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The Historical Experience in German Drama

The Historical Experience in German Drama: From Gryphius to Brecht

Alan Menhennet
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    The Historical Experience in German Drama
    Book Description:

    In what is still the standard survey of German historical drama, 'Das deutsche Geschichtsdrama' (1952), Friedrich Sengle understands "historical drama" as that in which objective history is blended with an 'idea' that is the basis of its dramatic coherence and force. This idea inevitably becomes the engine of a dramatic action, inclining the theatergoer to become wholly engaged with dramatic characters in a dramatic present, rather than with "real" figures in a historical past. Such plays (for instance Schiller's 'Maria Stuart') may remain broadly "true to history," but the 'experience' they afford is often not historical; that is, it may be emotionally and intellectually compelling, but it will not be historical in the sense of causing us, in our present, to become engaged with our relationship with past figures and events and their continued relevance for us. Alan Menhennet identifies and analyzes examples of German drama that are historical in the stricter sense: not only in terms of the provenance of the material, but also in that, while remaining dramatic in nature, they do convey a historical experience. By means of a critical survey extending from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, in the contexts of literary history, the philosophy of history, and German history from the Thirty Years' War to the Second World War, Menhennet provides a complement to Sengle's still-valuable study. Major figures treated include Gryphius, Lessing, Schiller, Goethe, Grillparzer, Hebbel, Schnitzler, and Brecht. There is no competing work in English. Alan Menhennet is Professor Emeritus of German at the University of Newcastle, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK. He is author of 'Grimmelshausen the Storyteller' (Camden House, 1997).

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-609-1
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Alan Menhennet
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    The thrust of this study differs from that of Friedrich Sengle’s Das deutsche Geschichtsdrama (Stuttgart 1952) which is focused on cases in which there is a meeting of “objective” (that is, “real,” factual) history and a “tragende Idee.”¹ This latter will inevitably be the main engine of a dramatic action, inclining us to become wholly engaged with dramatic characters in a dramatic present, rather than “real” figures in an historical past. The experience to which this is conducive may be emotionally and intellectually compelling, but it will not be historical in the sense that it causes us, in our present,...

  6. 1: Historical Drama of the German Baroque: Andreas Gryphius
    (pp. 13-32)

    Why begin with the Baroque when, if Sengle is to be believed, in spite of a lively interest in historical fact, the period produced “keine echte Geschichtsdichtung”?¹ In part, the answer lies in analysis of what Sengle means by the word “echt” — an argument that could also apply to Brecht’s Mutter Courage. In that play, as well as in Gryphius’s Carolus Stuardus,² to which we devote the bulk of this chapter, the actual events portrayed are seen as being of significance principally, if not entirely, by reference to “historical” criteria which transcend the time in which they occur, and indeed...

  7. 2: The Age of Enlightenment: Aufklärung
    (pp. 33-45)

    Although the Enlightenment, in Germany, had to share the eighteenth century with an opposing tendency which can be called in broad terms “Romantic,” we can reasonably say it enjoyed the ascendancy until the early 1770s. From that point on, it continued, into the first decade of the nineteenth century, to make a significant contribution to German literature and thought, through the work of writers of the older generation like Lessing and Wieland, and of others (most notably, for our purposes, Schiller) who certainly underwent a “pre-Romantic” phase (the so-called “Sturm und Drang”) but returned in part at least to the...

  8. 3: Weimar Classicism: Friedrich Schiller
    (pp. 46-75)

    In spite of the fact that Schiller was a professional historian, and a dramatist of the first rank, the omens for the achievement of an historical drama that conveys an historical experience are not particularly favourable. As a realist, he does not truly progress, in his presentation of history, beyond the attitudes and methods of the Aufklärung; as a poetic and dramatic idealist, he has a tendency to go beyond historical reality altogether and to make the “actual” events “symbolic.”¹ In one case only, that of Wallenstein, we shall argue that a special combination of circumstances nudged him in the...

  9. 4: Herder, Goethe and the Romantic Tendency: Götz von Berlichingen
    (pp. 76-98)

    The reader is entitled to ask why, at this point, we are describing a chronological loop: Wallenstein was completed in 1799, Götz in 1774. The answer is: to preserve the appropriate historical order. This latter in turn derives from our basic principle, namely to examine the best examples of the type of play which is, in part at least, informed, in its structure, characterization, and in other ways, by impulses which can be described as historical rather than purely aesthetic. Changes in the way in which history is understood and approached therefore condition its arrangement and it is with Herder,...

  10. 5: The Emergence of Austria: Franz Grillparzer
    (pp. 99-123)

    Survivors of a previous era, such as Goethe, may have disapproved, and even Grillparzer, who felt a sympathy for that era as a kind of spiritual home, associated “Nationalität” with “Bestialität” in a well-known epigram. But he could never have been in any real doubt that in the political world which began to take shape in Central Europe after the demise of the Holy Roman Empire, it had become necessary, if only as a defence-mechanism, to think in national terms, with inevitable consequences for historical thinking as well. Under the force of circumstances (i.e. Frederick the Great), Austria had been...

  11. 6: “Non-Austrian” Historical Drama: C. F. Hebbel
    (pp. 124-148)

    There seems to be a contradiction in the title of this chapter: after all, Hebbel lived and worked in Vienna from 1845 onward and Austria, over the centuries, has displayed an almost legendary skill in importing and assimilating talent from without. But Hebbel was not one to be assimilated; he once described himself as a “Nicht-Oesterreicher”¹ and the label of “North German”² adheres to him wherever he goes in the South; Bavaria (as we shall see in the case of Agnes Bernauer) or Austria. One has only to juxtapose him with Grillparzer to justify their separation as historical dramatists. The...

  12. 7: The Modern Age: Schnitzler and Brecht
    (pp. 149-166)

    Es gibt kein Drama mehr.” This saying by Iwan Goll¹ is, in one sense of the word, manifestly not true: there is no lack of plays in German after the onset of the Modern Movement; many on themes taken from history, and among these, works whose “modern” credentials are indisputable. One thinks of Dürrenmatt’s treatment of the Anabaptist theocracy in Münster (Es steht geschrieben [1947], recast as Die Wiedertäufer in 1967). Goll’s remark makes sense, however, if applied to the idea of drama as it had existed since Aristotle: a coherent action between defined characters, located in a known reality....

  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 167-174)
  14. Index
    (pp. 175-186)