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  • Vondel’s Brothers and the Power of Imagination
  • Stijn Bussels

On April 18, 1641, Joost van den Vondel’s Brothers (Gebroeders) premiered in the new Amsterdam playhouse. It immediately enjoyed great success, being performed more than annually for decades.1 Inspired by the second book of Samuel, it starts with Israel suffering from famine. God reveals that justice has to be done. Years before, David’s predecessor and father-in-law Saul had massacred the Gibeonites. David needs to avenge them, but runs into a moral conflict. He has to choose between his family-in-law and divine justice. After a long period of doubt, David accepts God’s will. Seven male descendants of Saul are delivered to the Gibeonites, who hang them. Because David’s doubts stand at the center of attention, Vondel calls his drama a tragedy (treurspel). Thus he indicates that he will follow the antique dramatic format, which also focuses on the protagonist’s doubt.

Notes by the hand of Vondel giving stage directions for the first series of performances of Brothers have been preserved.2 So Vondel was not only the dramatist, he was also closely involved in the staging of his tragedy. In the seventeenth century this involvement was not rare, but it is rare to have notes survive. Together with the dramatic text, Vondel’s notes give us precious insight into the specific staging. Moreover, the notes show how the tragedy marks a shift in the oeuvre of Vondel, making clear that he did not straightforwardly stage the executions of the descendants of Saul.

The audience was deprived of blunt cruelties, crucial to his previous dramas as well as those of many other theater-makers of his time, such as Vondel’s popular colleague Jan Vos. Brothers introduced another way of using the overwhelming forces of dramatic performance. By [End Page 49] concentrating on the conclusion of the Biblical tragedy, I will show how Vondel experimented with visual and verbal images (e.g., in tableau vivant and vivid description) to urge the theatergoers to imagine themselves in the same difficult situation as David in order to come to a direct and emotional understanding of the Biblical story.

I will relate these findings to the poetical ideas Gerardus Vossius was developing during the same period that Vondel was writing and staging his Biblical tragedy.3 In this period, Vondel maintained very close links with this Amsterdam professor.4 Vossius articulated one of the first modern theories on the effect of dramatic performances. He exceeded the poetical discussions of Aristotle and Horace by combining them with insights from other ancient treatises, such as On the Sublime, most probably written in the first century AD by an anonymous author we traditionally call Longinus.5 This combination brought Vossius to advise against staging abhorrence so as to maximally exploit the theatergoers’ imaginations, urging them to create powerful and long-lasting mental images or phantasiai.

I will first look at the preface to Brothers, where Vondel uses examples from painting to illustrate that the imagination of both the artist/dramatist and the audience is crucial for the emotional effect of an artwork or drama. Second, I discuss the early modern use of phantasia, which includes the creative imagination of the writer. Then I look at Vossius’s use of imagination in relation to his ideas on the effect of theater performance and the resulting restrictions on staging explicit cruelties. Fourth, I focus on Brothers to clarify how Vondel’s theater practice draws on similar principles to maximally encourage the audience’s imagination. I will close this essay with the counterarguments of Jan Vos about realizing strong impressions with the explicit performance of cruelties.

The Imagination of Aeneas and Rubens

In the preface to Brothers, Vondel clarifies his ideas on involving his audience emotionally in the Biblical story of Saul’s descendants by pointing at the imaginations of both the artist and the audience. The dramatist quotes Virgil’s Aeneid (I.462): “Hier beschreit men ‘s werelds zaecken, / Die [End Page 50] den mensch aen ‘t harte raecken” (77–78; Here one weeps for worldly things / That touch man in the heart). Thus he refers to Aeneas looking at...


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