Torture as my pleasure
The tragedies of Daniel Casper von Lohenstein, never translated into English,
dizzying scenes in the theatre of martyrdom
Imagine the following scene. The time is May 1666. The setting is the hall of a grammar school in Breslau (the capital of Silesia, now Wrocław), where the schoolboys, watched by civic dignitaries and proud parents, are actingaplay which has been written for them by one of the city’s administrators. This performance is the high point of the school year. The play, Epicharis,isbased on Tacitus’ account of the conspiracy led by Piso against the Emperor Nero. One boy is playing Nero, who has just been thrown into a panic by learning of the conspiracy. Another boy is playing the titular freedwoman Epicharis, who animated the conspiracy. Several conspirators have already broken under interrogation, but Epicharis is steadfast. Nero orders the attendants to stretch her on the rack, to pour boiling pitch and sulphur on her breasts, and to nip her flesh with red-hot tongs. “I confess”, says Epicharis finally “− thatIam your mortal enemy.” She faints and is carried back to prison, more dead than alive.
The schoolboys are enacting the most extreme version of the theatre of cruelty to be found in German literature. In later notorious plays, executions and tortures happen offstage. The beheading of Schiller’s Maria Stuart is reported to us by the courtier charged with supervising it. When Kleist’s Penthesilea kills her misleading lover Achilles and devours his flesh, we hear about the action later fromahorrified eyewitness. Daniel Casper von Lohenstein, however, presents torture scenes before the spectators’ eyes.
No doubt the schoolboys enjoyed their performance immensely. The modern reader, however, can appreciate the scene as one of the many dialogues with power that occur in German literature. But while dramatists of the Enlightenment–Schiller in Don Carlos, Goethe in Iphigenie auf Tauris–show potentates as in theory, and sometimes in fact, amenable to reason, Nero here isaparanoid tyrant who assumes that anyone who is denounced must automatically be guilty. The Roman Empire serves asacode for the excesses of seventeenth-century absolutism, but also makes it possible unwittingly to anticipate the tyrannies of the twentieth century.
Lohenstein (1635–83), the dramatist responsible for this and other equally astonishing political plays, was not only the leading figure, alongside Andreas Gryphius, in the Silesian school of tragedy, but alsoascholar andaman of affairs. After holding several prominent administrative positions in his native Breslau, he went to Vienna in 1675 to represent his city in negotiations over taxation with the imperial court. Here he made such a good impression that the Emperor, Leopold I, bestowed on him the title of Imperial Councillor. His six plays were arranged by their previous editor, Klaus Günther Just, in three groups, labelled Roman Tragedies, African Tragedies and Turkish Tragedies. The present annotated
Daniel Casper von
Lohenstein SÄMTLICHE WERKE Historisch-kritische Ausgabe Edited by Lothar Mundt, Wolfgang Neuber and
Thomas Rahn Abteilung II: Dramen Volume 1: Ibrahim (Bassa); Cleopatra (Erst- und
Zweitfassung) Edited by Lothar Mundt. 1,269pp. €608. 978 3 11 020377 6 Volume 2: Agrippina, Epicharis Edited by Lothar Mundt, with the help of preliminary studies by Gerhard Spellerberg
871pp. €309. 978 3 11018156 8 Volume 3: Ibrahim Sultan; Sophonisbe
Edited by Lothar Mundt 1,181pp. €499. 978 3 11 028601 4 Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter edition, which is to be followed by volumes containing Lohenstein’s poetry, fiction, translations, and personal writings, presents the plays chronologically, so that the first play set in the Ottoman Empire, Ibrahim Bassa,said to have been written when Lohenstein was fourteen, sharesavolume with the more mature Cleopatra;the two plays set at Nero’s court, Epicharis and Agrippina,share Volume Two; and the most recent volume contains the second African play, Sophonisbe,set during the Punic Wars, and the other Turkish play, Ibrahim Sultan.
What tradition do these plays belong to? German Baroque drama, which flourished especially in Silesia, owes many impulses to Jesuit school drama and to the Dutch tragedies of Joost von der Vondel. The strongest classical influence is Seneca, who suppliesalowering atmosphere, impassioned rants, and vengeful ghosts. English-speaking readers will be reminded of The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus.Following the example of the Jesuits, whose didactic plays often focused on early Christian martyrs, as did Corneille’s Polyeucte (1643), the Baroque dramatists spe
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cialized in plays about martyrs. They found their subject matter, however, in more recent history. Thus Andreas Gryphius was inspired by the execution of CharlesIofEngland to write Carolus Stuardus (published 1657), in which Charles goes to his death with perfect Christian stoicism and Cromwell figures as an unscrupulous tyrant, while Christian August Haugwitz dramatized the fate of Mary Queen of Scots in Maria Stuarda (1683).
The trouble with martyr dramas is that they are intrinsically undramatic. The martyr can do nothing but accept his or her fate with unwavering steadfastness. This may be an unfair criticism. As Walter Benjamin insists in his Origins of German Tragedy,stillastimulating though dogmatic treatment, Baroque tragedy is unrelated to Aristotelian models of drama. Its purpose is not catharsis, but instruction. It appeals not to our emotions, but to our reason. Its intellectual basis is the neo-Stoicism which advocated rational self-control asasurvival technique inaworld torn by destructive wars. Instead of feeling terror and pity, we are invited to condemn the tyrant, to admire, not pity, the martyr, and to learn from the martyr’s fortitude a stoical acceptance of suffering.
At the same time, one can’t help noticing that Gryphius does try intermittently to introduce some conventional dramatic excitement. Thus Carolus Stuardus begins with Fairfax and his wife scheming to liberate Charles, though this plot is rendered futile by the information that Charles doesn’t want to escape martyrdom, by the historical fact of his death, and by the Fairfaxes’ failure to do anything to further their scheme. In Catharina von Georgien (1650?), whereaChristian queen is imprisoned and eventually martyred by the Shah of Persia, Gryphius adds dramatic interest and psychological complexity by making Chach Abbas fall in love with his captive, martyr her partly because she resists his advances, and then be consumed with passion when it is too late. This eroticization of the tyrant-martyr plot, also found in Dryden’s Tyrannick Love (1669), would later be secularized inaseries of narratives confronting the tyrannical seducer with his virtuous victim; Richardson’s Lovelace, who quotes from Dryden’s play in his very first letter about Clarissa, is only the most famous example.
The martyr soon becomes less interesting than the tyrant. If the martyr is admirably but tediously steadfast, the tyrant is fascinatingly indecisive, carried hither and thither by passion. Gryphius presentsatormented, Macbeth-like tyrant in Leo Armenius (1650), though Leo briefly becomesamartyr when he is assassinated on Christmas Eve inachurch where he clings to the True Cross preserved there. Often the tyrant is torn between love and murderousness, like Gryphius’s Chach Abbas or the Herod who executes his wife in Johann Christian Hallmann’s Mariamne (1670).
Lohenstein’s martyrs and tyrants are quite