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Greece and Rome
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     Sturm und Drang
     Schiller's last years

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Sturm und Drang: 1771-1782

The phrase Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) is the title of a wild and extravagant drama by Friedrich Klinger, first performed in 1776. Its mood is typical of a fashion among young writers in Germany during the 1770s. Critics have subsequently adopted the title as the ideal name for the entire school. Storm and stress are the ingredients with which these writers challenge the calm certainties of 18th-century rationalism.

The first significant success in the new style is the play which brings Goethe fame throughout Germany - Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (Götz von Berlichingen with the iron hand), written between 1771 and 1773 and first performed in Berlin in 1774.


Based on the buccaneering autobiography of a real character of the 16th century, Goethe's play presents Götz as a hero fighting for natural rights against the repressive and corrupt bishop of Bamberg. His last words, as he dies, are Freiheit! Freiheit! (Freedom, Freedom).

Three years later, in 1777, the 18-year-old Friedrich Schiller, a resentful student in a military academy, begins writing an even wilder play, Die Ra:uber (The Robbers), which can be seen as the final fling of Sturm und Drang. Schiller borrows money to publish the play privately in 1781. It causes a sensation when it is performed at Mannheim in 1782.


Die Räuber tells the story of two sons of a nobleman. The evil younger son schemes to disinherit his brother and then systematically torments his father. The good son, reacting against unjust rejection by his father, joins a robber band and is implicated in appalling crimes. When his brother is finally unmasked, and his father found naked in a dungeon, the good son's evil deeds prevent his returning to normal life.

This family triangle is a more extreme version of Gloucester and his sons in King Lear, and Shakespeare is one of the strong influences on the Sturm und Drang generation. The first collection of his plays in German is published in 1762-6.


Beaumarchais: 1775-1784

One of the theatre's most engaging characters bursts upon the stage in 1775 in a light comedy which is immediately a great success. Figaro, or Le Barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville), is witty and street-wise in a manner very similar to his creator, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

Beaumarchais' life begins with ingenuity and intrigue. At the age of nineteen, in 1751, he invents a new escapement for watches (watch-making being his father's trade). Another watchmaker attempts to steal the new idea. Beaumarchais' skilful conduct in the resulting litigation brings him the attention and patronage of the court.


For the rest of his life, until his death in 1799, Beaumarchais leads a dramatic and often dangerous existence as an entrepreneur and then as a secret agent on behalf of the French government. He is so busy with his schemes that his main love, the theatre, seems almost a sideline. But with the first appearance of Figaro, in 1775, he suddenly becomes France's leading dramatist.

Figaro uses his manipulative skills in The Barber of Seville to help the count Almaviva in his amorous pursuit of Rosine. The comic opportunities derive from the frantic efforts of Rosine's guardian, Bartholo (a crusty old doctor with designs on her himself), to keep the girl away from the attentions of any possible rival.


The success of these characters' first light-hearted appearance before the public prompts Beaumarchais to revisit them in a much darker comedy. By the time of Le Mariage de Figaro the count and Rosine have been married a few years. The count is tired of her and is intent on seducing her maid, Suzanne. But Suzanne is engaged to Figaro, now in the count's employment.

The clash of interest between Figaro and his master is developed on the suface in the traditions of light comedy or even farce, with much use of hasty concealment and mistaken identity. But underlying the fun is a more threatening theme. The count behaves with the arrogance of the old feudal world. Figaro protests with the vigour of something new.


In a long soliloquy in the final act Figaro muses about his rival the count and finds him a Man of little worth, apart from the benefit of the silver spoon in his mouth when he was born. Not surprisingly, when the play is first scheduled for production in 1781, the king bans it. He relents in 1784, when it is performed with great and immediate success - just five years before the outbreak of the French Revolution. Napoleon later describes the play as 'the revolution in action'.

Beaumarchais is fortunate that his two great comedies are transformed, by Rossini and Mozart, into two superb operas. Figaro would have lived in prose alone. But with such arias to his name, he has proved irrepressible.


Schiller's last years:1797-1805

In 1797, when Europe is in the turmoil caused by the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, Goethe - with his power to guarantee a production in the Weimar court theatre - persuades Schiller to return to the role of dramatist. The result is seven plays in as many years, written in verse on broadly classical principles. They place Germany in the forefront of contemporary theatre.

The first plays in this group, performed on the Weimar stage in 1798 and 1799, are a trilogy about Wallenstein, a larger-than-life character in another great European conflict. Wallensteins Lager, Die Piccolomini and Wallensteins Tod dramatize the rise and fall of the brilliant but flawed commander in the Thirty Years' War.


The subsequent plays, several of them made famous by operatic adaptations, are Maria Stuart (1801, about the last days of Mary Queen of Scots), Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801, about Joan of Arc), Die Braut von Messina (1803, an invented story set in medieval Sicily and the most deliberately classical in its use of a chorus) and Wilhelm Tell (1804).

While Goethe encourages this final flowering of Schiller's theatrical talent, there is influence in the other direction too. It is largely on Schiller's urging that Goethe returns in 1797 to an early work on Faust and begins to revise it in keeping with the new classical principles of Weimar.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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