Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

The School of Shipwrecks: Improvisation in Wilhelm Meisters Theatralische Sendung and the Lehrjahre

Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

The School of Shipwrecks: Improvisation in Wilhelm Meisters Theatralische Sendung and the Lehrjahre

Article excerpt

GOETHE'S TWENTY-SIX YEAR TENURE as director of the Weimar Theater gives little indication of an interest in improvisational acting. In 1803 he composed a comprehensive list of rules for the aspiring actor which includes guidelines for pronunciation, rhythmic delivery, posture, hand positions, costumes and almost everything else imaginable.1 This "narrow corset"2 with which Goethe girded the actors under his purview is a far cry from the improvisational acting popular in Germany at the beginning of the eighteenth century, before the onset of the theatrical reform spearheaded by Johann Christoph Gottsched and others.3 Given Goethe's programmatic attention to detail as theater director, it comes as some surprise that the first two Wilhelm Meister novels, Wilhelm Meisters Theatralische Sendung (1786) and Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795), reveal a pervasive interest in extemporized acting. In fact, it is fair to say that in the Lehrjahre Wilhelm Meister's early theatrical"career" (i.e., his childhood) is profoundly shaped by an act of involuntary improvisation when, on the spur of the moment, he decides to stage a performance of Ariosto's Jerusalem Delivered. He summons the neighborhood children, assigns the parts and hastily gathers an audience. Despite the good intentions of the young actors, however, the performance is a failed venture:"Verungluckt war die Expedition" (MA 5:29)The children are unfamiliar with the story and have no idea when to speak or even what to say. Wilhelm's performance as Tancred, recited directly from Ariosto's text, provokes laughter from the audience when a lengthy mo no log unwittingly slips into the third person. Only the last-minute decision to perform the well-known story of David and Goliath, with the help of a clownish Hanswurst to compensate for the occasional lapses, keeps the theatrical expedition from shipwrecking completely4 The evening becomes a true exercise in improvisation the moment the children take up a plot with which they are familiar and perform it extemporaneously. The structure of repetition and variation-when a familiar scenario is enacted in such a way as to allow for the contingencies of the moment-is the essence of improvisational theater.

The improvised performance of David and Goliath is indicative of a broader interest in extemporized acting in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre already found in the Theatralische Sendung. References to improvisational theater in the two novels are clearly connected to the theatrical tradition of the commedia dell'arte.this style of acting was familiar to Goethe, who witnessed-and enjoyed-lengthy extemporized pieces during his journey to Italy in 1786. It was also well-known within the eighteenth-century German cultural context: troops of traveling commedia dell'arte performers had been roaming through the continent at least since the sixteenth century5 The references to commedia dell'arte theater in the Wilhelm Meister novels provide a well-established performance model which can elucidate Goethe's idiosyncratic use of improvisation, and they also allow for renewed reflection upon the importance of theater as a potentially "national" product in a time when German lands were fractured politically and linguistically by a multitude of principalities and diverse dialects. The question of a German theater-what guidelines it should follow, and even who is writing for it-runs throughout the eighteenth century and is also a frequent topic of discussion for Wilhelm and his friends. Yet the vast critical scholarship on the Wilhelm Meister novels has in its discussion of a "national theater" preferred to focus on Goethe's Shakespeare reception, references to classical French drama, and the German Volksbuch tradition. Given that improvisation is a central topic in eighteenth-century theatrical reform, it is all the more surprising that the episodes of improvised theater and their connection to the commedia dell'arte tradition have been largely disregarded. …

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