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  • Lenz and New Aspects of Opera
  • Bernd Alois Zimmermann
    Translated by Elaine R. Fitz Gibbon (bio) and Emily Richmond Pollock (bio)

During the winter of 1774–75, Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz wrote The Soldiers [Die Soldaten], the play that, as he described in a letter to Herder, had “taken half his being.”1 The truth of this was to be verified in his bitter fate, and as the only Sturm und Drang author to have lived out their oft-repeated phrase, “I will sink down and be extinguished in smoke and steam,”2 he may well have had some foreboding apprehension of his future.

The plot of Die Soldaten, its fable: nothing special. A pretty, middle-class girl falls in love with an officer of rank, abandons her middle-class fiancé, and sinks, herself abandoned, tier by tier until she is driven onto the streets by circumstances that entrap her, step by step, in their complexity. The corrupted Bürgermädchen, the hedonism of a class, her seduction—all of this was taken from the prop box of “Sturm und Drang.”

However, this language! On one hand, absurd to the point of ugliness, tattered, burned out; on the other, enchantingly lyrical restraint and radiant interference, simultaneously murky and crystalline—and that archetypal situation that is driven forward, concentrically spiraling between opposite poles, shooting at a relentlessly increasing pace toward the center and end point; this is unprecedented in the power of the characterization and the poetic language, as well as in the manipulation of the dramaturgical medium: an astounding anticipation of the techniques and methods of representation that had seemed reserved first for Expressionism.

“Because—and at this Because you are perhaps already impatient—the ability to imitate, what all animals possess already at birth, is—not the mechanical—not an echo—not, to spare breath, what our poets do. The true poet does not combine in his imagination, according to his whim, what gentlemen like to call beautiful nature, but which is, with your permission, nothing but failed nature. He takes a stance—and must then, from this point, combine accordingly.”3

That was written by a man scarcely twenty years old: Lenz in his “Notes on the Theater” [“Anmerkungen übers Theater”] (written between 1771 and 1773, before the appearance of Götz von Berlichingen).4

How strange the seemingly incoherent sentence structure of the “Notes” must have appeared to the public in Strasbourg, to whom Lenz gave a reading of his text, along with his rejection of Aristotle’s “so dreadful, lamentably famous nonsense of the three unities.”5 [End Page 135]

“And what then are the names of three unities, my dears?” he asked. “Is it not the one, for which we search in all objects of the intellect, the one that gives us the viewpoint from which we can grasp and survey the whole? What are the names of the three unities? I will name you a hundred unities, all of which, however, will forever remain the one, unity of language, unity of religion, unity of morals—indeed, what then comes of this?? Always the same, always and eternally the same.”6

Unity of the inner dramatic action: that is, in a certain sense, the geometric locus, the germ cell from which all of the phases and stations of action, the characters, the entire theatrical phenomenon unfold. Here lies the fundamental idea of Lenz’s dramatic conception: the derivation of manifold events from one precise unity, which unfold and unfurl and may express themselves either successively or simultaneously.

“Our soul is a thing whose workings are, like the body’s, successive, one after another. How this came to be is—so much is certain—that our soul yearns with its entire being to neither perceive nor desire successively. With one glance we would like to bore through the inner nature of all creatures, with a single sensation absorb all ecstasy that exists in nature and unite it with ourselves.”7

The idea regarding the unity of the inner dramatic action became decisive for the Lenzian dramatic poem.

The three classical unities (of action, place, and time) were consequently negated. Many plots were layered over one another...


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pp. 135-139
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