A REVIEW (1839)
By FRIEDRICH HEBBEL
TRANSLATED BY FRANCES H. KING
It is probable that no German who is able to appreciate the power of the theatre, its silent influence on the people, and the consequent reaction on the development of dramatic talent, has looked on indifferently at the decay and complete ruin of our stage. The drama of a nation, conceived in a worthy sense, represents that nation in its self-consciousness; it is the burning-mirror which receives the separate rays of the nation’s innermost being while passing history is enticing them out of the depths, which condenses and concentrates them and thus kindles one century by means of another, and calls to life one glorious deed by means of another. Tragedy represents a people in its relation to the most important problems, its own as well as those of humanity in general. Comedy paints it in its natural aberrations and abnormalities, in its tendencies and endeavors which are directed earthward. Both must subsist together, in common development, and on an equal elevation, if we are to sum up the entire life of a nation, and give a true, eternal picture of its will-power and capacity, of its vacillations and defeats. This is the object which dramatic literature must always keep in view if it would be effectual. To be sure, it is possible to conceive a still higher species of drama, a tragedy which deals with man only in the abstract, with man in himself, in his mysterious relation to God and Nature; a comedy which lays nationalities themselves in their coffin and gaudily dresses up the corpse. But it is still an open question whether, under such a general domination of the idea of humanity as is presupposed in that case, art can continue to exist at all; and at any rate the time of this spirit-like domination is still far off, although literature has witnessed the production of many dramatic poems which seem to be designed for it.
It was many years ago that Tieck, on the subject of some wretched stuff by Clauren, made the remark that we had at last reached the cellar and must begin to ascend again. He was right in his remark, but, unhappily, not in the hope with which he accompanied it. Very far from hastening to leave the cellar, we have found it very comfortable down there; we have made ourselves at home as well as we could, and are hideously satisfied! Instead of the heroic spirit of our past ages, Jack Pudding now staggers out of the wings in a torn jacket and shows us what kind of humor is engendered by stupidity and brandy, when they have a rendezvous in the head of a porter. If Schiller and Goethe dare once to come out of their exile, then Nestroy’s plum-pudding jinnee steps in their path, and they of course modestly give way to him. The magic worlds of Shakespeare and Calderon are already suffocated in their birth by the head-shaking of the stage-manager who must keep his machinery together