This article was originally
published in Minute History of the Drama. Alice Buchanan
Fort & Herbert S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap,
1935. p. 72.
JOHANN CHRISTOPH FRIEDRICH VON SCHILLER'S earliest dramatic effort, The Robbers, resulted in a prison sentence for its youthful author, when it was presented at Mannheim in 1782. Upon finishing his schooling he had been forced to take a position as army surgeon. The regiment to which he was attached was stationed near Mannheim at the time of the initial production of The Robbers. Having seen his first-born brain child once, Schiller slipped away a second time to watch a performance. His absence was discovered and on his return he was sentenced to two weeks in prison and, far worse, forbidden to publish anything but medical treatises.
Although Schiller was the son of an army surgeon he had wished as a child to become a clergyman. The autocratic Duke Karl of Württemberg, however, had insisted on placing the lad in his military academy. It is small wonder, then, that as soon as possible after his prison experience Schiller contrived his release from unwelcome military service.
In 1787 came the production of Don Carlos. The success of this play not only brought Schiller an invitation to Weimar, the German Athens, but made his name known throughout most of Europe. About 1794 an acquaintanceship with the great Goethe ripened into one of the perfect friendships of history with a marked effect on Schiller's subsequent writings. It was with Goethe's interested advice that the Wallenstein trilogy was completed and produced at Weimar. This drama, a story of the Thirty Years' War, as an "acting" play has never been surpassed on the German stage. The work on it served to turn Schiller's attention definitely to historical subjects as a basis for his dramatic writing.
The Maid of Orleans was first performed in Leipzig in 1801. At its close the audience waited silent and bareheaded outside the theater to do its author honor. The Bride of Messina, a historical tragedy constructed along Greek lines, has been much admired but has never achieved the popularity accorded some of his other plays. Schiller's last finished play, Wilhelm Tell, is probably universally regarded as his best. It shows a sharp contrast to his preceding works. While it is tragic in intent, success crowns a sane activity, fate yields to will and a certain serenity of spirit breathes over the whole.
Sandwiched in between all these successful dramas were critical, historical and philosophical essays, as well as lyric poetry that is known today by every German school boy, the most famous being The Song of the Bell. Schiller, apparently at the height of his dramatic power, was at work on a Russian tragedy titled Demetrius, at the time of his death in 1805.