Posts Tagged ‘German Plays’

I wanted to read a Schiller play for Schiller Week which is part of this year’s German Literature Month. I had read Schiller’s masterpiece ‘The Robbers’ last year. When I asked Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, who is hosting Schiller Week, on which other Schiller play she would recommend, she suggested ‘Mary Stuart’. I finished reading it in a couple of sittings. Here is what I think.


Before I get into what I think about ‘Mary Stuart’, here are a couple of links. Lizzy wrote a wonderful introduction to Schiller and his work. She also wrote a wonderful review of his play ‘The Robbers’. (My own review of ‘The Robbers’ is here.) You can also find Lizzy’s post on Nonfiction resources on Schiller here.


‘Mary Stuart’ is about Mary, Queen of Scots. I have always had a soft corner for Queen Mary and for Bonnie Prince Charlie and so was excited to read this play. Schiller’s play covers the final days of Mary, after she is imprisoned in the castle of Fotheringay by Queen Elizabeth. The case against her has been heard by the court, she is not allowed a lawyer but is asked to defend herself and the verdict is awaited. The Queen’s people come daily into her apartments, conduct searches and take away any valuables she might have, as they suspect that Mary might use that for paying her trusted friends who are engaged in further plotting to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Mary is alone and depressed and feels that the world has forsaken her. She is accompanied by her loyal nurse Hannah Kennedy. The story unfolds from here. The court gives its verdict. Mary is pronounced guilty of acting against Queen Elizabeth. Only the sentence is awaited. It could be either life imprisonment or death. Mary and Elizabeth, eventhough they are related, have never met. Mary wants to meet the Queen. She writes a letter and gives it to her caretaker, Sir Amias Paulet, asking him to give it to the Queen. Meanwhile the Queen’s advisor, Lord Burleigh, presses the Queen to finalize the sentence against Mary. He says that as long as Queen Mary is alive, Elizabeth can never feel safe. And Mary’s friends will continue plotting to put her in the throne of England. As he puts it – “Her life is death to thee, her death thy life.”  Other advisors of Queen Elizabeth feel differently though. They feel that the Queen should show her big heart and pardon Mary. While this stuff is going on, we discover that Mary has friends in unexpected quarters. Lord Burleigh’s suspicions soon turn out to be true – even Elizabeth’s inner circle is not trustworthy.


So what happens next? Does Mary get the chance to meet Elizabeth? If she does, how does the conversation go? What does Elizabeth decide? And what do Mary’s friends do? Are they able to save her and dethrone Elizabeth? Well, we know what happened in history – Mary died and Elizabeth turned out to be one of the great queens of England. Schiller’s play shows his version of what happened.

I liked ‘Mary Stuart’ very much. It helps if one knows the history of the time – one can appreciate Schiller’s play better – but even if your knowledge of history is sketchy like mine, this play is still wonderful to read. I loved the depiction of the two queens, Mary and Elizabeth and how they struggle with the two opposing parts of their personalities, one part which urges them to hate each other while the other urges them to be nice to each other. There are a few surprises in the story – we don’t know who can be trusted and who can’t – Mary finds friends in unexpected places while Elizabeth finds traitors in her inner circle and there is one Janus-faced character, who is good and bad in equal measure.

I don’t know whether it was Schiller’s original prose in German or whether it was Joseph Mellish’s translation, but the prose felt almost Shakespearean. It was a pleasure to read. For example, these lines :

This made me think of that line from ‘King Lear’ ‘Sorrow doesn’t come single, but in battalions’.


   Oh, no, my gracious queen;—they stop not there:

   Oppression will not be content to do

   Its work by halves:

And this one made me think – ‘What sinister form her sister’s love can take.’


   I never lift the goblet to my lips     

   Without an inward shuddering, lest the draught

   May have been mingled by my sister’s love.

This one made me think.


              But can appearances

   Disturb your conscience where the cause is just?



   You are unpractised in the world, sir knight;

   What we appear, is subject to the judgment

   Of all mankind, and what we are, of no man.

And this one made me smile.


   I see you, sir, exhibit at this court

   Two different aspects; one of them must be

   A borrowed one; but which of them is real?

I have read two of Schiller’s plays now and liked both of them. I can’t wait to read a third one soon.

Have you read Schiller’s ‘Mary Stuart’? What do you think about it?


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‘The Robbers’ by Friedrich Schiller was first published in 1781. Is it the earliest German book that I have ever read? Possibly. I first got to know about it when I read the book ‘German Literature : A Very Short Introduction’ by Nicholas Boyle. This is what Boyle says about Schiller’s play : 

“a rebellious schoolboy in Stuttgart, Friedrich Schiller, began drafting the definitive treatment of the theme, his first play, ‘The Robbers’, which took the reading public by storm on its publication in 1781, and reduced its audience to sobs and swoons when it was first performed the following year.” 

“A modern, international audience can still be gripped by the story of Karl and his band, a prescient analysis of the logic of self-righteous terrorism in a moral void. The huge success of the play in Germany in its own time and subsequently was no doubt due to the ferocity with which it dramatized the conflict between the two value systems available to the middle class in its struggle against princely rule – self-interested materialism or university-educated idealism – while it left prudently unassailed the structure of power itself.” 

“…Schiller focussed, with the penetrating clarity of a born dramatist, on the political and moral fault-lines in his contemporary society. With ‘The Robbers’ an independent modern German literary tradition begins.”

How can you resist a description like that? Since I read that, I have wanted to read ‘The Robbers’. I managed to squeeze it in yesterday, on the last day of this year’s German Literature Month. Here is what I think.

The Robbers By Friedrich Schiller

‘The Robbers’ is about two brothers Karl and Franz. Karl is the eldest son and so is the natural heir to his father’s estates. Their father loves Karl. Everyone does. Karl is also engaged to a beautiful woman called Amalia. Franz resents this. He resents everything that Karl has, but which he desires. He covets his father’s name and estates. He wants to win the hand of Amalia. So, he plots against Karl. Karl himself seems to aid that venture. While he is away from home, he gets into debt and runs away from the law. Franz uses that and convinces his father to disinherit Karl. Karl has plans of coming back home and hopes that his father will forgive him for his indiscretions. But when he receives the letter from his brother Franz stating that his father has disinherited him, he is hurt and angry. And before he knows what he is doing, he joins with his companions and starts a band of robbers and becomes a fugitive who is hunted by the law. Franz meanwhile continues with his nefarious plots – he wants his father, the elderly Count, to die, so that he can take over the estates, but the Count, eventhough feeble, has a sound constitution. Using psychological threats and false news that his son Karl has died in a battle, Franz upsets the Count immeasurably that the Count dies in a shock. Franz takes over his father’s name and estates. The household staff serves him loyally. However, his plans to win Amalia come to naught. Amalia spurns his advances and decides to be faithful to her supposedly dead fiancé Karl. Meanwhile, Karl, as the head of his band of robbers, has adventures that robbers have. He saves one of his band members from near certain death and while saving him, burns down the whole town. Karl, though he is a robber, is noble. He doesn’t want any money for himself and helps poor people in need. He is a robber – he kills, he burns – but he is also kind. One day he hears some news about Amalia and comes to his father’s castle in disguise. There he discovers the truth about how Franz was responsible for his father’s death and how Franz usurped his rightful inheritance. Karl is wild with anger

What happens next? Does Karl exact revenge? What happens to Franz? Does he reach the end that is reserved for all villains? Do Karl and Amalia get married? What happens to the band of robbers? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.


There were many things that I liked about ‘The Robbers’. The first thing I liked was the way the characters of Karl and Franz were portrayed. Karl, though he is the noble hero, is also a robber. Schiller doesn’t shy away from portraying that part of Karl’s personality. Karl robs people, kills them, burns houses and towns. Schiller doesn’t condone that. So, we see two sides of Karl – the noble kind side and the ruthless robber side. Karl is not a traditional, hero, but a complex character. Franz, the villain, is quite complex too. He is an atheist and a materialist. Though I didn’t like him much – it is hard to like a villain – I loved many of the lines that he spoke. They were insightful and profound. My favourite lines were a soliloquy by him : 

Francis (soliloquy) : “…he is thy father! He gave thee life, thou art his flesh and blood – and therefore he must be sacred to thee! Again a most inconsequential deduction! I should like to know why he begot me; certainly not out of love for me – for I must first have existed.”

“Could he know me before I had being, or did he think of me during my begetting? Or did he wish for me at the moment? Did he know what I should be? If so I would not advise him to acknowledge it or I should pay him off for his feat. Am I to be thankful to him that I am a man? As little as I should have had a right to blame him if he had made me a woman. Can I acknowledge an affection which is not based on any personal regard? Could personal regard be present before the existence of its object? In what, then consists the sacredness of paternity?”

“Is it in the act itself out of which existence arose? As though this were aught else than an animal process to appease animal desires. Or does it lie, perhaps, in the result of this act, which is nothing more after all than one of iron necessity, and which men would gladly dispense with, were it not at the cost of flesh and blood? Do I then owe him thanks for his affection? Why, what is it but a piece of vanity, the besetting sin of the artist who admires his own works, however hideous they may be? Look you, this is the whole juggle wrapped up in a mystic veil to work on our fears. And, shall I, too be fooled like an infant?”

It made me remember those famous lines from ‘Paradise Lost’ which Mary Shelley quotes in the first pages of ‘Frankenstein’“Did I request thee maker, from my clay, to mould me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?”

Franz was a villain, but he was also intelligent, smart and philosophical, like the best of them are. 

The next passage is probably spoiler-ish, and so if you are planning to read the play, please be sufficiently forewarned. 

One more thing I liked about the story was the internal conflict that Karl undergoes towards the end of the story, when he has to choose between his band of robbers who have sworn loyalty to him and his sweetheart Amalia. I have seen this scene in countless movies, but I think Schiller probably was the first to write this scene. So three cheers to him. 

There were two surprises at the end of the story. One of them was unexpected but in a nice way. The second one was also unexpected but it was not-so-nice and I felt that it was not required. It just had shock value and I was upset with Schiller for doing that – upset in the way an anonymous twenty-first century reader can be upset at a legendary German playwright who lived more than two hundred years earlier, an affectionate anger which stretches across time and the centuries.

The ending of the story is interesting – not the regular good-guys-win-and-the-bad-guys-die kind of ending, but one which is more complex than that. 

One word on the translation. One of the things I hated about the translation I read was that Karl was called ‘Charles’ and Franz was called ‘Francis’. Really? Is that anglification of characters’ names really necessary? What were you thinking, my dear Mr.Translator?? 

I enjoyed reading ‘The Robbers’. I am happy that I have finally been able to read one of the great landmark plays of German literature. By that born dramatist of penetrating clarity, Friedrich Schiller 🙂 I would like to read some of his poems and his essays on aesthetics some day. 

I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the play. This one is spoken by Karl to Schwarz, one of his robber companions. 

Karl (to Schwarz) : “Why should man prosper in that which he has in common with the ant, while he fails in that which places him on a level with the gods. Or is this the aim and limit of his destiny?” 

“Brother, I have looked at men, their insect cares and their giant projects, – their god-like plans and mouse-like occupations, their intensely eager race after happiness – one trusting to the fleetness of his horse, – another to the nose of his ass, – a third to his own legs; this checkered lottery of life, in which so many stake their innocence and their leaven to snatch a prize, and, – blanks are all they draw – for they find, too late, that there was no prize in the wheel. It is a drama, brother, enough to bring tears into your eyes, while it shakes your side with laughter.”


Have you read Schiller’s ‘The Robbers’? What do you think about it?

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I wanted to read a play for German Literature Month, and after a little bit of deliberation, I decided on Arthur Schnitzler’s ‘La Ronde’.

La Ronde By Arthur Schnitzler

So, what is ‘La Ronde’ about? Like any self-respecting Arthur Schnitzler story, it is about adultery and sex. Or as Suzanne Vega describes her album of love songs – it is about attraction, flirtation and confrontation. There are ten scenes in the story and each of them features two characters, who are attracted towards each other, flirt with each other and end up in bed with each other. A character from the first scene takes part in the second scene with another character and this continues till the last scene where a character from the ninth scene spends time with a character from the first scene, thus rounding things off and proving that the world is round and it all comes back to the beginning. Hence the title ‘La Ronde’. The characters in the play are all from different parts of society and so the play, in some ways, highlights the sexual mores of people from different parts of society of that era. The play was first published in 1900, and the content is pretty explicit for its time (one of the characters talks to his partner about why he is not able to get an erection and satisfy her). Schnitzler clearly seems to have tempted fate and flirted with the censors here – no wonder the play was banned for many decades after it was first published.

Looking at it from today’s perspective though, I found that the play, though it must have created lots of controversy during its time and raised a lot of hue and cry from critics, didn’t really move me much. Most of the play had flirty dialogue, which I didn’t really love that much. Maybe because the play doesn’t really work when it is read, but is better when it is performed. It didn’t have the beauty that my favourite short story of Schnitzler had – ‘The Dead are Silent’. I liked parts of one of the conversations though – the conversation between a count and an actress. Here is how it went.

COUNT: Just as I imagined: you’re a misanthropist. It’s bound to happen with artists. Moving in that more exalted sphere. Well, it’s all right for you, at least you know why you’re alive.

ACTRESS:  Who told you that? I haven’t the remotest idea why I’m alive!

COUNT:     Not really, Fräulein . . . famous . . . celebrated

ACTRESS:  Is that-happiness?

COUNT: Happiness? Happiness doesn’t exist. None of the things people chatter about really exist. . . . Love, for instance. It’s the same with love.

ACTRESS:  You may be right there.

COUNT:     Enjoyment . . . intoxication . . . there’s nothing wrong with them, they’re real. I enjoy something, all right, and I know I enjoy it. Or I’m intoxicated, all right. That’s real too. And when it’s over, it’s over, that’s all.

ACTRESS (grandly): It’s over!

COUNT:     But as soon as you don’t-I don’t quite know how to say it-as soon as you stop living for the present moment, as soon as you think of later on or earlier on . . . Well, the whole thing collapses. “Later on” is sad, and “earlier on” is uncertain, in short, you just get mixed up. Don’t you think so?

ACTRESS (nods, her eyes very wide open): You pluck out the heart of the mystery, my dear Count.

COUNT: And you see, Fräulein, once you’re clear about that, it doesn’t matter if you live in Vienna or on the Hungarian plains or in the tiny town of Steinamanger.

I have one of the movie versions of Schnitzler’s play called ‘360’ directed by Fernando Meirelles. I hope to watch it tomorrow. I can then tell whether the play works better when it is performed.


Have you read Arthur Schnitzler’s ‘La Ronde’ or seen it performed in the theatre or seen any of the film adaptations? What do you think about it?

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