Letter 361b

361b. Hans Christian Genelli to Wilhelm Schlegel in Dresden: Berlin, 29 May 1802 [*]

Berlin, [Saturday] 29 May 1802

On Wednesday, the 26th of this month, I learned through Schierstett that on the 30th Ion is to be performed and — booed offstage. [1] People are saying that Mayer, the doctor, is absolutely dead set against his better half playing a role as lewd as that of Creusa, and that since they are determined to stage the piece despite his protestations, he has organized a group to boo it lustily offstage etc.

Although this seemed to me to be an illogical rumor deserving no credibility, when that same evening I learned that Ion had earlier been announced and then canceled “because of illness,” the next morning, Thursday, I went to Madam Mayer herself to find out what was going on.

You can imagine my surprise when I had to learn the truth from her own mouth. The doctor did not hear the piece read aloud (had he, so her opinion, he would in all likelihood have found nothing questionable in it) and in the actual performance had on the second evening seen only the scene at the altar, which contains the confessions. [2] His Reformed parson’s and tutor’s morality had already become suspicious at the scandalous notion that a virtuous married woman allegedly secretly bears the child of a god before marriage, and that it was precisely his wife who was portraying this person.

To make things even worse, he happened to end up standing next to a couple of gens d’armes officers who in their inimitable way were making whore jokes quite without making any effort to separate the person depicted in the role from the actress portraying her, and so he, of course, fell into a rage and immediately left the theater. [3]

Well, being by nature a merciless bawler utterly unable to keep anything to himself, he quickly went from the theater to God knows what sort of group of morality-threshers, who through heartfelt sympathy with his scandalous experience then made him totally crazy. [4]

That is how she herself related the background to me. Then, as one can easily enough imagine, there were the most charming domestic scenes between them, with references to “steadfast character” and “a certain manner of thinking,” to “philosophical tranquility” and an “acknowledgement of the freedom of others,” but naturally also to steadfast insistence on one’s own “reasonably grounded” decision and “moral indignation” and on and on and on. [5]

In a word, he is insisting that she not perform the role, and, moreover, that should the theater management nonetheless insist that she do so, she then take leave of the theater entirely.

Iffland went into all sorts of contortions trying to overcome his pigheadedness, but in vain, as one might easily have predicted, since Iffland’s own ostensible morality in reality differs from that of the good doctor only in degree of limpness, so that the former, in his heart of hearts, could not help but admire the resolute steadfastness of the latter and his willingness to sacrifice an entire salary for the good of public morals.

So, then, caught between his interest in his theater and his admiration for the uprightness of this zealous spouse, with all of which his secret wish to see the play fall by the wayside might perhaps have been playing a role as well — I at least would not guarantee that such was not the case — our valiant Iffland could think of no other way out than simply to postpone the matter until God himself might decide.

Other people — for the doctor raised such a stink that the entire city knows about it — attacked the doctor himself for it, and he no doubt had to endure considerable derision and persiflage; but alas, all these attempts only hardened him. People even warned him that all he was doing was granting Schlegel every right to lay into him with a frightful satire; but his zealousness on behalf of virtue has hardened him: “Just let him come,” he says, “I will dispatch him the way he deserves.”

His wife, who probably has more confidence in his valor than in his competence, fears precisely that, and would, of course, like to see this whole matter put out of its misery. On the one hand, she fears the inevitable disruption in her domestic tranquility, the war that will follow in the marital bed, and divorce. “Probably,” she says, “I will have to be a wife longer than an actress,” which, of course, is in fact not so probable. [6] It is at least equally probable that in five years she will go onstage again as that he will survive that period of time.

She, who, after all, is lying, or has lain, in the same bed with this withered hothead, cannot but have a secret anticipatory feeling for that alternative. And for precisely that reason, on the other hand, she equally fears having to take leave of the theater; to which must also be reckoned the self-love of the artist and the fact that she will no doubt also quite miss the loss of her salary in her current household circumstances.

All these things have made her quite anxious, first that the whole matter be not pressed so far that the public might demand the play be performed, since in that case she would in all likelihood receive her leave from the theater, and even in the most harmless scenario would have the irksome vexation of seeing her role assigned to someone else; and second that you, Herr Schlegel, might take to the field with derisive satires against her husband, thereby severely undermining her domestic tranquility and all sorts of things like that etc.

She has thus asked me to relate all these things to you before you hear them from someone else, and to ask you in her name not to be hard on her husband and to let you know that she has not yet entirely despaired of perhaps assuaging her precious spouse about this issue over time.

You will grant, my dear Schlegel, that I could not very well deny her this request. At the same time, I did make it clear to her that she could in no way demand that you recognize this dull doctor as the censor of your work simply because for a few days a year he might become the chance husband of Creusa, and that you for your part could never allow such a philistine alone to presume to shape the play’s reputation.

In order, by the way, to let her know just how annoyed I myself was with all this, I admitted to her that I was inclined to write something about the performance of the play, an inclination that was, however, soured by the fact that now I could not avoid allowing at least something to creep in regarding the judgments of such people concerning her husband’s riffraff friends, whereupon she certainly quaked not a little while simultaneously being obviously chagrined that I might for that reason not be writing anything after all, since she certainly would, of course, have liked to have at least that satisfaction with respect to her efforts onstage. [7]

I thought myself obliged, my good friend, to faithfully relate to you these things that you might take whatever measures seem appropriate should such be in order. If you can, you do, of course, have every right to work toward having the play demanded; the best thing would be for it to be demanded from the highest possible place, [8] for the sort of petty domestic considerations the good doctor and his spouse are demanding are simply not to be tolerated. Does this account not seem drawn from some hamlet out in the hinterlands? [9] . . .


[*] Source: Körner, (1930), 1:146–48.

Wilhelm reliably left Berlin for Leipzig with Caroline and Schelling on 19 May 1802 but did not travel on from Leipzig to Jena with them on 24 May 1802, returning instead to Berlin by way of Dresden.

Because it is uncertain, however, exactly when he left Leipzig for Dresden, he may well have been in Leipzig when he received this letter. He was, it may be noted, in Dresden when he received a letter from Goethe (see his letter to Goethe on 11 September 1802 [Körner-Wieneke 135]) (Post Karte Durch ganz Deutschland, ed. J. Walch [Augsburg 1795]):


Concerning this timeline (including an estimation of how long he may have stayed in Leipzig), see the editorial note to Wilhelm’s letter to Caroline on 17 May 1802 (letter 359). In any event, Genelli is writing Wilhelm about events in Berlin precisely because Wilhelm was away at the moment. Back.

[1] Wilhelm Schlegel’s play Ion. Ein Schauspiel (Hamburg: Friedrich Perthes, 1803), had premiered in Berlin on 15, 16 May 1802; Wilhelm had probably attended with Caroline and Schelling. Back.

[2] Act 4, scene 1, Ion. Ein Schauspiel (Hamburg: Friedrich Perthes, 1803), 116–23. The entire play takes place before the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Ion, the eponymous ancestor of the Ionians, is the son of Queen Creusa and the god Apollo, not of Creusa’s husband, King Xuthus, and was exposed after birth, found by Xuthus, who supposed him his own son, and taken back to Athens. Henriette Meyer’s husband was not the only person who found indecent and scandalous the monologue in which Creusa “confesses” to this past event. For the text of this monologue and other reactions, see the section on this scandal in the supplementary appendix to Ion. Back.

[3] Not atypical behavior at theaters at the time; see esp. also the supplementary appendix on the reactions to Alarcos (Johann Heinrich Ramberg, Theaterpublikum bei der Vorstellung eines Ballettstückes [1797]; Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main):



[4] Frontispiece to Christian Gotthilf Salzmann, Carl von Carlsberg oder über das menschliche Elend, vol. 5 (Karlsruhe 1787):



[5] Göttinger Taschenkalender für das Jahr 1799; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:



[6] Henriette Meyer divorced her husband the very next year. Back.

[7] Genelli did review Ion in the Zeitung für die elegante Welt (1802) nos. 81, 82, 83 (8, 10, 13 July 1802), a review Schelling praised in a letter to Wilhelm on 30 July 1802 (letter 368b). Back.

[8] Viz., from the court in Berlin. Back.

[9] See in general the supplementary appendix on the reactions to Ion. Back.

Translation © 2016 Doug Stott