Central Europe Comes of Age

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Central Europe Comes of Age

Seventeenth-Century Theater.

In Central Europe the great and prolonged crisis of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) left this region desolate and economically depressed for much of the seventeenth century. This prolonged conflict eventually involved almost every European power, although the small states of the Holy Roman Empire were the primary battlefield for a conflict that grew to internecine proportions and which brought famine, disease, and depopulation in its wake. As a result of this devastation, the development of a secular, professionalized theater similar to that which had appeared in England, Spain, and France in the seventeenth century was delayed for several generations. At the same time, the performance of religious drama remained very much alive in seventeenth-century Central Europe. The Jesuit dramas performed in the order's schools followed much the same path of development that these productions took elsewhere in Catholic Europe. Reformation and Counter-Reformation polemical dramas, which satirized the positions of religious opponents or glorified the triumphs of Protestants or Catholics, was another dramatic tradition inherited from the sixteenth century that was very much alive in Central Europe generally, and in Catholic Germany and Austria in particular. Passion plays, the rural counterpart to the imposing Jesuit school dramas, also began to flourish in these years. The most famous of these productions is now the Oberammergau Passion Play, which was first staged in 1634 and has been staged at decade intervals since that time, but quite a few of the imposing, many-days long productions began to be performed in the seventeenth century. The Passion Play inherited much from the tradition of late-medieval mystery cycles, the imposing, often weeks-long productions that accompanied fairs or major religious holidays in the fifteenth century. At the same time, both the Jesuit drama and the Passion Play relied on newer staging techniques and a more compact and less rambling plot that often defended Catholic truth in line with the demands of the Counter-Reformation. Musical interludes, choral singing, and even choreographed dances were just a few of the other features that found their way into these plays. There was certainly a huge divide that separated the cultivated Jesuit school dramas from the rural Passion Play. Over time, the works of the Jesuit theater came, in fact, to more closely resemble operas than dramas. At the same time, both forms of theater—one popular, the other urbane—largely arose from the religious controversies of the period, and as these disputes grew less vicious toward the end of the seventeenth century, the works were performed less frequently.

Andreas Gryphius.

Despite the bleak condition of much of Germany's cultural life in the seventeenth century, every now and then there were notable bright spots on the horizon. Andreas Gryphius (1616–1664), the greatest German poet of the seventeenth century, was one of these. He had been a refugee as a child, having been forced to flee his native town in Silesia during the Thirty Years' War. As he moved from place to place he acquired a remarkably good education. Eventually, he received the patronage of a noble, who recognized his literary talents and financed his travels through Europe for several years. Returning to Silesia in 1647, he became a government official, and from this relative security he began to write a series of tragic masterpieces infused with a pessimistic, yet grand tone. Affected by ancient Stoicism, Gryphius' works treated Christian and heroic themes, intoning the necessity of martyrdom to defend religious principles and truths. The sense of resolute destiny is less pronounced in three comedies the poet wrote in the later years of his life, but a somber mood pervades most of the great author's verse and drama.

The Small State.

The rural character of much of Central Europe had a profound effect on theatrical traditions in the region. No city in Central Europe at the time was of a comparable size to the great urban centers of Western or Mediterranean Europe; to this day, most of the German-speaking peoples of Central Europe continue to live in towns that are much smaller than the great metropolises of France, the Netherlands, and England. While Germany may have had relatively few cities of any great size, it did have princely courts in great profusion. During the seventeenth century, the political disintegration of Central Europe accelerated, in large part as a consequence of the Thirty Years' War. The power of the Holy Roman Empire, the loose confederation of states in the region, became ever more fictional. At the same time in the individual states and territories of the empire, princes became ever more concerned with increasing their power and authority over their subjects in ways that were similar to the absolutist political innovations common to France and other great European states at the time. The support of the arts, music, drama, and literature became a hallmark of many of these princes' policies, since great achievements in the arts and humanities added luster to their reputations and international prestige. As the problems of the seventeenth century began to fade, scores of German princes began to support the development of court theaters on a previously unknown scale, importing Italian and French architects to build new elegant structures to serve as venues for the opera, the ballet and, to a lesser extent, drama. Thus if Germany failed to develop a single metropolitan capital similar to London or Paris, the circumstances of its court life brought about the flourishing of "high culture" in every corner of the country. This phenomenon was a direct result of the political situation that was bred in the German Kleinstaat or "small state," and the tendency to support the arts generously at the local level has persisted in the country until modern times. Even today, there is scarcely any town of middling size in Central Europe that is without its own opera and dramatic theater. Many of these institutions trace their origins back to the early-modern princes that founded them.

Court Theaters and Traveling Troupes.

The economic realities of these small principalities meant that very few rulers could support performing groups on the same scale as Louis XIV and other great kings at the time. While a few of the German states like Austria and Brandenburg Prussia were of considerable size and wealth, most had far more limited economic resources. Despite their more modest resources, many German princes specialized in supporting the arts. One of the first positions that the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) took after completing his education was as music master at the court of Cöthen, where a music-loving prince generally provided the resources Bach needed for his composition to flourish. Within a few years, though, his patron's tastes had changed, and his prince cut back on the music master's budgets. Bach soon moved on, finding work in other more congenial pastures. Similar patterns of patronage also affected the theater for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While some princes favored the drama, most devoted their attentions to the opera and the ballet, the two most popular performing arts at the time. And while many courts had their own theater, it was most often given over to the performance of these arts, rather than to the production of plays. By contrast, in Germany's towns and cities dramas appear to have been popular, and from the early seventeenth century troupes of traveling performers are well recorded throughout the country. Audiences in German cities avidly supported the performances of Italian Commedia dell'arte troupes as well as the dramas staged by a number of English groups that toured the country. By the mid-seventeenth century many German-speaking actors had joined these English groups, and over time, they took over these companies altogether. But a traveling theater was ill suited to high standards of production, given the realities of German cultural life. The country was badly divided by religious divisions, and troupes that traveled in both Protestant and Catholic areas needed to have different plays at hand to entertain audiences that were living under quite different social, political, and religious circumstances. At the same time, the great linguistic divisions in the country meant that dialogue needed to be carefully tailored to take account of the vast differences that separated north from south and east from west. Under these circumstances it was not uncommon for a troupe of traveling players to have as many as 100 plays in their repertoire, a situation that was not well suited to developing a great dramatic art.

Eighteenth-Century Changes.

Toward the middle of the eighteenth century the drama began to develop in Germany in new ways as a talented group of writers produced works that spoke, not to the tastes of the court, but to the country's developing cities. The fashion of these new plays was shaped by bourgeois sensibilities, rather than by aristocratic pretensions. In this regard the theater of the time has long been termed "middle-class drama," since it was aimed not at court circles, but at well-to-do city dwellers who now had greater leisure time and disposable income to attend the theater. The rise of this new "middle-class" theater was not just a German phenomenon, but occurred in almost every country in Europe around the same time. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), the first German author to follow this path, was the son of a prominent Lutheran theologian, and although he never renounced his faith, he used his works to satirize religious hypocrisy and to mock those who blindly repeated received wisdom. Affected by the ideas of the Enlightenment, he had also read the works of many philosophers, and like the French playwright and encyclopedist Denis Diderot he aimed to capture "real-life" situations. In opposition to those who argued that the German theater should imitate the great but artificial tragedies of French figures like Racine and Corneille, Lessing supported a drama that was naturalistic. He began his career by producing several successful works for the Leipzig stage before his parents called him home and encouraged him to enroll in medical school. Although he eventually took his degree, he returned to play writing soon afterwards, moving first to Berlin where he came into contact with an impressive circle of intellectuals. Over time, he served as an advisor to a group of private theatregoers in the city of Hamburg, who had decided in 1765 to found a theater in their town, the first such public venture in Central Europe. When this scheme soured in 1770, Lessing moved on to become court librarian in the relatively small state of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. Despite its small size the state possessed in the small town of Wolfenbüttel one of the most impressive libraries in all Europe, and although Lessing was quite unhappy there, he used the time to write for the theater and to publish theoretical works on the drama. One of his most important plays, Nathan the Wise (1779), dates from these years, and argued in a daring



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fashion that the ethical impact of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was largely similar. While Nathan the Wise was a profoundly serious work, many of Lessing's most notable plays were comedies, including the popular Minna von Barnhelm, a work that treats the concept of honor. The author's tragedy Miss Sara Sampson, too, is today considered among his most appealing works. It was Lessing's self-expressed intention throughout his life to establish a "national theater" in the German language. It was an ambitious goal, given the long tradition of regional particularity, political division, and linguistic differences that separated the German states from each other. At the same time, the playwright's ambitions were to be largely realized in the coming generation. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, an enormously talented group of dramatists, which included figures like Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), took up the challenge that Lessing had identified.


Stefanie Arend, Rastlose Weltgestaltung: senecaische Kulturkritik in den Tragödien Gryphius' und Lohensteins (Tübingen, Germany: Niemeyer, 2003).

Walter Bruford, Theatre, Drama, and Audience in Goethe's Germany (London: Routledge and Paul, 1950).

Gesa Dane, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (Stuttgart, Germany: Philip Reclam, 2002).

Bruce Duncan, Dark Comedy in Eighteenth-Century Germany (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970).

Gustav Sichelschmidt, Lessing: der Mann und sein Werk (Düsseldorf, Germany: Droste, 1989).

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Central Europe Comes of Age

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Central Europe Comes of Age