Storming the Work:
Allegory and Theatricality in Benjamin’s
‘Origin of the German Mourning Play’
IN HIS STUDY of German baroque theater, Origin of the German Mourning Play, Walter Benjamin emphasizes the ostensibly unbridgeable distance that separates the German Trauerspiel from Greek “tragedy.” The latter, he argues, relying primarily upon the work of Franz Rosenzweig and of his friend Florens Christian Rang, articulates the revolt of the “self” against a mythical-polytheistic order whose language it could and would no longer speak. Benjamin thus implicitly defines Greek tragedy as a configuration of silence, consisting not only in the refusal to accept and speak a pagan language but also in a mute prophecy of the coming of a new and different kind of god. The German baroque Trauerspiel, by contrast, emerges at the other end of the historical spectrum announced by (this notion of) Greek tragedy, at a paradoxical historical configuration, characterized, on the one hand, by the hegemony of Christianity in Europe and, on the other, by the threatened implosion of this hegemonic force through the challenge of the Reformation and the devastating wars of religion that followed. The Treuga Dei1 that marked the end of these wars and at the same time accompanied the rise of the modern European political system of nation-states also saw the emergence of a theatrical medium called upon to respond to anxieties that the traditional Christian eschatological narrative had sought to assuage. The following chapter seeks to stage the story of this emergence and of its implications for the cultural significance of a certain theatricality.
In the summer of 1924, as he was completing work on his study of German baroque theater, Benjamin met and fell in love with Asja Lacis, a Latvian woman actively involved in the Russian Revolution and a committed Marxist. In her memoirs, written decades later, she recalls the following incident: