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Marriage, Gender, and Desire in Early Enlightenment Comedy by Edward T. Potter (review)

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 21, 2014
pp. 272-274 | 10.1353/gyr.2014.0005

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Women in drag successfully courting other women, a daughter seeking freedom rather than the confines of marriage, an unfettered huntress living in the wild after shunning unwanted sexual advances from peers, and a closeted youth diagnosed as a hypochondriac and socially shamed into a heterosexual marriage: such marginalized figures might seem more akin to twenty-first-century dramatizations. Strikingly, these “radical” characters already graced the stages of German-speaking lands in the eighteenth century, as Edward T. Potter brilliantly shows in his book Marriage, Gender, and Desire in Early Enlightenment Comedy. Potter convincingly reveals how repressive mechanisms of normalization were already at work in comedies produced during the 1740s, and he insightfully demonstrates the subversive potential of such dramatic personae. These figures resist (textual) erasure even in the face of being subsumed by enlightened poetic practices designed to propagate the burgeoning concept of sentimental marriage.

Through perceptive close readings—framed by well-researched insights into the medical, philosophical, and moral discourses shaping the production of these texts—Potter’s study draws our attention to six lesser-known comedies, all of which once enjoyed considerable popularity on German stages. Two texts by canonical authors, Johann Christoph Gottsched’s Atalanta, oder die bezwungene Sprödigkeit (1741) and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Der Misogyne (1748), are brought into dialogue with Christian Fürchtegott Gellert’s Die zärtlichen Schwestern (1747) and Johann Elias Schlegel’s Der Triumph der guten Frauen (1748), respectively. Potter assertively concludes his monograph with a thought-provoking investigation into the repression of male same-sex desire in Theodor Johann Quistorp’s Der Hypochondrist (1745). Building upon Niklas Luhmann’s Liebe als Passion (1994) and Jutta Greis’s Drama Liebe (1991), Potter investigates how early Enlightenment comedies attempted to concretize the value of sentimental marriage, where love based on mutual respect, compatibility, and free partner choice found preference over purely socioeconomic arrangements. Through an introductory analysis of Hinrich Borkenstein’s Der Bookesbeutel (1742), Potter demonstrates how playwrights utilized comedies as didactic tools for the education of audiences. He engages studies by Christopher Wild and Christian Neuhuber and explores how the theater reforms outlined by Gottsched in his Critische Dichtkunst (1730) morally (mis)informed audiences.

Potter astutely diagnoses the textual erasure of an independent female character in Gottsched’s Atalanta, oder die bezwungene Sprödigkeit via an artificial and alienating anagnorisis at the play’s conclusion. Yet his translation of Sprödigkeit as “aloofness” inadvertently neglects a significant aspect of Gottsched’s play (and its embedded moral lesson): the suppression of uncontrolled sensuality. While the term “frigidity” undoubtedly carries a negative connotation, this translation better underscores that Atalanta fled society because of unwanted advances from philandering shepherds, particularly from Damon, a polyamorous figure who receives only passing attention from Potter. Atalanta’s prudery finds justification in the context of an antisensualist poetics, particularly when pitted against the unbridled lust of Damon. Potter’s unilateral categorization of the play as a sächsische Verlachkomödie overlooks its relevance for the moral education of a specifically female audience, which finds overt expression in Gottsched’s moral weekly, Die vernünftigen Tadlerinnen (1725–26).

Nevertheless, Potter rightly elucidates the differences between comedies that emphasize nonidentifying laughter at character flaws, as proposed in Gottsched’s Dichtkunst, and those that intended the audience to identify with figures that suffer from excessive virtue, as propagated by Gellert’s rührende Lustspiele. He even points to the ascetic aversion to sensuality in Gottsched’s Weltweisheit (1733). Yet more focus on Atalanta as an identificatory didactic tool directed at women would reveal even more parallels to Gellert’s Die zärtlichen Schwestern. Gottsched’s play serves as a warning to female audience members about philanderers driven by an uncontrolled eros, just as Gellert’s comedy lambastes a suitor motivated by financial gain. A more detailed appraisal of Gottsched’s pedagogical desire to “educate” women would add another layer of complexity to Potter’s already full analysis of Atalanta, and it would go nicely with his investigation into male authors (de)forming gender norms via the stage.

Potter goes on to detail the ways in which Schlegel’s Triumph der guten Frauen discredits a tyrannical subordination of women in marriage...



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