Page 1 of 2 Europe's tragedy, and Europe's tragedian
Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) wrote tragedies about Europe's wars of religion
that serve as Europe's epitaph. "History brought forth a great moment," the
German poet, philosopher, historian and playwright wrote of the French
Revolution, the defining event of his lifetime, "but the moment found a
The 250th anniversary of his birth came and went on November 10 with less
attention than it deserved. Schiller created a new kind of tragedy, in which
the flaw applies to the people as much as to the protagonists. The hand of
destiny is revealed as the tramp of boots on the ground worn by human beings
with real needs and passions. The Chorus itself becomes a tragic actor.
English-speakers mainly know Schiller through bad translations
of one of his poorer poems, the first stanzas of the Ode to Joy that
Ludwig van Beethoven set in the Ninth Symphony. It was not always so. The
English Romantic poets drank Schiller with their mother's milk. His apostle to
the Anglo-Saxons was the great Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who read
his first play The Robbers in 1794 and wrote to Robert Southey: "My God!
Southey! Who is this Schiller? This Convulser of the Heart? Did he write his
Tragedy amid the yelling of Fiends?" Coleridge penned a rapturous sonnet to
Schiller which may not rank among his best work:
Ah! Bard tremendous in
Could I behold thee in thy loftier mood,
Wand'ring at eve, with finely frenzied eye,
Beneath some vast old tempest-swinging wood!
Awhile, with mute awe gazing, I would brood,
Then weep aloud in a wild ecstasy.
Coleridge visited Germany in
1797 to drink Teutonic wisdom from the source, and went on to translate two of
the three plays in Schiller's Wallenstein trilogy and write
incomprehensibly about Schiller's aesthetic theories. Some of this filtered
into John Keats' equivalence of truth and beauty at the close of Ode on a
Grecian Urn, and such-like sources.
The Weimar Classic of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Schiller, Johann Gottfried
von Herder and Christoph Martin Wieland proposed to substitute art for religion
long before the Victorian schoolmaster, Matthew Arnold. Victorian aesthetics,
like Victorian parlor verse, is to a great extent second-hand Schiller.
Schiller's aesthetic philosophy is a period curiosity - academic scholarship
treats it as a minor commentary on Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment.
I am not sure whether this is correct, but I doubt it is worth the trouble to
find out. The best reason to read it today is so as not to have to read Matthew
Arnold. As a pedagogical insight, Schiller's notion of Spieltrieb, the
play-impulse that unifies form and substance through artistic beauty, still has
some influence through such currents as Waldorf education.
Like Kant's categorical imperative and schemes for universal peace, Schiller's
hopes for social improvement through aesthetic education seem quaint to us.
Schiller the philosopher of art is much less interesting than Schiller the
artist, though. His best work still convulses the heart, as Coleridge said.
"Only through the morning-gate of the Beautiful do you make your way into the
land of cognition," Schiller wrote in one of his most famous (and worst) poems, The
Artists (1789). As a playwright, though, Schiller felicitously ignored
his own aesthetic doctrine, which advanced the conceit of the "beautiful soul",
the perfected human personality who can integrate life through a Hellenistic
appreciation of beauty. But the characters that still convulse the hearts of
theater audiences are not "beautiful souls" but desperately flawed human beings
whose residual capacity for good makes their predicament tragic rather than
Coleridge responded to the bandit Karl Moor in The Robbers, who took to
a life of crime after calumny caused his disinheritance. The Catholic queen
Mary Stuart, an adulteress and mariticide, becomes a figure of pathos and
sympathy in his eponymous 1801 drama, which ran for months last year in London
and New York in Peter Oswald's English version.
There are few moments in theater more chilling than the concluding chorus sung
in Wallenstein's Camp, the first of the Wallenstein trilogy by the
Soldateska, the "new people" whom the imperial field-marshal of the Thirty
Years' War has summoned together from every corner of Europe. A minor Bohemian
noble, Wallenstein crushed the Protestant revolt against the Austrian empire by
raising a mercenary army that was large enough to live off the land. But his
success ruined civil society and turned the Thirty Years' War into a horror
that killed more than a third of the population of Central Europe. In Chinese
terms of reference, imagine that the emperor had elevated a bandit rebel to
commander of all imperial forces in order to defeat a rival.
As the play opens in 1634, the Austrian court has decided to excise the cancer;
Wallenstein meanwhile is negotiating secretly to betray the Imperial army to
the Protestant Swedes; and imperial agents in his own camp are preparing his
ruin. His soldier-folk, a diabolical caricature of the "new people" of
Christendom, prepare to assert themselves against the civil society and
imperial authority. Die Freiheit ist bei der Macht allein - "You get
freedom only with power," declares a cuirassier. "I'll live and die with
The empire pawned its moral authority by calling Wallenstein and his monstrous
army to its service, bringing more misery to its own people than ever did the
invading Protestants. Schiller has the soldiers sing:
Aus der Welt die
Freiheit verschwunden ist,
Man sieht nur die Herren und Knechte;
Die Falschheit herrscht, die Hinterlist
Bei dem feigen Menschengeschlechte.
Der dem Tod ins Angesicht schauen kann,
Der Soldat allein ist der freie Mann!
[Freedom has disappeared from the world,
And you only see masters and slaves;
And perfidy reigns, and deceitfulness,
Among the cowardly human race.
He who can look death in the face,
The soldier alone, is a free man!]
Wallenstein imagines that he is the captive of his stars; in fact, his destiny
is the terrible army he has brought into being, and whose ambitions he must
fulfill or perish. He has grown too great for civil society to bear. The Swedes
offer him only servitude and humiliation; the empire plots his ruin. Loosely
following the events that Schiller had chronicled in his earlier History of the
Thirty Years' War, the play concludes with Wallenstein's assassination
at Eger (Cheb, the Czech Republic) by imperial officers.
Schiller wrote the trilogy in 1799, and his audience know that the protagonist
was not so much Wallenstein as Napoleon Bonaparte, who again would summon the
freebooters and malcontents of Europe into a multinational army that threatened
to eradicate civil society. Europe strains for universality, and in the absence
of universal Christian empire, a different and dire species of universality
would arise. Wallenstein, Napoleon, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler would send
the rough hordes raging cross Europe again and again until only a moral ruin
remained of Christendom.