[This page by Madeleine Brook]
Absurda Comica oder Herr Peter Squentz (1658)
This short satirical drama is a critique of the strict Opitzian dramatic conventions for tragedy and comedy, in which comedy should be confined to low society, while tragedy should be played out in the context of the ruling classes (see below, Aikin, p. 2). This example of the ‘play within a play’ conceit brings two contrasting social groups – that of the craftsman on the one hand and that of the royal court on the other – together to comedic effect. Peter Squentz, a schoolmaster convinced of his own erudition and learning, and a group of craftsmen decide to put on a play for the entertainment of the royal court in the hope of financial reward. Their version of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, ostensibly a tragedy, is received with hilarity by the court since the players step in and out of their respective roles at the slightest provocation. In the end, the players’ reward reflects not the good quality of their ‘tragedy’, but the number of errors in their ‘comedy’.
Act One introduces all the craftsmen and their pretensions to greatness, as well as Squentz’s dubious grasp of classical learning. Squentz announces that they are going to perform ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ and the parts are allocated to the all-male cast, along with stage directions. The act closes with a discussion among the craftsmen-actors about the nature of comedy as opposed to tragedy, but, unsure of their own talents, they decide to term their play ‘ein schön Spiel lustig und traurig’ [a good play, funny and sad].
In Act Two, the action moves to the court, where the royal family are provided with a list of dramas Squentz claims his troupe can perform. The court forces Squentz to invent a series of increasingly unlikely excuses in order to avoid having to admit that in fact they can only perform one play.
In Act Three, the craftsmen perform their play to the court. Composed in verse by Squentz, the play is full of exaggerated rhyming couplets, verbal miscomprehensions and mispronunciations, and inappropriately applied classical references. The actors frequently interrupt their own parts to explain the action to their audience or to take offence at the script and fight amongst themselves. ‘Pyramus’/Pickelhäring and ‘Thisbe’/Master Klotz-George ‘die’ onstage, but continue talking. Squentz performs the epilogue in which he tells the parable of the Christian carrying a dead Jew. Stopping to drink from a well, the Christian overbalances, falls in the well and drowns. Squentz then asks the king for their reward. Theodorus responds that it would be more appropriate to reward them according to the number of ‘Säu’ [lit. sows, pigs; errors] to which Squentz remarks that if he had known that was how it would go, then they would have made more mistakes.
In addition to the integral theme of role-playing throughout the entire play, the figure of Peter Squentz is central to understanding the play. Apparently pompous with an over-inflated sense of his own learning in the first act, Squentz is less ridiculous than he at first appears: he is financially canny and perfectly aware of the errors in his play, as his final conversation with Theodorus demonstrates, ‘Nun wir wollen sehen / wie der Sachen zu rathen. Lasset uns hören / wie viel Säu ihr gemacht in euer Tragoedie’, ‘Herr König / ich weiß nicht wie viel ihr gezehlet habet: Jch kam mit der Rechnung biß auff zehen’ (‘Now let’s see how best to solve this. Tell us how many errors you all made in your tragedy’, ‘My lord king, I don’t know how many you counted, but I calculated ten’).
Although the absurdities of the play are beyond his control – ‘Ey hertzer lieber Herr König / habt mirs doch nicht vor übel / ihr sehet ja / daß es meine Schuld nicht sey’ (‘Oh, beloved lord king, please don’t hold this against me – you can see that this is not my fault’) – he is still capable of creating a parable out of them, referencing the story of the Christian who dies due to his own carelessness. This highlights his own play as a warning against thoughtless carelessness which leads to miscomprehension and strife (see below, Schade, pp. 297-98).
Judith P. Aikin, ‘The Comedies of Andreas Gryphius and the Two Traditions of European Comedy’, The Germanic Review 63 (1988), 114-20
Judith P. Aikin, ‘Genre Definition and Genre Confusion in Gryphius’ Double Bill “Cardenio und Celinde” and “Herr Peter Squentz”, Colloquia Germanica 16 (1983), 1-12
Nancy C. Michael, ‘Amateur Theatralics and Professional Playwriting. The Relationship between “Peter Squentz” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Comparative Literature Studies 23 (1986), 195-204
Richard Schade, ‘Approaches to “Herr Peter Squentz”. Persona, Play and Parable’, Colloquia Germanica 13 (1980), 289-302
Charlotte Woodford, ‘Gryphius, Peter Squentz’, in Landmarks in German Comedy, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2006), pp. 21-36
Further Reading in German
Gerhard Kaiser (ed.), Die Dramen des Andreas Gryphius. Eine Sammlung von Einzelinterpretationen (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1968)