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GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM LESSING (1729-1781)

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 283-5.

GOTTHOLD Ephraim Lessing's name belongs to the very first rank among writers for and about the theater. He was born in a Luteran clergyman's family, and began very early to show his interest in the stage, having written a comedy before he was seventeen. He came under the notice of Voltaire, who employed him in making translations. During several years Lessing was one of the contributors to Madame Neuber's Leipzig theater; but his dramatic principles, as they defined themselves, became more and more opposed both to those of Voltaire and the Leipzig school. His first important play, Miss Sara Sampson (1755) was not at all suited to the tastes of the pseudo-classicists. In 1767 Lessing became associated with a group of actors in Hamburg, at which place he wrote the justly celebrated Hamburg Dramaturgy, in which he explained to the world the principles underlying the art of the theater. The great event of the year 1767, however, was the production of his Minna von Barnhelm, the first good comedy in the German language. During the next ten years two other dramas came from his pen; but he was slandered and misrepresented by Voltaire and his followers, and he suffered the usual fate of the man who is in advance of his age. The essays on dramaturgy were pirated, with the result that when he left Hamburg he was still poor, though famous. He became court librarian at Wolfenbüttel, and died in 1781.

LESSING'S PLAYS

Voltaire had warned his young translator against anything so banal as the tragédie bourgeois of certain of his contemporaries; but Miss Sara Sampson, Lessing's first mature play, is concerned with middle-class people, is written in prose, and was in general a challenge to the Voltairean school. Although Miss Sara is seldom read or acted today, yet in its time it was effective enough to popularize the new type, and became the center from which all modern German drama sprang. In Minna von Barnhelm, the scene is laid in Berlin, the characters are easily recognized, the plot natural and quietly unfolded. Goethe praised it, and its influence was not only far reaching, but of a healthy and fertilizing nature. In 1772 Lessing wrote the tragedy Emilia Galotti, whose central situation is the same as that in the story of Virginia and Appius Claudius. The scene is transferred to contemporary times and the writing is in prose. In the powerful drama called Nathan the Wise (1777), the author turned to verse again. The Sultan Saladin in his palace at Jerusalem, at the time of the Second Crusade, is in need of money and other help. He sends for Nathan, a rich Jew, and tries to entrap him by asking which religion is best, Jewish, Mohammedan, or Christian. The astute Nathan does not reply directly, but relates the Story of the Three Rings, which causes the Sultan to exercise his own judgment. Certain features in Nathan were taken from Boccaccio.

LESSING'S THEORY OF DRAMA

Interesting as are the plays of Lessing, especially Minna von Barnhelm and Nathan, yet it is by reason of his constructive criticism that he holds his high place. First, he did a much needed piece of work when he attacked the French theories of tragedy. Instead of merely denying their validity, he analyzed and explained genuine Greek classicism, and pointed out the differences between it and French classicism. He recognized the genius of Shakespeare, showing that only a perverted interpretation of Aristotle would exclude the English poets from the ranks of the great dramatists. Secondly, he pointed out that drama should aim at giving a first-hand representation of life; that tragic elements should flow from the character concerned, and should induce sympathy as well as surprise. And thirdly, he proved with his own work that vital stage creations should reflect all grades of common life and experience; that stilted, borrowed forms should be discarded, and that sincerity is of all things the first requisite. His own plays are well contrived and theatrical, in the good sense. His characters have the speech and motions of real men and women; they are interesting and vigorous.

Schiller considered Lessing the clearest and most liberal thinker concerning questions of dramatic art; and men of learning in every country today recognize him as the first reasonable European writer upon the principles and conditions which govern the modern stage. As a man, he can scarcely be too highly praised. What he taught, as the true basis of art, he incorporated into his own work and life. He was admirable not only in courage, but in patient tenacity of will, clever, cultured, unselfish. In his search for truth he was tireless, and remained charitable in the face of almost constant abuse and misunderstanding.


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