Dassanowsky, Robert von: Goethe’s “Die naturliche Tochter”

Classicism subverted and the eras of France;

Goethe’s “Die natürliche Tochter”

Goethe experienced a near obsession in dealing with the new phenomenon of revolution since the uprising against the French monarchy in 1789. His many attempts in various literary genres to translate this socio-political development into a tangible, coherent concept, revealed Goethe’s varying attitudes and understandings regarding this event. Few of his works which dealt directly or indirectly with the French Revolution were successful, many remained unfinished or fragmentary, such as the 1795-96 theatre works, “Die Aufgeregten” and “Das Mädchen von Oberkirch”. Other comedic pieces such as the 1791 “Der Groß-Cophta” (originally planned as the libretto for an opera buffa) and the 1739 “Der Bürgergeneral” included elements of the Posse, and were unsuccessful both in the attempt at presenting elements of the revolution in a comedic setting and as theatrical works.

Goethe’s “Torquato Tasso” had already achieved a powerful vision of the changing life at the absolutist court. Here the court poet is banished from his ancient duties as statesman. Although this hardly dealt with revolution per se and Goethe, unlike Tasso, continued to excel as both poet and statesman, the politization of the monarchy is clear. Goethe’s most interesting attempts at providing a literary antidote to the threat of revolution can be found in his so-called Bildungs- rοmαn, “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre” (1795-96) and in the epos, “Hermann und Dorothea” (1797). “Lehrjahre” allows for an idealistic union of a progressive, proto-capitalistic aristocracy with the intellectual Bürgertum in an effort to create a socio-political evolution from above, forestalling the threat of revolution from below. Ιn “Hermann und Dorothea”, Goethe’s attempt at resurrecting the classical epos (utilizing much of the material used in “Das Mädchen von Oberkirch”), the author praises the Bürger-Idyll and places the solution to the spread of revolution in the German lands in the hands of the selfless, moral bourgeoisie. It remains Goethe’s most naive and ineffectual approach to the phenomenon, particularly in light of the insightful “Lehrjahre”.

“Die natürliche Tochter” is Goethe’s final attempt at dealing with the socio-political development he had often equated with a natural catastrophe: The metaphor of the fire in “Hermann und Dorothea” and even in the late work of 1828, the allegorical “Die Novelle” presented a cyclical concept of revolution. “Die natürliche Tochter” remains an incomplete wοrk, although brief notes do exist suggesting Goethe’s plan for a cycle of three dramas based οn the 1798 memoirs of Princess Stephanie-Louise de Bourbon-Conti<1>). Unlike the Princess Bourbon-Conti who reappears at the French Court to claim her rightful place as a member of the Hochadel, Goethe’s Eugenie becomes Goethe’s embodiment of his clearest vision of the socio-political development of France and the role of the aristocracy in the fermentation of a major socio-political change.

Irmgard Wagner in her article «”Die natürliche Tochter” and the Problem of Representation»<2>, attempts a Lacanian analysis of the language of this play in an effort to understand what she believes has «bedeviled Goethe criticism for so long: Why doesn’t this drama wοrk?»<3>. Her analysis does not propose a new interpretation of the drama, but rather compares it to its classical sister play, “Iphigenie auf Tauris” which she sees as the «triumph of language in action<4>. Fοr Wagner “Die natürliche Tochter” is a clear failure. It offers her a language which reflects a great lack of selfsufficiency and truth, a “«loss of the power to represent»<5>. Agreeing with Wagner’s view that Goethe’s language here is far from the smooth clarity of the classical “Iphigenie” and her belief that this drama displays Goethe’s recognition of a problematic language no longer capable of representing οr communicating, Ι wish to take this argument out of the linguistic/psychoanalytical frame and put it once again into the realm of what Wagner refers to as the «rut traced by its contradictory reception history»<6>. Taking a socio-political and stylistic/reception perspective, Ι shall show how the problematic dialogue and characterizations intentionally serve as a metatext to illuminate Goethe’s view of a collapsing αncien régime and a projection of the future of a politicized France. Ιn this way it will become apparent why this drama does work, both as a theater of revolution and a theater of the future.

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