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Schiller and Our Times

Schmidt Number: S-1027

On-line since: 30th April, 2018


Schiller's Later Plays

We have seen how Schiller tried, in each one of his later plays, to solve the problem of the dramatic. There is something sublime in observing how, after every success — and the success was considerable (he was recognised by the best men of his time, even though there was not a complete absence of hostility) — he tried with each new play to climb to greater heights. All the later plays, Tell, the Bride of Messina, the Maid of Orleans, Demetrius, are simply efforts to attain to the problem of the dramatic and the tragic in a new form. He never rested satisfied in a belief that he had exhausted psychology. In Maria Stuart we have seen him treating the problem of destiny, creating a situation complete in itself in which only the characters have to unfold themselves. In the Maid of Orleans, he dug still deeper into the human soul. He plunged into the depths of human psychology and set out the problem, in the sense that Hebbel meant, when he said that tragedy must have some relation to the irrational. Thus, in the Maid of Orleans we have the effects of dark soul forces: the Maid is almost like a sleep-walker, under the influence of what we may call the demonic and is carried forward by it. She is to stand far above humanity, and only because she is a maid, has she the right to pass through the ranks of her enemies, for her country's sake, like a destroying angel.

In the Bride of Messina, Schiller tries to get a still higher conception of the drama and to reach back to the primal drama — that drama, which came even before Aeschylus and was not merely art but also an integral constituent of a truth which included religion, science and art; that Dionysos-drama which put the suffering, dying and resurgent god on the stage as representative of all humanity. In such cases the action was not what we should nowadays call poetry. It was the world-drama that was set before man's eyes, the truth in beautiful and artistic form; it was meant to elevate man and fortify him religiously. Thus the Mystery drama contained, for the spectators, what developed later, in separate form, as religion, art and philosophy.

This line of thought which Friedrich Nietzsche developed in his Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, in which he regarded the primal drama as the higher form, was already alive in Schiller. Schiller's idea of raising the beautiful to higher levels by re-introducing the musical element, was taken up again by Wagner and received monumental expression in his musical dramas: Wagner harked back to the myth and chose music, so as to express himself, not in everyday but in elevated language. The direction which art followed in the Wagner circle was indicated by Schiller. In his short introduction to the Bride of Messina he gives it plastic and pregnant expression. True art must give a freedom of the spirit in the living play of all its forces. That shows what there was in Schiller.

We have seen how Schiller's spirit climbed upward by help of Goethe. He himself called Goethe's mind intuitive, his own symbolical; and this a significant saying.

Schiller always thought of men fundamentally as representatives of a type; he thought of them in a sort of symphony. We can see the drama growing out of a sort of musical mood, and hence comes that symphony of human characters, acting and suffering. So it became necessary to make single traits into symbols of great human experience. Hence Schiller became the poet of idealism: he used experience to bring the ideals to earth and to clothe them in his characters. The problem of the human I, the question how man works in his environment, was, for him, the central point.

In the Bride of Messina, he wanted to produce the Greek tragedy of destiny in a new form. There must be something in the human soul which makes men take their decisions not reasonably — else they would act more intelligently — there must be something dark in them, something like the “daimon” of Socrates. That must be working from the spiritual world. It is this something which the reason cannot grasp, which Schiller allows to play into his tragedy; and the way in which he does it shows him as quite a modern. The action begins with two dreams: The Duke of Messina dreams of a flame which destroys two laurel bushes. The dream is interpreted by an Arabian astrologist as meaning that the daughter, born to him, will bring destruction on his sons; and he orders her death. But the Duchess has dreamed at the same time of a child by whose side an eagle and a lion lie nestled together; her dream also is interpreted; a Christian monk tells her that her daughter will unite the two disputing brothers in love for herself; and so she saves the child.

In this way the dark and undetermined enters at the very beginning of the action. It is a fine point that the first dream should be interpreted by an Arabian, the second by a Christian; but Schiller does not take sides. If we take out all that is mystical and dreamlike, there remains only the quarrel of the brothers; and this rational action is still dramatic. The stroke of genius and of special art is that each element is a whole; even without the mystical the action is a unity. Thus Schiller has put into this with skill and art something which goes beyond human consciousness. — In this way he had reached a still higher answer to his question.

He uses the same human psychology in Tell. I am not going to analyse the drama, only to show what Schiller was to the Nineteenth Century and what he will still be to us. It is not to no purpose that he sets Tell apart from the general structure of the drama:

“Yet, what you do — leave me apart from your councils. I cannot ponder long, or choose. But if you need my too-determined deed, then summon Tell and he will not fail you.” He acts, not like the others, under the impulse of the idea of freedom, but from purely personal feeling, offended paternal sense. Two lines run together, the one which concerns Tell alone, the other felt by the whole Swiss people. Schiller wanted to show how things do not run, in man, always along the one line. We can see the same thing in Hebbel's Judith where her country's needs fall together with her wounded woman's feelings; the poet requires something which grows immediately from out of the human heart.

Schiller has no use for the merely moral or the merely material; the moral must descend and become a personal passion. Man only becomes free when he controls his personal feeling in such a way that it unites with the universal. He worked, step by step, on the completion of his psychology, and his idealism becomes more and more clarified. That is the magic which lives in Schiller's plays. His deep aesthetic studies were not in vain; not in vain his absorption in these problems.

Now all the writings in the Nineteenth Century of men like Vischer, Hartmann, Fechner, etc., important and true as they may be, always put the beautiful outside man. But Schiller always studied what went on within the human soul, how the beautiful acts upon it. For that reason, we are moved so deeply and intimately by what he says, and we can read his prose works with delight again and again. It would be a worthy way of celebrating the Schiller anniversary if these writings were published and read far and wide; they would contribute much to deepening the human spirit in an artistic and moral direction. We might also make a selection for purposes of education from his Aesthetic Letters; and a wholly new attitude would come into our pedagogic system. If we are to understand Schiller's plays, we must breathe the fine air of real education that lies in his aesthetic works.

If we want further insight into the way in which Schiller penetrated deeper and deeper into the human heart, we can get in by a study of the — unfortunately uncompleted — Demetrius. This might have become a play than which even Shakespeare could not have written anything more powerful and affecting. Many attempts have been made to complete the work but no one has proved equal to the task.

The wholly tragic conflict — though there is plenty of action, such as that for instance in the Polish Parliament — is centred entirely in the ego; that is the significant thing. We cannot say that our senses, perceptions and feelings are our ego; we are what we are, because the thinking and feeling of the world around us, press upon us. This Demetrius has grown up without himself knowing what his ego is. During a significant action for which he is to be executed, a certain token is found on his person. It appears that the inheritance of the throne of the Czars is his. Everything points in this one direction, and he cannot but believe that he is the heir to the Russian throne. He is thus driven to a definite configuration of the ego; threads, spun without, drive him onward. The movement is victorious; Demetrius develops the character of a Czar. But then, when his ego is concordant with the world around him, he learns that he has been mistaken; he is not the true heir. He is no longer the person as which he had found himself. He stands in the presence of his mother, who honours him; but so strong is the voice of nature that she cannot recognise him as son — while he has become that which he had imagined to himself. He can no longer throw it from himself; yet the preconditions of this ego fall from him.

Here is an infinitely tragic conflict. All is centred on a personality which is drawn with infinite art, and which we may believe “will not lord it over slaves.” The external also was added with all the skill of which only Schiller was capable. Thus Sapieha, Demetrius' opponent, indicates prophetically the character of Demetrius. Here also the symmetry is striven after which is achieved in the Wallenstein. The drama was never finished; death intervened. There is something tragic in Schiller's death; all the hopes that were centred on him found expression in the letters and words of his contemporaries. Deeply affected by the loss of one from whom so much more was hoped, men like W. v. Humboldt, for instance, allowed their feelings to find utterance:


“He was snatched from the world in the ripe maturity of his spiritual powers; there is infinitely much more he might have accomplished. For many years more he might have enjoyed the bliss of poetic creation.”


That is the tone which makes his death tragic — for in the ordinary course of things death does not bear this irrational quality. In such mood Goethe found for his dead friend the following words in his Epilogue to Schiller's Glocke:


Und hinter ihm in wesenlosem Scheme
Lag, was uns alle bändigt, das Gemeine.

Behind him lay in unessential feint
What holds us all in bondage, the common trivial.


This mighty strain of idealism can be seen continuing through the Nineteenth Century. Men began to realise that Schiller's spirit was sublime enough to work as consolation and example to his people in all their struggles.

This continued activity of Schiller's idealism in the spiritual quality of Germany was described effectively by C. Gutzkow in his speech during the Schiller celebrations at Dresden on 10th November 1859:


“Here lies the secret of our love for Schiller. He lifts up our hearts; he gives us courage for action, a never-failing help which the nation finds in every circumstance of its life. Our memories of Schiller arouse in us courage and gladness. Deep, rich, intimate and delightful Goethe may charm us all in his creation which reminds us of home manners and custom, is like ivy which welds itself to the past, sadly and dreamily. But in Schiller everything lies in the future, the waving of flags or crowning with the laurel. For this reason, it is that we celebrate the hundredth anniversary of his name, ringing and echoing like a blow on a shield of bronze. All honour to the poet of action, the bulwark of the German fatherland.”




Last Modified: 02-Dec-2018
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