Der Hofmeister; The Tutor

Der Hofmeister oder Vortheile der Privaterziehung; The Tutor, or The Advantages of Private Tuition (published 1774, first performed 1778)

Lenz wrote Der Hofmeister; The Tutor in 1772. When it was published anonymously in 1774, many people assumed that the author was Goethe. It was the only one of Lenz’s plays to be performed in his lifetime: in 1778 in Hamburg and Berlin, directed by Friedrich Ludwig Schröder.

In Act One Läuffer complains that he cannot join the civil service because his father won’t pay; he cannot be a schoolteacher because the Privy Councillor won’t employ him, so has to be a private tutor instead, working for the Privy Councillor’s brother, Major von Berg. The Major’s wife interviews Läuffer and tells him his annual salary will not be 300 ducats, but 150 ducats. When Count Wermuth enters, she reminds Läuffer that he is only a servant. Major von Berg bullies his son Leopold and lowers Läuffer’s salary further. The Major tells Läuffer that his daughter Gustchen is his pride and joy. If anyone other than a senior minister or a general lays a finger on her they will get a bullet through their head. Gustchen is in love with her cousin Fritz but Fritz’s father, the Privy Councillor, overhears them and tells them they are too young to think about getting married. Also, he knows that Gustchen’s father would not permit it.

In Act Two the Privy Councillor condemns the whole practice of private tutoring. It damages tutors who are treated like slaves; it spoils their aristocratic pupils because it confirms their arrogance and prevents them from learning how to compete fairly; and it robs genuine schools of decent funds. Läuffer’s father shows the Privy Councillor a letter from Läuffer saying that his employers are treating him terribly but he cannot leave his job because of certain prospects which are opening up for him. At boarding school in Halle, Fritz von Berg drinks coffee with his friend Pätus. Pätus has had to pawn his coat and he hasn’t redeemed it yet. Bollwerk arrives and says everyone is going to the theatre to see Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm. Pätus has to go wearing his wolfskin but he is chased down the road by three large dogs. Läuffer complains to Gustchen that the Major wants to reduce his salary to 40 ducats a year. Gustchen starts acting out Romeo and Juliet with Läuffer. Count Wermuth asks the Majoress if he can go for a walk with Gustchen but the Major arrives and complains that Gustchen is losing her looks. Back in Halle, Fritz von Berg has been thrown into the university prison (Karzer) because he acted as guarantor for Pätus’s debts. Bollwerk wants to fight a duel with Herr von Seifenblase (Soap-Bubble) because he has slandered Pätus. Pätus appears and apologises but Bollwerk tells him to leave, or he too will be thrown into prison.

In Act Three the Major is complaining to the Privy Councillor about his daughter when the Majoress bursts in shouting ‘Unsere Familie – Infamie! – – O ich kann nicht mehr – [...] Deine Tochter – Der Hofmeister. – Lauf!’; ‘Our family! – Infamy!’ – – O I can’t go on – […] Your daughter – The tutor – Run!’. Then she faints.

Läuffer finds shelter with Wenzeslaus, the village school teacher. Läuffer tells Wenzeslaus his name is Mandel. Wenzeslaus hides Läuffer from Count Wermuth and his men. Herr von Seifenblase and his tutor visit the Privy Councillor and slander his son Fritz to him. In the village school, Wenzeslaus gives Läuffer supper and cheerfully imparts his worldly wisdom to him.

In Act Four, after writing five letters to his father asking for financial assistance, Fritz von Berg has given up hope of rescue and has escaped from the university prison. In order to avert a scandal, Fritz’s professor has paid his debts for him, but now he wants Fritz’s father, the Privy Councillor, to reimburse him. One year has passed and Gustchen, who has been living in the woods with an old woman called Marthe, has had a son. Läuffer, the baby’s father, is sitting with Wenzeslaus, when they are ambushed by the Major, the Privy Councillor and Count Wermuth. The Major shoots Läuffer in the arm. Wenzeslaus is about to call the law but Läuffer tells him he deserved it. When the Major finds out that Läuffer doesn’t know where Gustchen is, he leaves and the Privy Councillor gives Läuffer some money to pay for his medical treatment by the barber, Schöpsen. Thinking that her father the Major is dead, Gustchen throws herself into a lake but she is saved by her father, who forgives her. In Leipzig, Pätus is in trouble again, this time because he climbed into the bedroom of the lute player’s daughter. When the father, Rehaar, complains, Pätus slaps him. Fritz tells him to apologise.

In Act Five Marthe tells Läuffer, incorrectly, that Gustchen drowned in the lake, and hands him the baby; Läuffer faints. Pätus gives Rehaar satisfaction, apologises to Rehaar and asks for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Läuffer tells Wenzeslaus he has castrated himself and, worryingly, Wenzeslaus congratulates him for his resolve, saying that this will liberate him from his earthly desires. In Leipzig, Fritz and Pätus receive a poisonous letter from Seifenblase and decide to return home. Pätus wins the lottery: now he has enough money to pay his debts. In Königsberg, Seifenblase’s pursuit of Miss Rehaar is foiled by the Privy Councillor. In church, Läuffer stares at Lise instead of listening to Wenzeslaus’s sermon. Wenzeslaus catches Läuffer kissing Lise. Lise says she wants to marry Läuffer even if he can’t sleep with her, and she doesn’t want children anyway. In Insterburg, Pätus is reunited with Miss Rehaar and Fritz is reunited with his father and Gustchen. Marthe turns out to be Pätus’s grandmother who had been thrown out by Pätus’s father. The Major gets his grandson, and allows Gustchen to marry Fritz. Fritz promises to raise Gustchen’s illegitimate son as if he were his own – but without the aid of a private tutor.

In accordance with his theory (stated in Anmerkungen übers Theatre; Remarks about the Theatre (1774)) that comedy is governed by events rather than by character, Lenz called this play a ‘Komödie’, a comedy. However, in 1772 as Lenz was writing the play, in private letters to his friend Salzmann he called it a ‘Trauerspiel’; a ‘tragedy’. In fact the play is both. As Albrecht Schöne points out, the play is full of recurring scenes in which an estranged parent and their child are reunited (see Schöne, p. 116). But this series of comic reconciliations at the end seems like wish-fulfilment after the harsh social criticism and the horrific castration which have gone before.

Major von Berg’s overbearing love for his daughter is a typical feature of Bürgerliches Trauerspiel; bourgeois tragedy (e.g. Lessing, Miß Sara Sampson, Emilia Galotti). Major von Berg wants Gustchen to marry a general or a senior minister, because he himself is impoverished and he wants her restore the family’s fortune. But, as Edward McInnes points out that even the Major must recognise that such an advantageous marriage is unlikely to take place, and so, by insisting on such a marriage, he is secretly attempting to prevent her from marrying at all and to retain his hold over her (see Edward McInnes, p. 33).

In 1950 Brecht staged Lenz’s play Der Hofmeister; The Tutor at the Kammerspiele des Deutschen Theaters. The play premiered on 15 April 1950. In a letter to Hans Mayer of 25 March 1950 (quoted in Brecht, Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe (BFA), vol. 8, p. 558), Brecht points out that the play shows the correlation between economic and sexual oppression. Läuffer castrates himself physically, economically and intellectually, by sacrificing his intelligence in order to scrape a living as a domestic servant.

Further Reading in English

M. A. L. Brown, ‘Lenz’s Hofmeister and the Drama of Storm and Stress’, in Periods in German Literature: Texts and Contexts, ed. by J. M. Ritchie, vol. 2 (London: Wolff, 1969), pp. 67-84

Edward P. Harris, ‘Structural Unity in J.M.R. Lenz’s Der Hofmeister: A Reevaluation’, Seminar 8 (1972), 77-87

Alan C. Leidner and Karin A. Wurst, Unpopular Virtues: The Critical Reception of J.M.R. Lenz (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1999)

Helga Stipa Madland, ‘Gesture as Evidence of Language Skepticism in Lenz’s Der Hofmeister and Die Soldaten’, German Quarterly 57 (1984), 546-57

Helga Stipa Madland, ‘A Question of Norms: The Stage Reception of Lenz’s Hofmeister’, Seminar 23:2 (1987), 98-114

Edward McInnes, ‘“Verlorene Töchter”: Reticence and Ambiguity in German Domestic Drama in the Late Eighteenth Century’, in Taboos in German Literature, ed. by David Jackson (Oxford and Providence, RI: Berghahn, 1996), pp. 27-42

Further Reading in German

John Guthrie, ‘Revision und Rezeption: Lenz und sein Hofmeister’, Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 110:2 (1991), 181-210

Angela Hansen, Der Hofmeister von J. M. R. Lenz. Ein Versuch einer Neuinterpretation (New York and Bern: Peter Lang, 2000)

Albrecht Schöne, Säkularisation als sprachbildende Kraft. Studien zur Dichtung deutscher Pfarrersöhne (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1958)