For the final post of Schiller week, I am dressed in my glad rags to relive one of the literary highlights of 2015 – a night out at the German National Theater in Weimar. I determined that one day I would see a play by either Schiller or Goethe performed there.
Once upon a time, i.e 12 October 1798, Goethe was the director of this theatre, then known as the Weimarer Hoftheater, and he premiered Wallenstein’s Camp – the first part of what was to become the Wallenstein trilogy. Schiller has come a long way since his debut, which Goethe hated. In the years since, the two men have become firm friends and mentors. It’s almost 10 years since Schiller wrote Don Carlos. In the meantime Schiller has been Professor of History and Philosophy at Jena, and has written a history of the 30-years war. So he is well-acquainted with his subject – the mass of material, the complex political landscape, the intrigues and his main character, Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein.
Schiller summarised his character thus: Sein Charakter ist niemals edel und doch is er kolossal. (His character is never honourable and yet he’s a colossus.) A quick look at the facts show Wallenstein to be a charismatic man, a gifted and successful commander-in-chief, who inspired loyalty in his troops. But with a troubled relationship with his Emperor, who distrusted him, and whom he did not consider sufficiently grateful. Wallenstein was a man with an ego. This diagnosis is confirmed by the Wallenstein Palace in Prague, which he built to rival Prague Castle, and is so impressive that it is today a fitting home for the Czech State Senate. But lest we forget who built the place, there he is, depicted as Mars, riding high across the skies in the main hall.
Faced with the challenge of distilling this character into theatrical form, Schiller does something extremely clever. He starts the trilogy in the army camp and we come to know Wallenstein through the testimony of his soldiers. Why does he do this? From Schilller’s own prologue:
Not he it is, who on the tragic scene
Will now appear
Whom his command alone could sway, and whom
His spirit fired, you may his shadow see,
Until the bashful Muse shall dare to bring
Himself before you in a living form;
For power it was that bore his heart astray
His Camp, alone, elucidates his crime.
Wallenstein is here at the height of his powers. His soldiers are happy to be under his command because he allows them to run riot over the countryside! Provided they maintain discipline in the ranks, that’s OK by him. He is powerful and unchallenged, except by one. The Emperor Ferdinand who fears Wallenstein may soon have ideas above his station.
Wallenstein does have ideas above his station. This is the half-way point in the 30 years war. The land is ravaged and the people are suffering, Wallenstein is thinking of switching sides. His idea is that this will enforce a truce to the good of all. He is the man who wants to change history. The supreme dramatic irony is that this moment in which he begins to plot against his own emperor is the moment he fails. All that happens from here on in is his inexorable slide to disaster.
Ferdinand discovers the plan and decides to assign half of Wallenstein’s troops to his Spanish generals. This forces Wallenstein’s hand. But he’s in for a nasty shock because the Swedes aren’t going to play the game that Wallenstein has designed. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Wallenstein is forced to retreat to Eger, where he is assassinated with the emperor’s consent.
I’ve restricted myself to the political plot here, although there are other narratives. Wallenstein’s is not the only tragedy. There’s the tragedy of the village folk, pillaged out of existence by Wallenstein’s troops, and the tragic love story of Max Piccolomini, the son of Ferdinand’s spy, Octavio, and Wallenstein’s daughter, Thekla. But holding the whole together is the demise of Wallenstein, from seeming invincibiliity to victim of assassination and why? As Schiller himself says “For power it was that bore his heart astray.”
I read the trilogy in English, translated by James Churchill and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, prior to going to the theatre. It was a wise move. I may be able to read Schiller’s German (with a dictionary) but I certainly couldn’t keep up with 4 1/2 hours of constant dialogue. Anyway, one of my first thoughts was this is impossible to stage. For example: the opening stage direction:
Sutler’s tents – in front, a slop-shop, Soldiers of all colours and uniforms thronging about. Tables all filled. Croats and Hulans cooking at a fire. Sutler-women serving out wine. Soldier-boys throwing dice on a Drum head. Singing heard from the tent.
Got that? So when the curtain opened in Weimar, it revealed a huge white cross lying horizontally across the rest of the stage. Then two bishops climbed onto it to set the religious backdrop; thereafter two soldiers to tell the military history to this point. Unexpected but brilliant in its simplicity and intense from the start. It stayed that way, although I wasn’t too keen on the modern dress. I understand it is to signify the continuing relevance of the themes in today’s world, but, really wouldn’t a audience choosing to attend a 4 1/2 hour Schillerian performance have the intelligence to understand that anyway? One scene will stay with me forever – the scene when Wallenstein meets the Swedish messenger. It was chilling when I read it. It must have been terrifying for Wallenstein to comprehend the size of his miscalculation, and the staging in Weimar was designed to show how the great commander had been reduced to the size of a little fish. (Photos here.)
Schiller may have had a 10-year break from writing drama, but he produced a masterpiece in Wallenstein. Even those fierce critics of his, the early Romantics, were forced to admit its worth.
In unserem Kreis hatte man keine große Neigung, Schiller sehr günstig zu beurteilen; man ließ ihm kaum Gerechtigkeit widerfahren, und dennoch sprach sich der mächtige Eindruck, den das Stück hinterlassen hatte, fast unwillkürlich aus. (Henrik Steffens)
Our circle had no great desire to judge Schiller favourably. We would hardly give him any credit and yet we found ourselves talking unwillingly about the powerful impression the play had made on us. (Trans my own.)