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  • Marriage, Gender, and Desire in Early Enlightenment German Comedy by Edward T. Potter
  • Nicole Calian
Marriage, Gender, and Desire in Early Enlightenment German Comedy. By Edward T. Potter. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012. Pp. 210. Cloth $75.00. ISBN 978-1571135292.

Potter’s study examines how various comedic texts of the mid-eighteenth century—the satirical Saxon comedy, the sentimental comedy, and the pastoral play—were involved in generating “their own symbolic universe, in which marriage functioned differently than it did in the contemporary cultural context” (177). This “contemporary cultural context” is explicated mainly in chapter one through Christoph Gottsched’s aesthetic treatises as well as Johann Fürchtegott Gellert’s university lectures. Chapter one functions as the point of departure as well as the theoretical backdrop against which the other plays are read. The plays are then also read against each other to reveal a disjuncture in the Enlightenment project to morally reform a populace by aesthetic means. The “symbolic universe” in the selected comedies promotes cross-dressing, marriage resisters, and male and female same-sex desire as alternatives to the emerging discourse of the new normative concept of marriage (i.e., marriage based on sentiment, not on economic or social considerations). The comparatively obscure dramatic works limited to the time period of the 1740s navigate relatively unchartered territory, which is always exciting. These plays are: J. C. Gottsched’s Atalanta, C. F. Gellert’s Die zärtlichen Schwestern, J. E. Schlegel’s Der Triumph der guten Frauen, G. E. Lessing’s Der Misogyne (the one-act version of 1748, not the more popular three-act version of 1767), and Th. J. Quistorp’s Der Hypochondrist. The choice of comedies rather than tragedies follows Christian Neuhuber’s assertion that comedies “regularly exhibit a potentially destabilizing self-reflexivity that is not present in tragedies” (22). This presumed self-reflexivity serves Potter as procedural focus when he evaluates the poetics and pedagogical aesthetics of selected comedies in their efficacy to convey moral messages. As such Potter’s study situates itself between the methodological approaches of close reading, performance studies, gender studies, queer studies and most importantly, given his focus on meta-reflexive dramatic commentary, reception aesthetics. The approach preferred by Potter himself however is that of a “densely contextualized close reading” (1). While this leads to a very welcome complete paucity of theoretical jargon, when discussing each of the individual comedic texts it also makes an overarching analysis that would situate these individual readings in their highly connoted contextual discursive practices fall somewhat short.

When these close readings based on theatrical self-reflexivity work well, ambiguous conflations in reader response vs. efficacy of moral reform are revealed: In chapter two, entitled “The Virgin Huntress Tamed: J. C. Gottsched’s Atalanta and the Erasure of Female Autonomy,” Potter shows that on the surface, the threat of the figure of Atalanta as marriage resister is defused by the evocation of the incest taboo. However, the inter-textual reference to the cognitive failure of Atalanta to reflect upon and reform [End Page 163] her marriage resisting ways independent of biological considerations calls into question the very promotion of the institution of marriage based on love. Potter thus concludes that the efficacy of Gottsched’s own stated theoretical project of moral reform via the theater is not fulfilled by his own concurrent literary output. On the other hand, a different level of supposed female freedom is undercut as chapter four, entitled “The Clothes Make the Man: J. E. Schlegel’s Der Triumph der guten Frauen,” lays out. In Schlegel’s play the character of Hilaria engages in the potentially liberating practice of female cross-dressing. This practice, however, does not explicate female same-sex desire. Rather, the construction of gender identity aids in attaining knowledge, which in turn allows for a shift in the balance of power. The aesthetic function of this shift in power serves to entangle Hilaria in a traditional form of marriage, thus limiting her cross-dressing ways. The play not only negates the potential for female same-sex desire, but it also subjugates its female characters into a normative institution of marriage sustained by fundamentally patriarchal structures of power...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2164-8646
Print ISSN
0149-7952
Pages
pp. 163-164
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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