Lenz, Shakespeare, Plautus and the “Unlaughing Picture”

  • Edward McInnes


Lenz’s first year and a half in Straßburg were a time of momentous self-discovery and creative growth. A few months after his arrival in the early summer of 1771 he was able, it seems, to make a tentative start on his first great drama, Der Hofmeister, an undertaking which was to preoccupy him until the autumn of the following year.1 His work on his play, though long drawn out and full of problems, was never exclusive, however. It brought with it rather a constant need to place his aims as a dramatist historically, to see them in the context of major developments of the drama in Europe. His awareness of the originality of the play on which he was working seems to have impelled him constantly to confront the received traditions of the genre and to test them against his own evolving sense of the possibilities of the drama in the late 18th century. Throughout the long months of struggle with Der Hofmeister Lenz studied the great dramatic works of classical Greece, of modern France and, above all, the tragedies of Shakespeare which he regarded as the supreme artistic achievement of modern Christian civilisation.2 His attempts to grasp the tragic vision of the Elizabethan dramatist informed his day-to-day efforts as a practising playwright, while his evolving sense of creative purpose impelled and influenced his reading of Shakespeare.3 This two-way process, although intensely exhilarating, was also, it seems, painful and disorientating. His unbounded admiration for the work of Shakespeare was not just the source of imaginative inspiration but of a deepening sense of ambivalence about his capacity and rôle as a playwright. As Lenz sought to penetrate more and more deeply into Shakespeare’s vision of the sublime untouchable freedom of the tragic hero, he was also struggling as a practising dramatist to articulate his own overwhelming experience of social impotence and denigration. The more intensely he inhabited Shakespeare’s imaginative world, the meaner and more prosaic his own artistic endeavours must have appeared. It was probably his involvement with the Elizabethan dramatist which sharpened his awareness of the essentially expository, satirical tendency of his creative imagination, a tendency which bound him inescapably to the narrow, oppressive social world which was the very material of his art. In these months Lenz may well have made that crucial recognition which he later expressed in Pandämonium Germanicum: that his concern to depict day to day reality as it was, to become “ein Maler der menschlichen Gesellschaft” (I, 256), was to live in the mind constantly with beings who were trapped and deformed by the circumstances of their existence and who were but the grotesque caricatures of their potential selves.


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  1. 1.
    See Sigrid Damm, Vogel, die verkünden Land. Das Leben des Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (Frankfurt/Main, 19892), pp. 89ff.; John Guthrie, “Revision und Rezeption: Lenz und sein `Hofmeister’,” Zeitschrift far deutsche Philologie, 110 (1991), 181–201.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a detailed discussion see Eva Maria Inbar, Shakespeare in Deutschland. Der Fall Lenz (Tübingen, 1982), pp. 3ff.; see also Andreas Huyssen, Drama des Sturm und Drang. Kommentar zu einer Epoche (Munich, 1980), pp. 96ff.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Damm, Vogel, die verkünden Land,pp. 94ff. and Edward McInnes, Lenz. Der Hofmeister (London, 1992), pp. 14ff.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    I feel particularly indebted here to two informative and perceptive discussions of Plautine comedy: Paul Lejay, Plaute (Paris, 1926), pp. 6ff., 37ff., 177ff.; Gilbert Norwood, Plautus and Terence (New York, 1963), pp. 25ff., 62ff., 79ff. All other relevant works I have consulted are listed in the bibliographies of these two volumes.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The works of Plautus which Lenz adapted were Asinaria (Das Väterchen); Aulularia (Die Aussteuer); Miles Gloriosus (Die Entführungen); Truculentus (Die Buhlschwester); Curculio (Die Türkensklavin).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See Hans-Gerd Winter, J. M. R. Lenz,Sammlung Metzler, 233 (Stuttgart, 1987), pp. 59f.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    For a detailed discussion of this aspect of Lenz’s dramatic theory see Edward McInnes, “Ein ungeheures Theater”. The Drama of the Sturm und Drang (Frankfurt/Main, 1987), pp. 23ff.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Huyssen, Drama des Sturm und Drang,pp. 157ff., gives a differentiated, considered summary of critical approaches to Der Hofmeister which forms in my view a very helpful point of departure for any re-examination of the play.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    I have examined in detail the scope and significance of the expository process in the play in Lenz. Der Hofmeister,pp. 24ff.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Karl Eibl, “’Realismus’ als Widerlegung von Literatur. Dargestellt am Beispiel von Lenz’ `Hofmeister’,” Poetica, 6 (1974), 456–467.Google Scholar

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© Westdeutscher Verlag GmbH, Opladen 1994

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  • Edward McInnes

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