Germany as a nation did not exist in minds or on the map during the early modern era. Each territory of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (Das Heilige Römische Reich deutscher Nation) was its own entity with unique traditions driven by cultural imperatives, politics, religion, and other social variables, to include language. Drama and theater arts in the German territories saw a proliferation of forms derived from the reception of various literary traditions. By 1780, modern German drama came into its own, but the transition leading to that result was complex. Those forms and traditions that were discarded along the way constitute the story of early modern drama in Germany.
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw dramatic forms linked to liturgical uses and ecclesiastical traditions. Oral rituals of the Latin mass were linked to the celebratory cycle of the Christian calendar, to the Christmas and Easter messages of birth, death, and salvation. Dramatic enactment served as an entertaining vehicle reinforcing wondrous truths. Raucous and salacious Shrovetide or Carnival plays (Fastnachtspiele) by the likes of Hans Rosenplüt and Hans Folz, warned Carnival revelers in Nuremberg of the foolishness of their excess just prior to Lent.
The recovery in 1493 of plays in Latin modeled after those of the Roman playwright Terence (c. 190–159? b.c.e.) by the tenth-century Saxon nun Hroswitha von Gandersheim legitimized and coincided with the rise of the humanist tradition of the Schuldrama (dramas for schools), plays performed by schoolboy actors and university students so as to hone rhetorical skill and Latin fluency. Philipp Melanchthon's 1516 edition of Terence provided an authoritative textual base for both dramatic form and literary language and served as a catalyst for translation of the plays from Latin into German (1540), thereby assuring the spread of classical models. Whether written in German or Latin, Schuldrama was a constant; theater in Germany remained nonprofessional until the eighteenth century.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) was leery both of the diversions of medieval pageantry and the pre-Christian worldliness of Greek and Roman plays. His mentor Melanchthon, however, convinced him of the efficacy of placing drama in the service of the Reformation. While some playwrights pilloried the Roman Catholic Church, Luther encouraged the production of plays based on biblical sources. Prodigal Son plays, for example, defined the exemplary Christian life grounded in the precepts of faith-alone theology, while Judith dramas portrayed heroic piety confronting blasphemous tyranny, Judith versus Holofernes representing the Lutheran versus the Roman Church. Lutheran schoolmasters and pastors cranked out German-language plays, spreading a Protestant message to cultural centers (notably Strasbourg) and to most corners of the empire and Switzerland. The Catholic religious orders, but especially Jesuit playwrights such as Jakob Bidermann and Jakob Masen, countered, producing Neo-Latin works, the theatricality of which influenced playwrights well into the seventeenth century.
The most prolific playwright of the sixteenth century was Hans Sachs (1494–1576). Often parodied because of his unrelenting German-language doggerel, the Nuremberg author absorbed classical and medieval literary and historical sources, authoring 128 tragedies and comedies as well as 80 Fastnachtspiele. Not only did he transmit a version of Terence's Eunuch or the medieval romance Tristan und Isolde to the German imagination, but his Fastnachtspiele toned down the blatant profanity of his predecessors, deploying the Shrovetide message of excess just prior to Lent firmly in the service of Reformation instruction. By the early seventeenth century, Sachs was passé, yet he had written the only texts from the era that are still produced in modern Germany.
During the late sixteenth century, German playwrights also derived inspiration from the Italian commedia dell'arte and from traveling troupes of English professional players who toured cities and princely courts throughout the empire. The brand of theater was decidedly histrionic, focused more on slapstick action than on the word. Nicodemus Frischlin's Caminarius in the court-centered play Julius Redivivus (1585) was a lascivious commedia-type. Duke Heinrich Julius von Braunschweig's braggart soldier in the courtly piece named for him, Vincentius Ladislaus (1592), was as indebted to Shakespearean and Italian models as to classical sources. Also set at a court, Ludwig Hollonius's king-for-a-day play, Somnium Vitae Humanae (1605), drew on French sources. Each drama documents the derivative nature of German drama as well as the significance of princely court festival culture in the era; indeed, the first theater building in the empire was constructed by a Hessian prince for his court in Kassel (1604–1605).
Comedy, as Cicero had written, was a mirror of laughable life, while tragedy ended sadly. Such views were hardly complex or subtle, and with the variegated dramatic conventions competing for the German stage, what was lacking was a coherent theoretical base. A treatise by Martin Opitz (1597–1639), Das Buch von der Teutschen Poeterey (1624; The book concerning German poetics) filled the void. The author was a culturally patriotic student of Italian Renaissance poetics who simply translated Julius Caesar Scaliger's (1484–1558) definitions verbatim into German. Opitz's work became authoritative, spawning a host of learned theoretical publications. Playwrights after Opitz knew exactly what was expected of them and wrote accordingly.
Andreas Gryphius (1616–1664) was honored as the consummate practitioner of literary art. His five tragedies and two comedies, along with lesser-known dramas, established him as the exemplar of the era's sensibility. Leo Armenius oder Fürstenmord (1657; Leo Armenius or regicide) is a case in point. Set in ninth-century Byzantium, the tragedy's text documents the playwright's indebtedness to both Jesuit and Netherlandic drama, even as the action cast in stately Alexandrine lines (iambic hexameter) expresses the theme of human transience (Vergänglichkeit) coupled with a decidedly Lutheran philosophy of history. The drama explored a sociopolitical issue especially pertinent to seventeenth-century European absolutism: regicide, the Fürstenmord of the title. Subsequent dramas by Gryphius addressed the tragic fate of figures from both the distant and the recent past, for example, that of the English King Charles I, who was beheaded in 1649. In Ermorderte Majestät oder Carolus Stuardus (1657; Murdered majesty or Charles Stuart), Gryphius reconfigured the regicide as a martyrdom; the king became a latter-day Christ, a spin reflecting both the playwright's agenda and the political ideology of the absolutist era.
Gryphius's Absurda Comica oder Herr Peter Squentz (1658; Comic absurdities or Mr. Peter Squentz), seems to be a takeoff on A Midsummer Night's Dream, with the protagonist being a German Peter Quince from Shakespeare's "Pyramus and Thisbe" play within a play. Yet research has shown that Gryphius could not have known Shakespeare's text directly, even as he dramatized the tragic comedy of errors derived from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Instead, Gryphius explicitly satirized the ineptness of Hans Sachs, even as he dissembled Opitz's rigid definition of comedy. The oft-performed tragicomedy argued for the admissibility of chaotic absurdity on the German stage. On the other hand, Horribilicribrifax (1663), featuring two preposterous braggart soldiers, was more in line with Greek and Roman comedy, with commedia dell'arte traditions, and with the German conventions of the form. As a result of the cessation of hostilities, the pair is down on its luck and now in pursuit of eligible ladies. The happy-end marriage, a comedic process of reintegration, dramatized pertinent issues after the conclusion of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648).
The six tragedies by Daniel Casper von Lohenstein (1635–1683) focused on protagonists of the Roman, Egyptian, and Turkish past, on exotic figures such as Nero, Cleopatra, and Sultan Sulieman. Grand passions, explicit eroticism, and absolute power drove both the action and the highly charged literary language. Such extravagance commented on and echoed the absolutism of the German empire and marked Lohenstein as a tragedian of skeptical rationalism, the antithesis of a religious playwright. During the eighteenth century, Lohenstein was censured, while a lesser literary talent, the schoolmaster-playwright Christian Weise (1642–1708) authored eighteen comedies and four tragedies in the tradition of the Schuldrama, plays that anticipated eighteenth-century trends of theater in the service of the Enlightenment.
The publication of Johann Christoph Gottsched's (1700–1766) Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst vor die Deutschen (1730; Attempt at a critical poetics for the Germans) a century after Opitz's treatise signaled the shift to thinking in line with the Enlightenment. Opitz had repeated sixteenth-century Italian descriptions of drama. Gottsched looked to French playwrights for his models: to the tragedies of Pierre Corneille (1606–1684) and Jean Racine (1639–1699), to the comedies of Philippe Destouches (1680–1754) and Charles Dufresny (1648–1724). Gottsched's definitions of comedy and tragedy were proscriptive (rather than merely descriptive), arguing for the adherence to French-inspired classicist form as well as for the moral function of theater.
It was in the sächsische Typenkomödie (Saxon comedy) that Gottsched's moralizing views were realized. For the playwrights from the territory of Saxony, a comic figure's laughable fixation—for example, hypochondria—was considered to be directly related to the character's lack of rationality. Comedy was not laughter for laughter's sake; the play presented both the irrational trait and the process leading to its abandonment. The members of the audience laughed knowingly about the failing and reveled in its correction, a notion in line with the optimistic rationality of the Enlightenment era (Aufklärung).
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1728–1781), Germany's prototypical Aufklärer, well knew the moral intent of Saxon comedy. In Der junge Gelehrte (1748; The young scholar), his first truly popular play, he satirized his own precocious intellect. Yet Lessingwasalsoattunedtotheeffectof "sentimental comedy" as practiced by the English, the French, and by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715–1769). If the audience could be moved to tears (comédie larmoyante), this too might effect moral betterment. In this variant, comedy became ever more earnest, and nowhere more profoundly than in Lessing's play Minna von Barnhelm oder das Soldatenglück (1767; Minna von Barnhelm or the soldier's fortune). The protagonists, the lovers Minna and Tellheim, were not only laughable types (Tellheim, a braggart soldier), but also individuals movingly caught up in a near tragic comedy.
With Lessing, German drama came into its own. In 1755, he published Miss Sara Sampson, a sentimental bourgeois tragedy indebted to an English text. His 17. Literaturbrief (1759; Seventeenth literary letter) delivered a massive critique of Gottsched and the French playwrights, even as he championed Shakespeare. With the tragedy Emilia Galotti (1772), he took on the depravity of an absolutist prince bent on the seduction of middle-class Emilia. That the tragedy was first performed at a prince's court assured its impact and Lessing's notoriety. Like Gryphius, he did not shrink from criticizing sociopolitical institutions even as he sought to advance the greatest goal of the Enlightenment, the education of humanity. Nathan der Weise (1779; Nathan the wise) presented his vision of religious tolerance between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in dramatic form.
The era of the Enlightenment in Germany experienced a refinement of literary language. With the exception of the blank verse in Nathan, all of Lessing's dramas were written in prose, it being true to life. During the same period, German theater gradually became professional. The itinerant troupes of players, generally thought of as vagrants, were hired for residence at this court or that. Even though the permanent establishment of a Nationaltheater in Hamburg failed, actors and actresses gained a footing. Furthermore, the Hamburg experiment yielded Lessing's Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767–1769; The Hamburg dramaturgy), a compilation of reviews of stage performances in Hamburg and essays on the nature of drama and theater. Most importantly, Lessing took on Aristotle's theory of tragedy, redefining the genre in terms of the Enlightenment: tragedy was to effect not only an emotional response, but also a moral change in the viewers.
Lessing's death in 1781 marked the transition from early modern to modern drama. He had introduced Germany to future directions; it has been argued that Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) drama was a radicalized extension of the Enlightenment. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) expressed his admiration of Shakespeare in 1771 and went on to write Götz von Berlichingen (1773). Goethe purposefully transgressed against the norms of French classicism, as he passionately depicted the titanic proportions of a very Shakespearean Götz. Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) championed rebellious youth in Die Räuber (1781; The robbers), later updating Lessing in the bourgeois tragedy Kabale und Liebe (1784; Intrigue and love), like Lessing's Emilia Galotti an indictment of the depravity of absolutism in Germany. Finally, Schiller's essay Die Schaubühne als moralische Anstalt betrachtet (1785; The stage as a moral institution) went both Gottsched and Lessing one better, laying the groundwork for what was soon to become the drama and theater of the German Klassik.
See also Dutch Literature and Language ; German Literature and Language ; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von ; Klopstock, Friedrich Gottlieb ; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim ; Luther, Martin ; Melanchthon, Philipp ; Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von .
Gillespie, Gerald, ed. German Theater before 1750. New York, 1992. Excellent introduction and translation of six plays: Hrotswitha von Gandersheim, Dulcitius; Hans Sachs, Fool Surgery (Das Narrenschneiden); Paul Rebhun, Susanna; Andreas Gryphius, Leo Armenius; Daniel C. von Lohenstein, Sophinsba; Johann E. Schlegel, The Dumb Beauty (Die stumme Schönheit).
Halbig, Michael C., trans. The Jesuit Theater of Jacob Masen, Three Plays in Translation with an Introduction. New York, 1987. Translation of the Latin plays Rusticus Imperans, Maurice, and Androphilus.
Hinderer, Walter, ed. Friedrich Schiller, Plays. New York, 1983. A translation of Intrigue and Love and Don Carlos.
Leidner, Alan C. Sturm und Drang. New York, 1992. Helpful introduction and translation of plays by Lenz, The Soldiers, Wagner, The Childmurderess, Klinger, Storm and Stress, and Schiller, The Robbers.
Listerman, Randall W., ed. Hans Sachs. Nine Carnival Plays. Ottawa, 1990. Helpful introduction and translation of The Nose Dance, The Stolen Bacon, The Calf-Hatching, The Wife in the Well, The Farmer with the Blur, The Evil Woman, The Grand Inquisitor in the Soup, The Dead Man, The Pregnant Farmer.
Abbé, Derek van. Drama in Renaissance Germany and Switzerland. Parkville, Australia, 1961. A useful overview.
Aikin, Judith P. German Baroque Drama. Boston, 1982. Chapters on drama to include festival and musical culture.
Alexander, Robert J. Das deutsche Barockdrama. Stuttgart, 1984. An indispensable handbook.
Aylett, Robert, and Peter Skrine, eds. Hans Sachs and Folk Theatre in the Late Middle Ages: Studies in the History of Popular Culture. Lewiston, N.Y., 1995.
Eckardt, Jo-Jacqueline. Lessing's Nathan the Wise and the Critics, 1779–1991. Columbia, S.C. 1993. A useful study of the tradition of scholarship on Lessing as a playwright.
Ehrstine, Glenn. Theater, Culture, and Community in Reformation Bern, 1523–1555. Leiden and Boston, 2002. Examination of ten plays in a Swiss sociocultural context.
Fick, Monika. Lessing-Handbuch: Leben–Werk–Wirkung. Stuttgart, 2000. The most up-to-date of numerous handbooks on Lessing and his works.
Gillespie, Gerald E. P. Daniel Casper von Lohenstein's Historical Tragedies. Columbus, Ohio, 1965.
Hardin, James, ed. German Baroque Writers 1580–1660. Detroit, 1996. Up-to-date scholarship and bibliographies on writers including the playwrights Avancini, Balde, Bidermann, von Birken, Gryphius, Heinrich Julius of Brunswick, Klaj, Opitz, Rist, and Stieler.
Hardin, James, and Christoph E. Schweitzer, eds. German Writers from the Enlightenment to Sturm und Drang, 1720–1764. Detroit, 1990. Up-to-date scholarship and bibliographies on writers including Gottsched, Lessing, among many others.
Hardin, James, and Max Reinhart, eds. German Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation 1280–1580. Detroit, 1997. Up-to-date scholarship and bibliographies on writers including the playwrights Folz, Frischlin, Manuel, Rebhun, Sachs, Waldis, Wickram, Wimpfeling, and also Luther and Melanchthon.
Hinck, Walter. Das deutsche Lustspiel des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts und die italienische Komödie. Stuttgart, 1965. Valuable study of German adaptations of commedia dell'arte traditions.
Hinck, Walter, ed. Handbuch des deutschen Dramas. Düsseldorf, 1980. An indispensable handbook.
Hoffmeister, Gerhart, ed. German Baroque Literature: The European Perspective. New York, 1983. Informative chapters on dramatic theory, theater, and drama.
The Lessing Yearbook / Jahrbuch. Vols. 1 (1969)–34 (2001). Richard E. Schade, managing editor. Scholarship on Lessing and the literary culture of the German Enlightenment.
Michael, Wolfgang F. Das deutsche Drama der Reformationszeit. Bern and New York, 1984. An indispensable handbook.
Parente, James A. Religious Drama and the Humanist Tradition, Christian Theater in Germany and the Netherlands 1500–1680. Leiden and New York, 1987.
Parente, James A., Richard E. Schade, and George C. Schoolfield, eds. Literary Culture in the Holy Roman Empire, 1555–1720. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1991. Five chapters on drama and theater.
Price, David. The Political Dramaturgy of Nicodemus Frischlin. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990. Authoritative study of the Neo-Latin playwright.
Schade, Richard E. Studies in Early Modern Comedy 1500–1650. Columbia, S.C., 1988. An introductory overview of scholarship and chapters on five plays as well as Terence-reception and drama theory.
Spahr, Blake Lee. Andreas Gryphius: A Modern Perspective. Columbia, S.C., 1993. A useful overview.
Wailes, Stephen L. The Rich Man and Lazarus on the Reformation Stage, A Contribution to the Social History of German Drama. Selinsgrove, Pa, 1997. Scholarship on ten plays of the sixteenth century.
Richard E. Schade
VarietiesHistorically, German has been an amalgam of DIALECTS slow to develop a STANDARD language. The continuum ranges from the geographically ‘low’ German dialect of Westphalia in the north-west (mutually intelligible with DUTCH), through the dialects of Lower and Upper Saxony, the Rhineland, and Franconia, to the ‘upper’ German varieties spoken in Bavaria, Switzerland, and Austria. The term Plattdeutsch (sometimes translated as ‘Low German’) is used for the ‘broad’ dialects in the north and west. Schwyzertüütsch is the common spoken German in Switzerland, a dialect more than most others in diglossic contrast with the written and printed language. The linguistic distinction between Niederdeutsch (Lower German) and Oberdeutsch (Upper German) covers the same continuum. It is usually traced to the Second Sound Shift in the 8c, in which the Southern dialects became phonologically distinct from the Northern, producing such South/North contrasts as machen/maken (make) and Schiff/skip (ship). Confusingly, the geographical term Hochdeutsch or High German is applied to the result of this sound change, so that the term can refer both to all the Upper German (that is, geographically ‘highland’ and Southern) dialects and to an idealized STANDARD German language which is ‘high’ in the social sense.
Even then, however, the division into Lower and Upper/High German is not the whole story, as dialectologists and language historians generally recognize an intermediate variety: Mitteldeutsch (Central or Middle German) stretching from Cologne to Frankfurt and Leipzig. Observers can draw attention either to such Low/High contrasts as Junge/Bub a boy, and Sonnabend/Samstag Saturday, or such Low/Middle/Upper contrasts as ik/ich/i the pronoun I, and Männeken/Männchen/Mandl a little man. The contribution of the Central and Southern dialects to a common Schriftsprache (written or literary language) is often acknowledged, as is the fact that more recently a supra-regional Umgangssprache (colloquial semi-standard) has served to level out differences.
Tensions persist, however, between unifying and separatist tendencies. More than in English, orthographic conventions have been standardized, largely because of the influential Duden spelling dictionary (Vollständiges orthographisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache, Konrad Duden, 1880; Duden, vol. 1, Die Rechtschreibung, 19th edition, Bibliographisches Institut mannheim, 1986). Local differences in pronunciation occur at all social levels and are often deliberately asserted to establish people's back-grounds. A single, supranational norm for pronunciation does not exist in German-speaking countries any more than in English-speaking countries, although 19c Bühnendeutsch (stage German) and 20c media and social mobility have promoted compromises between Lower/North and Upper/South German speech forms. Distinct varieties have emerged in East and West Germany (prior to reunification in 1990), Austria, and Switzerland, especially in vocabulary, which have been partly codified in ‘national’ dictionaries.
Historically, (High) German is divided into Old High German from AD 750, Middle High German from 1150, Early New High German from 1350, and New High German from 1650.
German in EnglishOver the centuries, many German words have found their way into English: for example, Low German brake, dote, tackle and High German blitz, dachshund, kindergarten: see BORROWING. Cultural acquisitions have been significant in such fields as food (frankfurter, hamburger, hock, pretzel, sauerkraut), mineralogy (cobalt, feldspar, gneiss, quartz), music (glockenspiel, leitmotiv, waltz), philosophy (weltanschauung, zeitgeist), and politics (diktat, realpolitik). Two powerful sources of borrowing in AmE have been such German settlers as the Pennsylvania Dutch (that is, Deutsch) and YIDDISH-speaking Jewish immigrants.
English in GermanContacts between English and German have been on the increase since the early 18c, promoted by literary translation, diplomatic links, trade relations, language teaching, and the media. Loans have entered German from such fields as literature (sentimental, Ballade), sport (boxen, Rally), politics (Hearing; Hochverrat, from ‘high treason’), and technology (Lokomotive, from locomotive engine; Pipeline). Resistance is no longer as vociferous as during the time of the Sprachgesellschaften (17c language societies) and the anti-foreigner propaganda of the Nazis in the 1930s. English usages are adopted and adapted as: loanwords (babysitten babysit), loan translations (Beiprodukt by-product), blends of LOANWORD and LOAN TRANSLATION (Teamarbeit team work), semantic transfer (Schau from ‘show’, in the sense of theatrical event), and loan creation (Öffentlichkeitsarbeit, ‘work for the public’, loosely based on ‘public relations’). Most borrowing is at word level, but occasionally idioms or syntactic constructions are transferred, as in grünes Licht geben give the green light, Ich fliege Lufthansa I fly Lufthansa. The influence of English is strong in advertising (High Life, Image) and information science (Compiler, Feedback). In general, AmE has a greater influence than BrE.
See CAMEROON, DIALECT IN THE UNITED STATES, EUROPEAN UNION, GOTHIC, INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGES, INDO-GERMANIC, NAMIBIA, PAPUA NEW GUINEA, SPELLING REFORM, TANZANIA.
Ger·man / ˈjərmən/ • n. 1. a native or national of Germany. ∎ a person of German descent: Sudeten Germans. 2. a West Germanic language used in Germany, Austria, and parts of Switzerland, and by communities in the U.S. and elsewhere. See also High German,Low German. 3. (in full German cotillion) a complex dance in which one couple leads the other couples through a variety of figures and there is a continual change of partners. • adj. of or relating to Germany, its people, or their language. ORIGIN: from Latin Germanus, used to designate related peoples of central and northern Europe, a name perhaps given by Celts to their neighbors; compare with Old Irish gair‘neighbor.’
ger·man / ˈjərmən/ • adj. archaic germane. ∎ (of a sibling) having the same parents: my brothers-german.