Saturday, April 3, 2010

"Wilhelm Tell" Again

One last word (really) on Wilhelm Tell. Safranski mentions that Goethe, while in Switzerland in 1797, wrote to Schiller of his idea of writing a drama about Wilhelm Tell. For several years afterward, he turned the idea over in his head, but nothing came of it.

Why was Goethe unable to write the play? Partly I would guess it was because of the French Revolution, which even in at the time was considered a historical "turning point." As Nicholas Boyle has written, Goethe was unable, despite various attempts, to produce a major work in response to the Revolution. He did write four dramas or dramatic fragments, portraying stages of the Revolution, none of which is very memorable. Der Gross-Cophta, for instance, on the affair of the the French queen's necklace, is described as a comedy, but is (according to The Oxford Companion to German Literature) one of the more heavy-footed of Goethe's works.

Goethe had written a play on another historical turning point several decades earlier, namely, the 1773 play Goetz von Berlichingen. That drama had made Goethe famous, even before The Sorrows of Young Werther. The visit to Switzerland in 1797, which recapitulated certain stages of Goethe's first visit to Switzerland in 1775, may have led him to think he could repeat that earlier success with a drama on a different historical subject.

Goetz von Berlichingen, however, takes place in the 16th century. It has been pointed out that the same period of time -- two centuries -- separated Goethe from his historical sources as divides us from Goethe. Still, there is a difference between a period of "historical significance" in the past and history in the making. It is one thing to immerse oneself in archives and historical records, as Goethe did in preparation for writing Goetz, another to make sense of events occurring in one's own life. Moreover, Goethe had long abandoned -- indeed repudiated -- the so-called Shakespearean style and often rough language that had made Goetz such a triumph when it first appeared.

Schiller, according to Safranski, was "as if electrified" by Goethe's letter, and, within several years, after Goethe had abandoned the attempt, wrote his own version of the Wilhelm Tell legend. If Goethe was unable to produce anything of significance in connection with the French Revolution, Schiller had been seeking to make sense of it since The Aesthetic Letters. As I mentioned in my last post, the contemporary public reaction to Schiller's Wilhelm Tell leaves no doubt that people understood the connection between the long-ago events in Switzerland and the tyranny posed by Napoleon.

Schiller's enthusiasm for writing his drama probably had much to do with his continuing absorption in the theme of freedom, but it also strikes me that Schiller may have been attempting, with Wilhelm Tell, to re-create for himself the success that Goethe had achieved with Goetz. Wilhelm Tell, as Safranski points out, abandons the future-oriented vision of free men of The Aesthetic Letters. Instead it posits the source of freedom in the past, in the native and natural traditions of an independent community. Both Tell and Goetz are men of action and representatives of freedom and natural right. Moreover, both have identifying characteristics, one a crossbow, the other an iron hand.

Goethe's play, which concerned a man out of joint with his times, was also meant to indicate something about the Germany of the 1770s. In the end it was Schiller who was able to make the connection between the past and the present with an historical drama concerning an even earlier rebel. By wrapping up his material in a "classical" five-act drama, he avoided reminding Goethe all too vividly of his Sturm und Drang enthusiasms.

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