Anmerkungen übers Theater

Anmerkungen übers Theater; Remarks about the Theatre (1774)

Anmerkungen übers Theater; Remarks about the Theatre is one of the key aesthetic statements of the Sturm und Drang. Like Goethe’s Rede zum Schäkspears Tag; Speech on Shakespeare’s Day (held 14 October 1771, published 1772), it presents Shakespeare as a natural genius more sympathetic to the German character than French classical tragedy, with its rigorous conventions. Lenz discusses the three unities of place, time and action which, derived from Aristotle, dominated French drama. Lenz argues that these classical unities do not correspond to modern German taste: German audiences need colour, individuality and variety. Between Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Voltaire’s Mort de César there is a world of difference; the former is infinitely superior.

Lenz defines poetry as imitation of nature: the poet re-creates God’s creation on a small scale. The best artists avoid facile idealism and prefer realistic precision:

nach meiner Empfindung schätz ich den charakteristischen [Maler], selbst den Karikaturmaler zehnmal höher als den idealischen, hyperbolisch gesprochen, denn es gehört zehnmal mehr dazu, eine Figur mit eben der Genauigkeit und Wahrheit darzustellen, mit der das Genie sie erkennt, als zehn Jahre an einem Ideal der Schönheit zu zirkeln, das endlich doch nur in dem Hirn des Künstlers, der es hervorgebracht, ein solches ist. [Lenz, Werke und Briefe (ed. by Sigrid Damm), vol. 2, p. 653]

My sensibility leads me to value the characteristic painter, even the caricaturist ten times higher (speaking hyperbolically) than the idealistic painter, because it is ten times harder to depict a figure with the precision and truth with which genius recognises it, than to labour with a compass, for ten years, on an ideal of beauty which ultimately only exists as such in the brain of the artist who produced it.

In this statement, Lenz promotes realism against idealism, much as his admirer Georg Büchner was to do in the 1830s, although Büchner would not have subscribed to the idea of genius which Lenz promotes here. A key verb in the above quotation is ‘erkennen’: ‘to recognise, perceive’. This verb also occurs in the opening speech of Goethe’s Faust I. ‘Erkennen’ suggests a form of knowledge which is sensual and immediate. Lenz therefore argues that one of the best things an artist can do is to make our insights visible [anschaulich]:

ist er, hoff ich, ein Kunststück des Schöpfers, all unsere Erkenntnis festzuhalten, bis sie anschaulich geworden ist. [Lenz, Werke und Briefe (ed. by Sigrid Damm), vol. 2, p. 647]

it is, I hope, an achievement of the creative artist to grasp firmly all of our recognition [Erkenntnis] til it becomes visible.

Lenz concludes his essay by making the distinction between comedy and tragedy. Comedy is governed by events and things; but tragedy is governed by personality and character. The ingredients of comedy are, for example, an unhappy marriage, a foundling, or a silly idea: these ingredients do not require the audience to understand the entire character of the individuals involved.

Further Reading

Michael Morton, ‘Exemplary Poetics: The Rhetoric of Lenz’s Anmerkungen übers Theater and Pandaemonium Germanicum’, Lessing Yearbook 20 (1988), 121-52

Roy Pascal, The German Sturm und Drang (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958), Chapter 8: ‘The Revolution in Poetics’, pp. 233-99