise man will try to help a good but weak will? Should one not sooner elevate such people above their existence once they have fallen, thereby instilling a measure of self-confidence in them without which such disgrace is irredeemable? The only thing left for this person to do, and precisely that to which his friend drove him, was to put a bullet into his own head. Thus again does the play end with a vivid illustration of human misery. —

In his own turn, the prince is a bit too sentimental and ornate in his language. Page 210. “No longer War Counselor, but rather — Counselor of the Heart — Counselor of the Conscience!” Page 215. “The halls of this castle are large; when people fill them who come to me in trust, then there is a grand gala, and my heart is never too narrow for their concerns.”

When the Jew, Baruch, says on page 202, “In this business here — to rescue the honest man, a full hundred per cent were pledged to me.” Prince: “Who will pay it? who?” Baruch: “The almighty master merchant up above (pointing to heaven)” — such is quite in the spirit of his class, his education, and is always greeted with applause.

By contrast, the prince would need to express himself in a fashion that is more general, refined, and less concrete. We do realize that this particular mannerism on the part of Herr Iffland has already often enough elicited approval; but in the circles in which he generally moves with his portrayals, there are so many opportunities to engage it appropriately that he should be all the more attentive never to engage it inappropriately, and instead to observe the requisite distinctions.

Such also includes the surprising, sententious responses constituting a good portion of his dialogue, and of which any of Iffland’s plays could provide an entire collection of striking examples, not all of which by far are to be criticized, but not many praised either. All contribute to that particular monotony before which ultimately even the applause of the masses cannot but go limp. Something striking or conspicuous, incessantly repeated, will naturally fatigue more than does even the most sober of expressions.

As carefully as Herr Iffland does indeed keep his characters separate in each of his plays (that the same ones generally recur is another matter entirely), they are nonetheless all governed by the same manner of speaking, one whose distinguishing feature is especially that illustrative tendency that suits the Jew so well but the prince so ill. That language is always borrowed, explicitly but not nobly, from the nearest available objects, from the business and activities of daily life, or it reminds earthly suffering and transience of heavenly joy and compensation. Whenever the tone is to be elevated, it transitions into unctuous declamation. It is only when a character’s disposition erupts in the rage of base drives that the language truly approach brilliance.

Herr Iffland’s debut as a writer justifiably prompted the kinds of demands that now make it painful to have to regress in one’s praise. Nothing would be easier than to dispense with him with an insignificant mention of acknowledged talent whenever a new piece appears. But anyone truly interested in the theater will simply not be able to muster such indifference. Whither has Herr Iffland come on his chosen path?

At the beginning, he portrayed for us the perils of passion, the slippery slope of ambition. He placed us in the midst of respectable families that were troubled perhaps by the slip-up of one of their members. But he nonetheless allowed the comforting, better element to maintain the upper hand. Now he everywhere offers nothing but shattered ruin, foundering, conflict, unhappy marriages, crime belonging more before the criminal court, and degraded souls who are their own henchmen.

His intention is to entertain our imagination with ugliness and evil; he never has his characters raise their heads above ordinary, narrow merit, lest, heaven forbid, the appropriate element of restraint be exceeded. He grants beauty not even the tiniest space; indeed, he employs almost no passions other than those deriving from the basest drives. And where he does portray love, it is only as much as might be appropriate for an orderly household.

In the hands of such extolled nature, does art not thus ultimately sink into the muck, which admittedly is also found in the realm of the former? It was Diderot who first tried to assert the rights of nature, as the fundamental law for the dramatic poet, over against outdated habituation and convention; but he did not make it the purpose of his plays to sharpen the conscience of bad people, but to strengthen the sensibility of those of noble disposition for the dignity of humankind. Although, on the one hand, both directly and through his influence on Lessing’s theories and practice, he influenced our stage in an extremely salutary fashion, especially in relieving us of the fetters with which blind imitation of the French had shackled German writers, he did nonetheless, on the other hand, provide occasion for some extremely detrimental misunderstandings.

In the hands of his successors, his concepts of moral instruction, of nature, of truth in portrayal, and of deception have become so coarsened that spectators are now perpetually entertained with their own civil and domestic obligations; that nothing counts as being natural now apart from the quotidian and trivially prosaic; and that people now believe that the slightest elevated embellishment suspends truth. Amid the complete exclusion of nature, the absolute dominion of the conventional and mannered, and the resulting emptiness and poverty, in a word: amid the overall constitution of the tragic theater of the French at least the claims of art were kept alive even if they could not always be satisfied.

By contrast, we have come to the point where not a trace of the concept of a free, genuine work of art can be discerned in our usual dramatic productions. It is almost impossible to progress any further in this particular direction, or more precisely: to descend any more deeply. Hence perhaps the time is no longer so distant when in the theater as well as in the other fine arts one will prefer to discern only selected nature through the medium of elevated portrayals, and where poesy and drama are no longer viewed as being alien or even opposed one to the other, but as being inseparable.


[1] August Wilhelm Iffland, The Lawyers: A Drama in Five Acts, trans. C. Ludger (London 1799), 82:

Privy Counsellor (to Gernau): Man! you, that, though poor and low, have remained faithful to your duty, I apply to that heart which my power has tortured, and seek for consolation. (Clings round his neck.)
Gernau. I sympathize in your sufferings; let me go and get information, and act for you.
Privy Counsellor. No! If I should fall, I ought to rise by myself, and if I cannot bring that about, I ought to perish in the dark, unpitied by man. [Exit.] Back.

[2] Here Caroline differentiates between the comedy (Komödie), dramatic play (Schauspiel), and “the truly tragic” (das wahrhaft tragische). Without examining these distinctions in detail, one can generally say that in this context, the Schauspiel denotes a dramatic form that, as opposed to the tragedy and comedy, is characterized by a serious and largely uncomical story that does, however, conclude without tragedy in the strict sense or even with a certain positive element of hope. Back.

[3] Act 5, scene 11; trans. from August Wilhelm Iffland, The Lawyers: A Drama in Five Acts, 100. Back.

[4] Ibid., 102. Back.

[5] Caroline is mistaken; it is the Justizrath, act 3, scene 9. Back.

Translation © 2012 Doug Stott