The Theatre Considered as a Moral Institution

Die Schaubühne als eine moralische Anstalt betrachtet; The Theatre Considered as a Moral Institution (lecture given 1784, first published in 1785, final version 1802)

This essay was first given as an inaugural lecture on 26 August 1784 in Mannheim, after Schiller had been made a member of the German Society there. The original title was:

‘Vom Wirken der Schaubühne auf das Volk’; ‘On the Effect of the Theatre on the People’.

The lecture was first published in 1785 under the title:

‘Was kann eine gute stehende Schaubühne eigentlich wirken?’; ‘What can a theatre of good standing actually achieve?’

The term ‘eine gute stehende Schaubühne’; ‘a theatre of good standing’, refers to the campaign for a national theatre. The first attempt to found a German national theatre was in Hamburg at the Hamburg National Theatre, where Lessing worked as a dramaturge (dramatic advisor) between 1767 and 1769.

The final revised version was published in 1802 as ‘Die Schaubühne als eine moralische Anstalt betrachtet’; ‘The Theatre Considered as a Moral Institution’.

In this lecture Schiller sets out the moral effects which the theatre can have. Schiller says that the theatre can – as a complement to religion – have a stabilizing function on the state. Like religion, art affects people’s hearts. Unlike religion, theatre provides a scenario in which moral extremes can be experienced. In this way, theatre contributes to the enlightenment of the public by combining the cultivation of reason and the heart with entertainment.

This lecture introduces the idea of a ‘middle state’ (‘einen mittleren Zustand’) between pure instinct and pure intellect. This idea harks back to Schiller’s early essay ‘Philosophie der Physiologie’; ‘Philosophy of Physiology’ (1779), which describes a ‘medial force’ (‘Mittelkraft’) that mediates between physical sensation and mental activity. However, this idea of a ‘middle state’ already anticipates Schiller’s mature philosophy, and the idea recurs in On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) (see the 18th, 20th and 23rd letters).

The essay concludes with a rousing passage describing the ability of the theatre to combine education and entertainment in the most stimulating and balanced way:

Die Schaubühne ist die Stiftung, wo sich Vergnügen mit Unterricht, Ruhe mit Anstrengung, Kurzweil mit Bildung gattet, wo keine Kraft der Seele zum Nachtheil der andern gespannt, kein Vergnügen auf Unkosten des Ganzen genossen wird.

The theatre is the establishment where pleasure joins with instruction, relaxation with exertion, amusement with education, where no capacity of the soul is stretched to the detriment of others, where no pleasure is enjoyed at the cost of the whole.

Further Reading

David V. Pugh, ‘How Enlightened are Schiller’s Aesthetics?’, in Impure Reason: Dialectic of Enlightenment in Germany, ed. by W. Daniel Wilson and Robert C. Holub (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1993), pp. 166-84

T. J. Reed, Schiller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 33-35

Helmut J. Schneider, ‘Humanity's Imaginary Body: The Concepts of Empathy and Sympathy and the New Theater Experience in the 18th Century’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 82:3 (2008), 382-99