GOETHE’S PLAYS, translated with introductions by Charles E. Passage, Frederick Ungar, New York, NY, 1980. 626 pp., $19.95 cloth.
PLAYS by Friedrich Schiller, Walter Hinderer, ed., foreword by Gordon A. Craig, Continuum, New York, NY, 1983. 346 pp., $17.50 cloth.
PLAYS AND ESSAYS by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Volkmar Sander, , ed., foreword by Martin Esslin, Continuum, New York, NY, 1982. 312 pp., $8.95 paper.
Charles E. Passage is firmly resolved to restore the works of Goethe to the world repertoire. His recent book, Goethe’s Plays, includes not only reprints of Passage’s own translations of Götz von Berlichingen, Iphigenia in Tauris and Torquato Tasso, but also new translations of The Lover’s Whim, Fellow Culprits and Egmont. Here as well are Goethe’s earliest sketches for Faust, known as the Urfaust, plus two overviews of the remaining corpus, “Other Dramas and Dramatic Projects to 1775” and “Other Dramas and Dramatic Projects of the Weimar Period.” The book is an exhaustive work which leaves no stone in Goethe’s playwriting career unturned.
Despite Passage’s subtle condemnation of modern producers for not having recognized the theatrical potential in these works, the book reveals that Goethe was probably more important in influencing the artistic tenor of 18th century Germany than for creating timeless works of art.
Although, from our modern perspective, Egmont suffers from an excess of political fervor and stately rhetoric, it did result in Beethoven’s Egmont overture. Götz von Berlichingen, although the best of Goethe’s earliest works and still theatrically viable despite its sprawling “Shakespearean” scope, was most successful in popularizing the German “Ritterstücke,” plays which combined historical subjects and romantic emotionalism and reached their zenith in Schiller’s grossly neglected The Robbers. Even Goethe’s classical period is less auspicious for the plays Iphigenia in Tauris and Torquato Tasso than for establishing a model of decorum and moderation throughout the theatrical world of Weimar and all of Germany.
Goethe’s Plays is most successful in renewing interest not only in the development of the author of Faust (that ubiquitous work is regrettably not included in the book), but also in the man whose theatrical regimen helped bring order and discipline to an extremely chaotic artistic community.
In the same vein, The German Library’s new volume of two plays by Friedrich Schiller attempts to do nothing more than reveal the dual purpose of Goethe’s contemporary, which was to institute an artistic style “that would not only excite and entertain audiences but also instruct them and possibly lay the foundation for a better and freer society.” The two plays chosen do not adequately reflect Schiller’s diversity and dramatic excellence. But when the psychologically naïve Intrigue and Love is paired with Don Carlos, the political fervor that inspired Schiller is well detailed.
Volume 89 of The German Library takes a leap forward in literary history and compiles two plays, one novella and two sets of lectures by the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Once again, the choice of plays seems odd in that the static and wordy Romulus the Great, translated by Gerhard Nellhaus, is included, while only the preface to the equally wordy but far more imaginative The Physicists appears in the book. But, as Martin Esslin points out in his excellent foreword, Dürrenmatt’s plays are primarily concerned with exploring existing philosophy in the form of parables, and the collection adequately reveals this thread. Patrick Bowles’ excellent translation of The Visit highlights the simple plot, Brechtian tone and wrenchingly human characters common to Dürrenmatt’s plays. Both The Visit and the existential detective novella The Judge and His Hangman detail the desperate lives that Dürrenmatt considers the most important element in his work: “It is precisely in this extreme form of human existence, in this last, most miserable form, that the audience can also see the human being, indeed itself.” Through the entire volume Dürrenmatt’s bleak but broadly farcical sense of the grotesque shines through, illuminating the complex problems of the 20th century.
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