Political Bodies and Bodies Politic: Cultural Identity and the Actor in G. E. Lessing's Hamburg Dramaturgy

Article excerpt

In 1765, the actor Konrad Ernst Ackermann opened a newly constructed theater in Hamburg.

In 1766, Johann Friedrich Lowen took over the directorship of the theater that was subsequently named the Hamburg Nationaltheater.

In 1766, the literary critic and playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) was invited to join the Hamburg Nationaltheater as "official theatre poet."

From 1767 to 1769, Lessing wrote essays for the Hamburgische Dramaturgie, his new literary journal attached to the Hamburg Nationaltheater. In 1769, the Hamburg Nationaltheater closed.

In order to construct a historical narrative for the Hamburg Nationaltheater and Lessing's Hamburg Dramaturgy, one must address the five statements listed above. Given that these events were recorded as having occurred in a particular time and a particular place, one could accord them the status of historical fact and insert them accordingly into the narrative under construction. To do so, however, requires one to address the spaces between the statements. Without contextualization or further elucidation, these statements remain disconnected, disassociated, mysterious; or, in other words, to render these events intelligible within a traditional historical narrative, one must indicate how the statements are related. I would contend, however, that such an operation fails to confer transparency to these events. As experimental enterprises, both the theater and Lessing's journal were in dialogue with a multiplicity of discourses that simultaneously enabled these experiments, interrogated them, and provided them with their contemporary intelligibility. Any present elucidation of these experiments, the material circumstances surrounding their occurrence, and the discourses with which they intersected accords them an intelligibility that can never completely align with that of their time. Ultimately, in any attempt to "make the past speak," something will, in effect, get lost in translation.

Traditionally, the Hamburg Nationaltheater and the Hamburg Dramaturgy have been interpreted by historians who have wished to place these labors within a teleological narrative that explains their existence and function in terms that postdate them. These theatrical endeavors are assigned their identity according to what the historian requires their function to be, according to whichever linear history of progress and development is being written. Thus the theater and its accompanying journal are interpreted as being a move towards a "truly" national theater or a more realistic theatrical style (in those accounts concerned with tracing a development of theater from its origins to its current conditions), a struggle for national identity (by those who see the history of Europe within a narrative of an evolutionary nationalism), or as evidence of the pervasiveness of Enlightenment philosophy (by those invested in illustrating a clear development in Western metaphysics). The Hamburg Nationaltheater and the Hamburg Dramaturgy are therefore classified according to what Michel de Certeau refers to in The Writing of History as historical unities and organizing principles--predetermined temporal, sociopolitical, or cultural units of measurement (the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment, the rise of bourgeois realism). (1) These organizing principles require a mediation by the historian between the theatrical event or document, and its transformation into historical "fact" that can be placed into a particular narrative. Once this transition has occurred, the function of the event or document becomes to lend authenticity to whichever narrative a historian is constructing. The analysis of the event has been determined by the interpretive operation that defined it. In a traditional writing of history, historical facts are what one needs them to be.

The Hamburg Nationaltheater, to take one example, can be defined as an accepted historical fact within the organizing principle of an evolutionary national identity, an epistemological construct that is often used to define both the theater and Lessing's journal. …