Essays in German and Comparative Literature

By Oskar Seidlin | Go to book overview

GOEHTE'S IPHIGENIA AND THE HUMANE ADEAL*

Early in 1802, fully fifteen years after the completion of Goethe Iphigenia in Tauris, the theater of Weimar prepared the play's first performance in the city which, since 1775, had been Goethe's home and, by being Goethe's home, was to become a shrine to the human urge for veneration. Goethe, at that time the artistic head of the ducal theater, showed himself rather uncoöperative and diffident during the preparation of this, one of his greatest plays, for the stage. He left the whole business of scene arrangements, of cutting, and revising in the hands of his trusted friend Schiller, and displayed the attitude of a more or less bored bystander. Indeed, it is quite understandable that, after his long and burdensome experience as the manager of the ducal theater, he was loathe to become too deeply involved in the mechanical matters of play production when one of his own works was placed on the repertoire. Indeed, we know how reluctant he was all through his life to face a past manifestation of his development, a skin which he had shed, to relive the agonies from which an earlier work had sprung; and agonies, the fearful pains of a tormented heart, are the subsoil from which his Iphigenia had grown, as they are so often the subsoil of his works which he himself, in his autobiography, called "but fragments of one great confession." Yet in his correspondence with Schiller in which he discusses the forthcoming stage production, he makes hardly any mention of either the technical or the emotionally personal considerations which may have prevented him from playing a more active part in revising his drama for the theater. However, in one of his letters to Schiller ( January 19, 1802) we are struck by a rather curious remark. It is here that Goethe calls his Iphigenia "ganz verteufelt human" ("quite damnably humane.")

"Quite damnably humane"--What does he mean by that? We can hardly believe that he wanted to repudiate the very basis upon which his Iphigenia was built: the extremely noble conception of a humane idealism which nowhere in German letters has found so stirring and so magnificent an expression as in this play. Yet it might be possible that, when using these strange words, he was anticipating the criticism of a new

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*
Public address delivered at the University of Washington, Seattle, within the series of Goethe lectures in 1949.

-30-

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