Tag Archives: Schiller

Tragic Epochs

Flowerings of Tragedy

Tragedy is one of those arts which comes and goes. This post takes a look at tragic epochs of the past–that is to say, periods in which the art form of tragedy flourished–to see if they share some sort of common denominator. Some art forms have an unbroken lineage. Take sculpture or painting. One would be hard pressed to find a period in which these activities were not going on. The practise of other art forms such as history, philosophy, and comedy appear to be relatively continuous as well. Take philosophy, for example. From its beginnings in the 6th century BC, you had Thales and Heraclitus. The 5th century saw Socrates and Plato. The 4th Aristotle. The 3rd Zeno and Epicurus. Carneades in the 2nd. Lucretius and Cicero in the 1st. Seneca on the other side of the 1st. And so on. Tragedy is completely different. Tragic epochs seem to flower into a lush bloom and then die out just as fast.

Tragic Epochs

The list starts with the big three in the 5th century BC: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Although tragedies continued after the 5th century, it’s not until the 1st century AD that they really come back with Seneca. Around the time of Seneca the emperor Augustus and the orator Maternus also worked on tragedies, though they do not survive. If that gap of almost 500 years seems long, the next of the tragic epochs doesn’t dawn until 16th century Elizabethan England. Here you had luminaries such as Kyd, Webster, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson. Again, probably a 50 or so year flowering. In the 17th century across the Channel France could boast Corneille and Racine, who provided a temporary home for the spirit of tragedy. The next of the tragic epochs is not until the late 18th century in Germany (who actually thought they were Greeks with Classicism in full swing): Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin, and others. From there, the torch goes north to the Scandinavian countries in the 19th century with Ibsen and Strindberg. And in the 20th, it’s been the American century with the likes of O’Neill and Miller.

That’s seven tragic epochs in the last 1500 or so years.

The End of Tragic Epochs

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, once mused on the death of tragedy. It had occurred to him as well that tragedy flowers just as quickly as it dies. His thought was that the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had written so many that there was little left to say. Goethe was thinking more about 5th century Athens than the whole history of tragedy up to his day, though. I like this explanation. Although only thirty of so tragedies by the big three survive to this day, they had actually written hundred. At the City Dionysia each year, three dramatists would be expected to produce three plays each. Tragedy usually takes its stories from myth, so there’s only so many ways you can spin the stories. Think of Hollywood and how it ‘reboots’ movie franchises. Right now at the theatres they.re playing Terminator Genisys. There’s only so many ways you can spin the story of a time travelling robot who says, ‘I’ll be back’. But yes, I probably will rent this when the library gets it…

Goethe’s explanation works for 5th century Athens. But what about Elizabethan or Jacobean England?–there they were not limited to myth. They could use history (e.g. Macbeth) or legend (e.g. King Lear) as well. To answer that, let’s go and see how tragic epochs begin.

The Birth of Tragic Epochs

Now to find a common theme in the tragic epochs. Empire perhaps? 5th century century saw the rise and fall of the Athenian Empire. Seneca was writing in imperial Rome. Elizabethan England saw the arms race with Spain end with the destruction of the Spanish Armada. France was busy colonizing the New World during the time French Classical drama was being written. Germany during the time of Schiller and Goethe, while not a military powerhouse (too fragmented and Napoleon too powerful riding around in his red cape), was a cultural powerhouse boasting the likes of Kant, Hegel, Beethoven and others. The thesis does not work very well for Ibsen and Strindberg though. But it does for Miller and O’Neill, who were writing in the ‘American Century’.

So far, the argument seems to suggest that tragedy is involved with the study of power. Kings and queens have traditionally been the subject of tragedy. Common people are more generally found in comedy. Another thing about this period is that people were generally doing well. This suggests that tragedy flourishes when people are flourishing: the ability to stomach tragedy is a sort of luxury. When tragedy is too close, it is not welcome: Phrynicus staged the tragedy The Fall of Miletus shortly after the Persians sacked the allied city in 494 BC. He was fined for reminding the Athenians of their sorrows. More recently, films which had or were perceived to contain elements too close for comfort after the 9/11 attacks were either delayed or modified. You can write a tragedy about the Black Plague, but not during the Black Plague.

Because tragedy is about choice and paying the price (hence the title of my book will be Paying Melpomene’s Price), tragedy can also be an exploration of the consequences of action during times of upheaval. Sophocles’ Antigone can be interpreted as an exploration of the rights of the state versus the rights of the individual and the price the protagonists pay to make their point. When Anouilh produced his Antigone in occupied France during WWII, his treatment of choice and the horrible consequences of paying the price for choosing were such that both the Nazis and the Free French enthusiastically applauded the performance: the Nazis for Creon and the Free French for Antigone.

As a starting point then, perhaps this can be said of the tragic epochs. Tragedy requires a certain minimum standard of living to happen. Generally, things have to be going well (lots of exceptions such as Anouilh). Things have to be going so well that power can become concentrated somehow in such a way that the protagonist has to make a decision that involves some kind of sacrifice. It’s not the sort of decision that a serf can make, because a serf doesn’t have enough to sacrifice. The decision has to have some kind of contemporary significance. So, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House couldn’t be written in a patriarchy. It had to wait for a time of great social change. So here we have it: power, high standard of living, and societal sea change. These are the preconditions of tragic epochs. Agree or disagree?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am always Doing Melpomene’s Work, even under the sweltering noonday sun when I would rather be doing siesta.

Goethe & Schiller Bromance: Egmont & Don Carlos

Two fisted play reading today–Goethe.s Egmont in my left hand and Schiller.s Don Carlos in my right hand! Who would have thought? It.s a strange coincidence that brings them together. I.m writing on psychological errors or slips that lead to unexpected outcomes in Paying Melpomene’s Price: Risk and Reward on the Tragic Stage (at least that.s the name of the book today, the title changes daily!). It so happens that Posa.s slip and Alba.s slip had been classified together as the type of error that results when we use the ‘if I were you, I would do this’ mental construction. What happens is that Posa thinks he understand Carlos because ‘if I were Carlos, surely I would do this…’ and Alba thinks he understands Orange because ‘if I were Orange, surely I would do this…’.  Of course, Carlos and Orange both behave contrary to expectation because Posa is not Carlos and Alba is not Orange. And so Posa and Alba.s strategy turns into tragedy. But that.s not what I.d like to share with you, diligent reader today. What I.d like to share is the striking similarity of subject and perspective in Egmont and Don Carlos. It really is striking. I hit myself for never noticing it before. But sometimes, it.s hard to raise things above the conscious threshold unless it.s really right there in front of your nose. Which is–by good ol’ good luck–the case today.

You may know that Goethe and Schiller were the best of friends. A bromance of genius. Not only that, it was an artistically fruitful union. They exchanged notes and encouraged one another. They were also joint editors of a literary journal founded by Schiller, Die Horen. Contributors included Schlegel, Herder, and the von Humboldt brothers. They corresponded with quite an exalted crowd. Lots was going on. So, at first, I had thought that the parallels between Egmont and Don Carlos were naturally due to their many discussions and correspondences. Wrong. Schiller premiered Don Carlos in 1787 and Goethe finished Egmont the following year. It was only after Goethe had finished Egmont that they met for the first time. And it would have to wait to the next decade before they would begin their friendship in earnest. It.s sure inconvenient when the data undermines our expectations, isn.t it? But, one can see from the parallels why they would become friends. So, ‘what are the parallels’, you ask? Well, dear reader, here they are!

First there is the subject matter. The Beeldenstorm or Iconoclastic Fury was raging through the Low Countries. Here.s what it looked like:



Kreuz_von_stadelhofenThe Protestant Reformation was in full swing. Protestants–and, if riots were anything like the ones today, trouble making bums–were going around abusing Catholic images and ransacking cathedrals. This did not please Philip II of Spain, who was bringing together the forces of the Counter-Reformation. This is the point of contact between the two plays. While Don Carlos ends on the April day before Alba is dispatched to quell the Beeldenstorm raging through the Low Countries, by a happy coincidence Egmont begins with Alba fast approaching Brussels on an August morning.

The brotherhood of man, the price the oppressor pays to maintain the status quo, and the price the liberator pays to lift off the oppressive yoke: both playwrights use the Beeldenstorm as a launching point into similar themes. Not only that, they achieve a unity of thought. There is a dawning brotherhood of man that transcends religion and nationality, even though its moment only arrives the day after tomorrow: the old guard represented by Philip in Don Carlos and Alba in Egmont yet rail against the dying light. There is also a price that the oppressor must pay to maintain the status quo, and that price is the bond between the father, steeped in tradition, and the son, who feels the animal spirits of innovation. In Don Carlos, father sacrifices son to the Inquisition. In Egmont, Alba triumphs over Egmont, but not before Egmont passes the torch of Enlightenment onto Ferdinand, Alba.s son. Finally, there is in both plays a bittersweet ending for the heroes who die in uncertainty of the outcome and are only vouchsafed a posthumous day of celebration. How.s that for uncanny parallels in two independently written plays which were concurrently written?

I wonder how much their similar worldviews, or, I should say rather, Weltanschauungen, contributed to their friendship? It.s good that it did, because, if I remember correctly, it was Schiller who prodded Goethe to take up and finish the monumental second part of Faust. Goethe had relegated the work to the scraps bin because, well, it was just too monumental: the marriage of Classicism and Romanticism, the journey of a man over an entire life, the struggle for redemption. And, of course, the almighty and all mystical Ewig-Weibliche or eternal-feminine that is called to save Faust at the last second. Just thinking about how dedicated Goethe and Schiller were to Doing Melpomene.s Work gives me the goosebumps. Remember, Goethe was also a full-time politician and scientist as well! So with that thought, until next time, I am Edwin Wong and I am doing my part in Doing Melpomene.s Work.

Don Carlos by Schiller (trans. Sy-Quia & Oswald)

Two days, two posts in the ‘Plays Read’ section: I am on fire Doing Melpomene.s Work! Diligent readers will remember from yesterday.s blog on Ibsen.s Peer Gynt that your blogger confessed he would have had more to say but for the fact that it was his first read and hence first impression of Peer Gynt. Well, diligent readers, I am happy to say that Don Carlos is a play I.ve been reading for years: this is perhaps my sixth read. At least that.s what my memory says. Which–if I am to judge from what my friends who have known be a long time have to say–can be out in left field sometimes! Fortunately, none of them are here to correct me today, so the seventh read it is? Or did I say six? No matter–suffice to say, I.m quite familiar and fond of Don Carlos.

This is an Oxford World’s Classics edition, and here.s what the back blurb has to say:

Don Carlos and Mary Stuart, two of German literature’s greatest historical dramas, deal with the timeless issues of power, freedom, and justice. Both plays dramatize periods of crisis in sixteenth-century Europe, and in doing so reflect Schiller’s passionate engagement with the great themes of his own age–justice, power, freedom of conscience, legitimacy of government.

A youthful work, Don Carlos (1787) shows the victory of the forces of reaction over the representatives of a new age. Mary Stuart (1800) shows the struggle of the Scottish queen in the last days of her life, not only for freedom but also for peace with her conscience, and that of her English rival, Elizabeth I, with the challenge of ruling justly. A vivid imaginative experience when read, these plays, with their starkly contrasting characters and thrilling confrontations, also demonstrate Schiller’s brilliant stagecraft.

And, here is a bonus image for diligent readers!–


By the way, that.s Mary Stuart on the cover, not Don Carlos!

I like the guarded praise on the back blurb: ‘two of German literature’s greatest historical dramas’. It couldn.t be ‘two of literature.s greatest historical dramas’. Or even ‘two of German literature’s greatest dramas’. I have this feeling that whoever wrote the back blurb almost felt like writing ‘two of German literature’s greatest historical dramas written near the turn of the nineteenth century which deal with imperial power struggles’. Or something like that. At least it is honest. There are problems with these plays. They are great. But a circumscribed greatness. I went on amazon.com to find the images, and one authority calls the plays, ‘fast paced, tense, eloquent, and philosophical’. Fast paced compared to what, a snail? You.ve got to be kidding me.

Philosophical, yes. But fast paced, no. The dramatic fulcrum tying together the power struggles of Carlos, Philip, Elizabeth, Eboli, Alba, and Domingo is the cat and mouse recognition scene where Carlos and Eboli sound each other out. It takes over 300 lines for this to happen! I could go out and order pizza to go, come back, and they would still be disputing things! Shakespeare would have had Desdemona drop a handkerchief and it would have taken zero lines to accomplish something similar. In fact, Schiller–who was a Shakespeare fanatic–does have Carlos drop a handkerchief elsewhere. It.s likely that Schiller was fresh from reading Othello as Eboli.s fable about the pearl.s worth is also found in Othello. Compare:

Eboli: Love is the price of love.

It is the only diamond I possess

That I must either give away or hide;

Much like the merchant, who, to spite a king,

And since the whole of Venice could not pay,

Returned his pearl to the enriching sea

Rather than fix a price beneath its worth.


Othello: Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe…

So Don Carlos is too long. Like Euripides, it is too rhetorical. Too much is accomplished through the dialogue and speech. More could be accomplished through stagecraft. There is too much thinking going on. But of course, you.re not reading the blog to hear me rant!

Here.s the question. And it is a good question. How does one become familiar with a play? Through reading it many times? Yes, multiple reads give more clarity. But to really become familiar with a play (short of producing it), you have to subject the play to almost a scientific method. Come up with a hypothesis. And then reread the play having in mind that you are testing out the hypothesis. Reading a play without having an hypothesis of the play is like going for a walk. Go out for enough walks along the same route and, no doubt, you become sort of familiar with the path. But, if you go on a walk and measure the steps from this point to that point or pull out the watch to confirm if the same bird if flying by at the same time, then, you really get to know the secrets of the whole trail. Try this next time you read something you.ve read before. If you have a hunch, see if the text corroborates your feeling.

On this read of Don Carlos, I was interested in the question of the Marquis of Posa and how he gets his plan so wrong. And not only that, how can he get his plan so wrong and surprise the audience with his ‘wrongness’ at the same time. His plan is to usher in the Enlightenment, bring down the Inquisition, sweep tyranny off of the Low Countries, and to save and unite Elizabeth and Carlos. Oh yes, and he must martyr himself to achieve these goals. Which isn.t a bad deal, since he.s getting quite a large return on investment for the life of one Marquis! But of course his plan screws up. He sacrifices himself to pass the torch of the Enlightenment to Don Carlos, crown prince. But Posa misjudges Carlos’ motives. Posa thinks with his mind and guesses that Carlos thinks the same way. But in fact Carlos thinks with his heart so that when Posa passes the torch to him, he drops it:

Marquis: No!

This I did not foresee. How could I know

That you, led on by generosity,

Would be more sly and subtle in your schemes

Than I by thinking? I forgot your heart,

And all my clever structures fall to nothing.

Okay, so this is how he get it wrong. But why is this a surprise for the audience? Or, we should start with why this should be a surprise for the audience. It should be a surprise for the audience, because if it weren.t, the play would be no fun! No suspense if it is guaranteed that he would be successful. So Schiller has to somehow counterbalance Posa.s likelihood of success (high) with his eventual failure. How Schiller does this is by making Posa a great psychologist. He has met Eboli two times, yet has figured out all her secret drives and motives. On his first meeting the a very guarded King Philip, he reveals to him all his most inner thoughts. You.d think that if he were able to do this, he would have his childhood friend Don Carlos completely figured out. You.d think. But when second guessing all-too-human actions, thoughts, desires, and ambitions, there is always a chance one can be mistaken. You can chart out the paths of billiard balls with mathematical precision, but consciousness is not a phenomenon; it is a sort of epiphenomenon whose path cannot quite be ascertained with precision. Schiller makes use of this to throw down Posa.s plan. So, on the one hand, Posa is good at deciphering people.s inner psychologies. But since this is an art and not a science, he can be mistaken. Schiller makes use of this. Posa is mistaken when it comes to Don Carlos. And so, that is how he gets his plan all wrong. I like how Schiller builds up our confidence in Posa.s keen insight into other people.s psychologies only to have that skill fail him at the end when he needs it the most.

By asking a question or testing a little hypothesis on this read through of Don Carlos, I was able to understand a little more of Schiller.s dramatic art. Next time you have an opportunity, diligent readers, try out this technique and I.m sure it will reveal a precious pearl lodged in between the crevices of the words which you had not seen before. Enjoy! And until next time, I am, as I always am, Doing Melpomene.s Work.