German-language Comedy: A Critical Anthology
Susquehanna University Press, 1992 - Drama - 299 pages
Unlike other countries such as Italy and France, Germany has not produced a single great writer of comedy alone. Furthermore, little familial resemblance can be detected among the best German comedies - they are individual to an extreme, even radical. The German comic dramatists are bound by no preconception of what a comedy ought to be and have bequeathed us, as a result, no body of comedies that we can term "classical." We might say of German comedy what Valery said of a contemporary's work: "The exceptions are admirable, but the whole is of little consequence."
The failure of a national comedy to take root in Germany (as opposed to Austria) can be attributed largely to the absence of "social culture" in that country - to the absence of a society like England's, whose homogeneity has produced a well-defined code of manners, or of a capital city comparable (as a locus of dramatic energy and comic extraction) to Paris or Venice. During the seventeenth century, when a tradition of comedy might have been established in Germany, its cultural centers were small seats of court, university towns, or commercial hubs whose theaters were shallowly rooted in a nondescript public and whose inhabitants offered few models to the comic dramatist; moreover, the country was suffering under the political confusion and social disintegration caused by the Thirty Years' War (1618-48).
In Minna von Barnhelm (1767), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing created what has often been called Germany's first national comedy, but it is "national" to the extent that it reconciles the division within Germany between Prussians and Saxons through the union of the Prussian Major von Tellheim and the Saxon Minna, not to the extent that it ridicules or treats as broadly funny in themselves aspects of German character. Minna represented a digression for the man who won widespread fame for his domestic tragedies, and in this he is typical of the authors of great German comedy, which is an affair of brilliant, isolated efforts on the part of otherwise "serious" playwrights whose seriousness underpins their comic writing. Heinrich von Kleist, for example, wrote The Broken Pitcher (1807), a folk comedy whose examination of deceit in human behavior is not far removed from the spirit of Kleist's tragedies.
In stark contrast to the Viennese folk comedy of Ferdinand Raimund and Johann Nestroy stands Franz Grillparzer's only comedy, Woe to the Liar! (1837), which, in its examination of the nature of truth, is closely related to the theme of Grillparzer's tragedies. Similarly, Gerhart Hauptmann's The Beaver Coat (1893) is a comic version of this writer's naturalistic tragedies, which make up a good portion of his extensive and variegated oeuvre.
It is significant that Hauptmann's sequel to The Beaver Coat was a tragicomedy, The Red Cock (1901), in which the heroine of the earlier play comes to ruin. In time Hauptmann began to see The Beaver Coat more and more in terms of his prevailing conviction - one shared by other significant dramatists of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries - that true comedy is invariably tragicomedy, and he followed it not only with The Red Cock but also with two more tragicomedies.
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A Brief Survey of Austrian Comedy
Minna von Barnhelm 1767 A Comedy in Five Acts by GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM LESSING
The Broken Pitcher 1807 A Comedy by HEINRICH VONKLEIST
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