- The “Open-Sourced” Hamburg Dramaturgy:A Twenty-first-Century Invitation to Interact with an Eighteenth-Century Work in Progress
This Notes from the Field describes work in progress on a new English edition of G. E. Lessing’s Hamburg Dramaturgy, translated by Wendy Arons and Sara Figal, edited by Natalya Baldyga, and with critical introductions by Arons, Baldyga, and Michael Chemers.
While the eighteenth-century German playwright and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing made numerous contributions to aesthetic theory in his lifetime, the text that most succinctly documents his dramatic theory—and the text that has had the greatest influence on the practice and theory of theatre—is the Hamburg Dramaturgy (Hamburgische Dramaturgie [1767–69]). This collection of short essays represents one of the first sustained critical engagements with the form and function of theatre and its potential to advance humanistic discourse. Due to its theoretical breadth and depth, the Hamburg Dramaturgy maintains an extraordinary relevance for dramaturgs, directors, and arts and humanities scholars who see theatre as a medium for philosophical and political debate, as well as for entertainment.
The problem that our project seeks to address is that the most recent English translation of the Hamburg Dramaturgy is that of Helen Zimmern, which was published as “Dramatic Notes” in the Selected Prose Works of G. E. Lessing by Bohn’s Standard Library in 1890 (and reprinted essentially unaltered by Dover Books in 1962 and 1982). It is a translation that shows its age—the prose can be stultifying to a modern reader. But even more importantly, the extant translation contains substantial edits, reflecting the biases of nineteenth-century scholarship: nineteen of the 101 essays are completely excised, and 30 percent of the remaining essays contain cuts that are sometimes considerable. Although this material may not have been of interest to a nineteenth-century literary critic, its omission prevents the contemporary Anglophone scholar from understanding the complexity of Lessing’s endeavor and the scope of his project. Zimmern’s translation of the thirteenth essay, for example, consists of only one paragraph, entirely omitting Lessing’s criticism of works by playwrights Luise Kulmus Gottsched and Johann Elias Schlegel, as well as his careful description of a striking performance choice made by the leading actress Sophie Hensel. Indeed, the Zimmern edition omits most of Lessing’s discussion of specific acting choices and performance. This material would provide valuable insights into the shifts in eighteenth-century acting styles and their affective potential, and would greatly benefit scholars of aesthetic theory and philosophy who wish to understand the multiple and varied connections among theory, practice, and the formation of national/cultural identity in the eighteenth century. In short, while Lessing’s dramatic theory has long been available to English-language scholars of the German theatre, his contribution to the history of performance theory has not. Our complete translation of the work aims to address that gap.
An additional issue with Zimmern’s translation is that it lacks an editorial apparatus to help guide the reader through Lessing’s work, which is in dialogue with his own earlier writings and that [End Page 145] of the most important theatre theorists of his time. Our edition includes annotations that trace references in the text and link Lessing’s observations on the drama to eighteenth-century plays, playwrights, other dramatic critical writings (including those of his own), international acting theory, and Lessing’s philosophical and theological works. Our editorial apparatus highlights his positioning within multiple fields of Enlightenment inquiry, allowing the modern reader to better understand Lessing’s ideas and the examples he uses to elucidate them.
The fact that Lessing intended the essays of the Hamburg Dramaturgy to appear in serial form has inspired us to consider how our project of translating and annotating the work might engage a twenty-first-century Anglophone readership in an analogous way. The project is under contract for publication with Routledge, which is allowing us to use a web-based process of public peer review to solicit feedback and commentary before print publication. The publishing platform we have chosen—MediaCommons Press—has a feature that allows...