Caroline’s 1796 Review of August von Kotzebue

Caroline’s 1796 Review of August von Kotzebue [*]

Leipzig: Kummer: Die Spanier in Peru oder Rolla’s Tod: Ein romantisches Trauerspiel in 5 Akten, by President von Kotzebue. 1796. VI and 168 pages. 8vo. (12 gr.)

Idem, Die Verläumder: Ein Schauspiel in fünf Akten. Idem. 1796. 216 pages. 8vo. (14 gr.)

Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1796) 351 (Tuesday, 8 November 1796) 345–47:

The first piece is a continuation of the Sonnen-Jungfrau [ein Schauspiel in fünf Aufzügen (1799)], to which it is to be preferred if for no other reason than it avoids fatiguing discourses and abbreviates as much as possible all otherwise tense situations. In the character of Cora, moreover, we are more inclined to behold the tender mother rather than the naive and pregnant Sun Virgin, though even here the author cannot quite resist trying to arouse sympathy by means of naked, sensual nature.

To wit, very little emotion and artistic effort indeed are needed to make us tremble before a mother’s despair upon discovering that her infant is no longer where she left it, whereupon she then wanders aimlessly through the forest trying to locate it; or to be anxious for a child threatened by hostile swords. Nor does the author really merit having avoided pushing such scenes to the point of shocked indignation. Pizarro’s wild nature should have been merely intimated rather than fully portrayed.


The episode that costs Rolla his life, the child’s rescue, although well prepared, nonetheless attributes to this Peruvian hero an excessively sentimental disposition when he expresses his passion for Cora in words.


King Ataliba’s observations on p. 138 similarly come across too pacifically; he speaks, for example, about victories that are, after all, supposed to save everything, as follows: “Ah, I would give all my victories for a happy harvest festival!”

The author is in general unable to keep himself from chasing after universal aphorisms at the cost of individual propriety, or from accelerating dialogue by means of facile witticisms, of which, among others, the play’s initial scene is an example.

The second play juxtaposes malicious and thoughtless slanderers one against the other.


The former differs too little from any other despicable person for whom no means is too base to engage in eliminating those who stand in the way or in general to attain his goals; that is, in such a person slandering or defaming is a merely secondary rather than dominant inclination. He does not engage his malicious tongue merely to create confusion for enjoyment, thereafter to delight in the harmful consequences. Because he wants to harm his friend, he slanders him; because he wants to disunite the married couple to his own advantage, he generates suspicion in them.

Although the thoughtless slanderer is more accurately portrayed, his character is nonetheless too flat to offer much entertainment. A humorous Englishman who asks for permission before speaking more than three words, and who himself has much to say about his national identity, both exposes the malicious slanderer and converts the thoughtless one. With regard to the former, a reference letter from William Pitt that he hands to the minister at the decisive moment authorizes him; and with regard to the latter, he is empowered, as goes almost without saying, by his noble Don-Quixote bearing.

The person slandered is accused of harboring Jacobin sentiments, and his spouse accused of having entered into an understanding with the prince against him. It is, however, not really likely that this tender husband so quickly succumbs to suspicion considering that he has hitherto been full of love and trust (unless such be excused by the unfortunate experience that the grandest slander all too often dupes precisely such utterly sincere men), and the nocturnal visits of his charitable wife, though designed to support this suspicion, are introduced in a somewhat forced fashion.

Just why the play necessarily commences with a scene in which the wife announces her long-awaited pregnancy first to her sister-in-law, and only then to her husband can perhaps be explained only by the author’s predilection for presenting anything natural to his audience as plainly and starkly as possible, for this particular disclosure otherwise has no further influence on the husband’s suspicion; it merely prompts us to view the wife’s situation as even more awkward in a decidedly unpleasant way.

One might also have spared us Jenny’s reminder, “Is that why you look so hollow-eyed, you poor soul! Ha, ha ha! And my brother knows nothing of this?” along with Emilie’s response, “Till now I have feared deceiving you with false hopes.” What was said about dialog in the first play above similarly applies here throughout. The dialog proceeds at a brisk pace, except that preceding lines are not seldom already transparently cast according to the following lines.

Every new piece this writer publishes (they follow so quickly one upon the other that one is occasionally unsure what the latest is) cannot but convince a critic of the futility of lingering with any analysis given his constant sins against genuine morality and beauty. In both good and bad, and amid his hasty literary fecundity, he remains essentially the same, and even when occasionally one of his works surpasses the previous, on the whole he never really makes any progress toward perfection.

That said, for now he will doubtless remain the favorite child of our ordinary actors and of the great mass of audience members insofar as neither the dramatic talents of the former nor the receptivity of the latter can elevate themselves to an appreciation of works of art of loftier taste. Hence in the preface to Rolla, Herr von Kotzebue might better have avoided adducing this approval in ranting against assessments of his earlier works published in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung, since such approval encompasses all sorts of banality besides merely his own.


[*] Illustrations: frontispieces to 1826 and 1832 editions of Die Spanier in Peru, and to an 1808 edition of Die Verläumder. Back.

Translation © 2018 Doug Stott