FRIEDRICH SCHILLERfS KABALE UND LIEBE

 

            This play is, of course, gein bürgerliches Trauerspiel.h  It is interesting to compare it with Lillofs George Barnwell, a work whose influence can clearly be seen.  Personally, while accepting that such sentimentality fitted the mood of 1730s England – and the age in which a play is written or a law enforced should always be given due consideration – I find it difficult to stomach Lillofs play.  However, Kabale und Liebe arouses my interest and enthusiasm; the style is certainly outmoded, but it seems perfectly appropriate to the German language.  This language cries out for loud and vehement pronunciation, for teeth-gnashing and wide-mouthed declamation.  This, and the playwrightfs skill, ensure that Schillerfs work ascends to a much higher plain than its immensely popular, but somewhat transpontine, forerunner.  Yet I would not wish to criticise George Barnwell too severely, for it was a pioneering work; it helped, probably more than any other single play, to establish the genre of domestic tragedy; and I find that, on occasions, the first works in new fields have a freshness and vitality which their successors cannot emulate; whereas at other times, they leave considerable scope for improvement (and some works, such as Die Räuber, fall into both categories).  We must also remember that these pioneering works have a tendency to date, whereas bland art remains relatively ageless; we were not around to enjoy the sensation they produced on first appearance.

 

            To return to Kabale und Liebe: in what way is it a tragedy?  Is it a tale of lost love?  Do we look to Ferdinand and Luise?

            I do not think so.  Luise is certainly a tragic figure, and this is emphasised most strongly in her acceptance of the unavoidable – the ultimate heroic gesture, as when Hagen orders the Burgundians to burn their boats in Das Nibelungenlied.  She knows that marriage to Ferdinand is an impossibility.  She may wish for it, she may have dreamed of it – but she knows that it is an eventuality belonging to the world of dreams rather than the real world.  It is refreshing to note that she is a more rounded figure than the stereotyped innocent damsel, e.g. Amalia in Die Räuber.  We learn from our first impressions that she is a pious, studious, devoted daughter (when we first hear of her, we are told she is at mass; when she first appears, she is reading a book; the first word she speaks is gVaterh) – and first impressions are important; in this case, they are confirmed by what follows.  Luise is obviously a practical, intelligent girl; but she is not as intelligent as she seems to think, nor is she unexceptionable.  She regards Wurm as a mere tool, when he is actually the brains behind the machinations; she believes that the head is evil, when it is the heart that causes the tragic events; and during her encounter with Lady Milford, she is proud and arrogant, and seems determined to give herself the gSchein einer Heldinh.  And it is a fact of Art that flawed characters are more interesting than model citizens; nor should there be any moral objections to this, if we consider that the stage, rather than the courtroom, puts human life under the microscope, and the characters presented to view are ourselves with our real faults exaggerated and any potential faults realised.

            Luisefs relationship with her family will be touched upon here and dwelt upon later.  She refuses to elope because she does not wish to have the curse of Ferdinandfs father; she writes the fatal letter for the sake of her family (although there are limits to her self-sacrifice – she is not, for instance, prepared to sleep with the Duke); and, when she tears up her suicide-note, she is placing her father before Ferdinand.

           Ferdinand is in nowise a tragic figure.  He is incapable of renouncing Luise, not because his love is stronger than hers, but because he is such a passionate, unthinking, jealous, selfish character.  He plays the injured lover, complaining of gkalte Pflicht gegen feurige Liebeh; yet his forcible rejection of Milford, as tactless as Nicholas Nicklebyfs rebuttal of Miss Squeers (and the analogy ends there!), does not give proof of any great respect for Love.  Nor does he demonstrate even the most basic awareness of the complexities of his situation; when he talks of gModeh against gMenschheith, he seems to be mistaking order for fashion and confusing passion with love.  He wishes to defy the conventions – and for what?  For his first love.

            His rashness and stupidity – the word naïvety is wasted on him – are amply illustrated in the preconceptions he has formed of Milfordfs character and, much more importantly, in the credit he awards the fateful letter.  It is impossible to believe that he could seriously entertain any suspicion of Luisefs having an affair with, of all people, the Hofmarschall, unless a) this is a mistake on the part of the playwright, a contrivance he has not properly thought through, or b) this is intentional, having the purpose of amplifying Ferdinandfs hot-headed, jealous temperament.  Not being one to sit on the fence, I would incline towards the latter; I think we can give a playwright as accomplished as Schiller the benefit of the doubt.

            A symbolic action of great significance occurs when Ferdinand attempts to play the violin, fails, and breaks it.  He is a man of extremes, an individual (who cannot associate with the court) rather than a lover – how can true love turn to hatred?  How could anyone plan the murder of a loved one?  Yet he does this, having resort to specious and fallacious reasoning in the attempt to justify his conduct.  Rage is, apparently, a great stimulant to Ferdinand – it provokes him to threaten his father with discovery of his secret, and is thus obviously a more powerful motivator than conscience.

            Yet, like Luise, Ferdinand loves his father.  In his fury, he may threaten to reveal all, but he does not attack the Präsident.  A sign of love – and a sign of his selfish nature, for he resembles his father in many ways; not merely in his reluctance to accept responsibility for his deeds, but in his general temperament.  Does the tragedy lie here?  The play does, after all, end with these two – the penitent, forgiving, dying son and the condemned, contented father.  The answer is a resounding no; these characters are simply not sympathetic enough.

            When bearing in mind the similarity between father and son, it is interesting to consider the Präsidentfs view of Luise, succinctly captured in the paraphrasis: eIf she gets pregnant, transport her!f  It may sound like cynicism, but it is much nearer the truth than his sonfs protestations; and would an old Ferdinand not speak in this way?  Yet there is no old Ferdinand, nor will there ever be; he does not lack his fatherfs intelligence – Wurm supplies most of the brains – but he lacks his savoir-faire and experience.  He is unadulterated emotion.

            Although the Präsident possesses the above-mentioned savoir-faire, he does not know how to handle individuals.  His experience is confined to the court, where souls are mechanical and wedding nights cause the bride no physical pain; an environment represented most typically by the Hofmeister, who appears to be more caricature than character until one remembers that one has actually met modern-day equivalents; there actually are people as shallow and superficial as this lisping fop.

            Nor does Wurm, the councillor with something infernal an sich, handle the matter with skill.  He is cunning at making plans, but he is unable to foresee the consequences; the circumstances are mightier than the characters who set the (snow)ball rolling.  The effect of this theatrical device can be either comic – as in The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro – or distinctly tragic, as in Richard III, Hamlet and Don Carlos.[1]  Fate is too powerful for even the wisest; this leads not only to the setting of a moral tone when the wisdom is of a Machiavellian persuasion, but also to surprise, excitement and tension.  It could perhaps be said that the characters suffer in this type of theatre (here I am, of course, thinking of Sturm und Drang rather than Shakespeare); reading the plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles etc., in which the events are already known to the audience and the emphasis is on the playwrightfs treatment of the characters and themes, certainly tends to confirm this view.  But why compare the two?  One approach has the primary purpose of making the audience think, whereas the other aims to make them feel.  Both are equally valid; what matters is the skill with which they are accomplished by the individual playwright.

           Let us examine the question of necessity/ free will/ freedom/ responsibility, so central to Schillerfs work, more closely.  Firstly, the point must be made concerning restrictions on playwrights at the time; Kabale und Liebe was banned from performance in Stuttgart, on the orders of the Duke, and the tyrannical nature of ducal government is seen quite clearly in the play.  Much more could be made of this point, but I am principally interested in intrinsic examination of the text.

            The theme of flight appears throughout, yet those who mention it do not have the conviction to – or have the prudence not to – select it, with the exception Milford.  She chooses to avoid evil; Ferdinand chooses to commit it.  Although the Präsident forces circumstances – both directly, by the dictated letter, and indirectly, by spreading rumours of marriage between Ferdinand and Milford – there is no necessity to commit murder.  This is not a case of cause and effect; it is an example of the random factor, of the selfish and arbitrary acts of a greatly flawed character.  Yet these characters all belong to the upper class, and so, while by no means free, they do at least have some measure of freedom.  Luise, belonging to a completely different social station, does not, as Act 3 Scene 6 demonstrates.  For her, freedom would mean no responsibility, no tears, no duties – and no pleasures.  It is a case of all or nothing – and who would choose the latter?

            Dramatic irony is one of the playwrightfs basic tools for emphasising the subservience of characters to the acts of a higher power – whether divine or human.  The major victim of this device in Kabale und Liebe is Miller, the gplumper gerader teutscher Kerl.h  In the opening scenes, he comes across as very cynical; but he is later proven to have ample grounds for cynicism.  He also appears to be very passionate, even tempestuous; but this is merely his way of showing his love and concern for his daughter.  it is this love which leads him to accept the gold, although he had earlier remarked that he would not sell his daughter.  He also takes Ferdinandfs letter to the Präsident, thus leaving Luise alone with the man she really does not wish to be alone with, telling her, gDu bist allein, und es ist finstre Nacht, meine Tochter.h  And this is the tragedy of the play: Miller and his daughter.  After all, Kabale und Liebe was originally titled Luise Millerin.  But if there are any doubts as to where the tragedy lies, Act 5 Scene 1 will efface them.  All I can say is: read it carefully, and note the silence with which it begins.  This is easily the most moving scene in the play, featuring its two most sympathetic characters; and once Miller has stormed off stage in the final scene, and we are left with Ferdinand and the Präsident, it is difficult to really care whether the two are reconciled or not.

 



[1] The motivator in the last-named work being the unconvincing Posa.  A critic in a national newspaper described this as Schillerfs best play – was he being serious?