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Corporeal Eloquence and Sensate Cognition: G. E. Lessing, Acting Theory, and Properly Feeling Bodies in Eighteenth-Century Germany

  • Natalya Baldyga

Most know Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–81) for his dramatic theory, specifically that which is found in his periodical the Hamburg Dramaturgy (1767–69), a collection of 101 essays that has since earned Lessing the moniker of “the first dramaturg.” Many are also familiar with Lessing's major plays, Miss Sara Sampson (1755), Minna von Barnhelm (1767), Emilia Galotti (1772), and Nathan the Wise (1779). Fewer, however, may be familiar with his acting theory and his long association with actors, an association that began in his college years and which so disturbed Lessing's father that the respectable pastor lured the wayward student home by falsely claiming that Lessing's mother was ill. During his time as a university student in Leipzig, Lessing translated plays for the troupe of Karoline Neuber (1697–1760) and socialized with the company's actors; over time he would continue to accrue significant firsthand knowledge of actors and the art of acting, not only through his frequent theatregoing but also through the coaching of his own plays. Lessing's familiarity with actors and acting informs both his performance and dramatic theory, including that which one finds in the Hamburg Dramaturgy; in Anglophone studies of Lessing's journal, however, one infrequently sees Lessing's dramatic theory placed in conversation with his acting theory, reception theory, or performance reviews. Due to the short and contentious life of the Hamburg National Theatre, the experimental theatre project to which the Hamburg Dramaturgy was ostensibly attached, historical narratives more often focus on Lessing's strained relations with the actors of the Hamburg acting company. If one views Lessing's writing about performance solely in terms of a frustrated critic's attempts to rein in “unruly” actors, however, one loses sight of how Lessing's acting theory supports his wider ideas about the form and function of theatre and about how the Hamburg Dramaturgy and the Hamburg theatre experiment might function as a force for social change.

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1. “Wir haben Schauspieler, aber keine Schauspielkunst.” See Essays 101–4 (combined) in the Hamburg Dramaturgy. Lessing assigns the date of “19 April 1768” to this essay, but it was in fact published in 1769. English translations of the Hamburg Dramaturgy are by Wendy Arons and Sara Figal, whose translation, edited by Natalya Baldyga, is available through MediaCommons Press ( Translations of other texts are my own, unless otherwise indicated.

2. See Nisbet, Hugh Barr, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: His Life, Works, and Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 39. Nisbet's definitive biography is the go-to source for details of Lessing's life and works.

3. Notable exceptions are found in the work of Thomas Martinec and Karen Jürs-Munby. Important German studies include those of Wolfgang Bender, Alexander Košenina, Erika Fischer-Lichte, and Jörg Schönert. See also the work of Dorothea E. von Mücke.

4. Lessing's essays address only the first fourteen weeks that the theatre was open, from 22 April to 28 July 1767, covering less than a third of the plays performed by the company.

5. Ekhof's “academy” was not an acting school proper, but rather a series of lessons and lectures for members of the acting company to which he belonged.

6. Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, Beyträge zur Historie und Aufnahme des Theaters, in Werke und Briefe, vol. 1: 1743–1750, ed. Stenzel, Jürgen (Frankfurt am Main: DKV, 1989): 723934 ; quote at 730.

7. “[T]he art of the actor is transitory in its effects. His good and bad moments of performance rush past with equal speed, and often the momentary mood of the spectator is more responsible than the actor himself for why the good or the bad left the more vivid impression.” Lessing, “Preface to the ‘Hamburg Dramaturgy,’” in the Hamburg Dramaturgy.

8. Within an eighteenth-century context, the sentimental theatre was that which engaged the human faculties of “sensibility” (generally speaking, this implies one's capacity to feel emotion, and especially compassion) and “sentiments” (impressions of emotion examined through reason) as a means of moral improvement.

9. The dangers of theatrical emotion, according to antitheatricalists dating back to Plato, include the potential overstimulation of spectators’ emotions and the possibility that spectators could be “infected” by onstage emotions, arguments that Jean-Jacques Rousseau employs in his Letter to D'Alembert on the Theatre (Lettre a M. d'Alembert sur les spectacles; 1758).

10. Some, such as Diderot, would reverse their original positions; Lessing would not have read his Paradoxe sur le comédien (written 1773–7 and published posthumously in 1830), which privileges the “unfeeling” actor of “equal aptitude” (égale aptitude).

11. Whereas Joseph Roach in The Player's Passion (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985) traces a shift over the course of the century from a mechanical approach to acting to one founded on sensibility, this essay focuses on the midcentury overlap between these approaches. Whether stressing understanding, empathy, or imitation, all eighteenth-century approaches insisted on the need for regulation.

12. The list of works employed by Lessing is extensive; it includes the seminal Pratique du théâtre (1657) by François Hédelin, the Abbé d'Aubignac, and Diderot's Lettre sur les sourds et muets (1751), as well as his plays Le Fils naturel (1757) and Le Père de famille (1758), translated by Lessing with the accompanying Entretiens and Discours sur la poésie dramatique.

13. Evander, father of the titular Olint, was played by Konrad Ekhof.

14. See Werke und Briefe, 1: 711–21.

15. “Des Pantomimes” is a chapter in Du Bos's Dissertation sur les représentations théâtrales des anciens (Inquiry into the Theatrical Entertainments of the Ancients), which Lessing translated in 1755.

16. Lessing, , “Der Schauspieler,” in Werke und Briefe, vol. 3: Werke 1754–1757, ed. Wiedemann, Conrad, with Barner, Wilfried and Stenzel, Jürgen (Frankfurt am Main: DKV, 2003): 320–7.

17. Lessing, Die Schauspielkunst, in Werke und Briefe, 1: 884–934. Antoine-François Riccoboni was the son of the famous actor, author, and company manager Luigi Riccoboni.

18. Riccoboni, François, L'Art du théâtre (1750; reprint, Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1971), 36.

19. Ibid., 4–5. By gesture, Riccoboni explains, he means not only the movements of the arms, but also the actor's harmonious coordination of his entire body, a statement that Lessing echoes in his plan for “Der Schauspieler.”

20. Hill, Aaron, “An Essay on the Art of Acting,” in The Works of the Late Aaron Hill, Esq., 4 vols. (London, 1753), 4: 355414 , at 361.

21. The search for a codified scientific register of human emotions extends beyond the eighteenth century; in the nineteenth century, Darwin would seek to identify universal signs of emotion, and the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries have also revisited the issue, through the work of psychologists such as Paul Ekman and Carroll Izard.

22. Hogarth, William, The Analysis of Beauty (1753; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), 136.

23. Ibid., 138.

24. “Universality” was the lynchpin of much eighteenth-century dramatic theory. Diderot, for example, grounds his revolutionary discourse of aesthetics on the statement that “the universal order of things must always be the basis of poetic reason.” See Diderot, Denis, Entretiens sur “Le Fils naturel” in Oeuvres esthétiques, ed. Vernière, Paul (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1965), 77175 , at 161.

25. Translated into English (or, more accurately, adapted) by Williams, John as A Method to Learn to Design the Passions (London, 1734).

26. With this system of hand gestures, Lessing writes, the actor provided perfect clarity in the natural language of physical expression through the precision of his “hand speech” (Händesprache).

27. Lessing's use of the term “gestus” in the third and fourth essays of the Hamburg Dramaturgy recalls the definition of gesture as “the external movements and disposition of the body,” by French philosopher Charles Batteux, whose work Lessing reviewed. “Les Mouvements extérieurs & les attitudes du corps”; Batteux, Charles, Les Beaux-Arts réduits à un même principe (Paris: Durand, 1746), 253 .

28. Acting theorists, and especially externalists, struggled with the idea that the representation of emotion could be feigned, as this undermined the moral mission of the sentimental theatre.

29. Riccoboni, 36.

30. See Jürs-Munby, Karen, “Hanswurst and Herr Ich: Subjection and Abjection in the Enlightenment Censorship of the Comic Figure,New Theatre Quarterly 23.2 (2007): 124–35.

31. See also Riccoboni, 5.

32. Lessing's “Portebras” is most likely his own version of the French ballet term port de bras, which refers to the carriage and movement of the dancer's arms.

33. Essay 4. Lessing in fact provided a preface for the second German edition of Hogarth's aesthetic treatise, The Analysis of Beauty (Zergliederung der Schönheit, 1754), which briefly addresses stage movement.

34. Two of the words that Lessing ascribes most to “natural” femininity are “tender” and “modest,” as is reflected in his praise of Hensel's performance. Notable studies of gendered performance in the early German theatre include those of Wendy Arons, Mary Helen Dupree, Susanne Kord, and Karen Jürs-Munby.

35. In the Hamburg Dramaturgy, Lessing portrays strength and tenderness as the key emotional qualities of German bourgeois masculinity, not only through model characters, but also through the valorization of Ekhof's performance, which employed a new “natural” acting style (departing from French neoclassicism and Francophile values).

36. Hill, John, The Actor; or, A Treatise on the Art of Playing (1755; reprint, New York: Benjamin Blom, 1972), 92. The Actor, a translation/adaptation of the revised edition of Pierre Remond Sainte-Albine's Le Comédien (1747; enlarged and corrected, 1749), was originally published anonymously in 1750. The 1755 revision was so heavily adapted that it constitutes its own work; it was subsequently translated by Antoine Fabio Sticotti into French as Garrick; ou, Les Acteurs Anglois (1769), and reviewed by Diderot in 1770, providing the first sketch of his Paradoxe.

37. John Hill, for example, advises that the actor strengthen his sensibility by reading heroic poetry out loud (particularly Milton's Paradise Lost), to practice abandoning himself to his emotions and freely expressing them. J. Hill, 96–7.

38. See Sainte-Albine, , Le Comédien (reprint of 1749 rev. ed., Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1971), 91–2.

39. See Descartes, René, “The Passions of the Soul,” in Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. Cottingham, John, Stoothoff, Robert, and Murdoch, Dugald (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 218–38.

40. Aaron Hill writes in 1753: “The first dramatic principle … is the following: To act a passion, well, the actor never must attempt its imitation, ’till his fancy has conceived so strong an image, or idea, of it, as to move the same impressive springs within his mind, which form that passion, when ’tis undesigned, and natural.” A. Hill, 355.

41. John Hill's rendition: “It will be said, that imitation will supply the place of understanding, and that having observed in what manner another pronounces any sentence, the performer may give it utterance in the same cadence; … Too many players are of this opinion; but … it is reducing that to a mechanical art which was intended to exert all the force of genius; but as it is contemptible, it is also imperfect.” J. Hill, 21.

42. Ibid., 97–9.

43. Those upholding the importance of the actor's own emotional experience argued that the spectator's soul was too discriminating to be fooled by a display of inauthentic emotion, and insisted that an actor who merely imitated the physiological process of emotional stimulation could not generate a sympathetic physiological response in the body of the spectator, regardless of the quality of the actor's imitation.

44. Lessing published a detailed description of Le Comédien in 1754 in his Theatrical Library (Theatralische Bibliothek). See Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, “Auszug aus dem Schauspieler des Herrn Remond von Sainte Albine” (Excerpt from Le Comédien by Mr. Remond Sainte-Albine), in Werke und Briefe, 3: 304–11.

45. Lessing, for example, celebrates David Garrick “protean” capabilities, much as Sainte-Albine's emphasizes the actor's ability to experience all the “diverse passions to which man is susceptible” (see Essay 7, and Sainte-Albine, 32).

46. Lessing, “Auszug aus dem Schauspieler,” 310.

47. Ibid., 309–10.

48. Ibid., 310.

49. Lessing also suggests in Essay 2 that, “He who is so offended by a beginner or some substitute in a minor role that he turns up his nose at the whole thing should travel to Utopia and visit the perfect theater there, where even the candlesnuffer is a Garrick.”

50. J. Hill, 232; and Lessing, “Auszug aus dem Schauspieler,” 310.

51. Lessing, “Auszug aus dem Schauspieler,” 310.

52. See Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Treatise on the Soul, in “Machine Man” and Other Writings, ed. and trans. Thomson, Ann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 4173 , quote at 73. The soul, in La Mettrie's model, lacks the metaphysical qualities ascribed to it by Descartes; it is only an aspect of the brain that perceives ideas coming to it by means of the sense. Both the soul and its passions, therefore, are a function of the body, from which the mind and its ideas are not divisible.

53. Another echo of Riccoboni, who suggests that it is the perfect illusion of emotion that gives the impression of its existence to spectators and causes them to imagine that the actor is feeling what he represents. Riccoboni, 36–7.

54. “Aesthetica … est scientia cognitionis sensitivae”; Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb, Theoretische Ästhetik (1750/58), trans. and ed. Schweizer, Hans Rudolf (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1988), 2.

55. See, for example, in Essay 3, where Lessing describes the proper delivery of moral truisms.

56. Lessing, “Auszug aus dem Schauspieler,” 310.

57. The eighteenth-century epistemological framework of natural signs was used broadly. Thinkers of all disciplines invoked a discourse of the natural to interpret the expressions of the human body and to posit certain emotional reactions and readings of emotions as natural to all human beings. In Essay 4, Lessing argues that the hands of Roman actors served as “natural signs of things” (natürliche Zeichen der Dinge), providing a universally intelligible “true and legible representation of the mind” (per Hogarth, 136).

58. Lessing contradicts himself in this (and other) matters; there are shades of emotional contagion in his discussion of Hamlet's ghost (see Essay 11). The expression “corporeal eloquence” was earlier used to translate the Beyträge’s phrase “Beredsamkeit des Körpers”; see note 6 above and cf. “körperlichen Beredsamkeit” in the subtitle of “Der Schauspieler.”

59. See, for example, David Hume, Of Tragedy, in Four Dissertations (1757; reprint, South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2000), 187. Lessing had translated Hume.

60. Lessing also draws on his widely influential aesthetic treatise Laocoön ( Laokoon; oder, Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie [Leipzig: Reclam, 1766]).

61. Even with a somewhat improbable plot, writes Lessing, if the author provides “a series of causes and effects that make it absolutely necessary for those improbable crimes to have occurred,” then the gradual steps through which the passions develop will allow the spectator to perceive “nothing but the most natural, orderly course of events.” Confronted with the tragic ending, “we find ourselves full of the most sincere compassion towards those who are carried away by such a fatal current, and full of terror knowing that a similar current could carry us away to commit deeds that in cold blood we imagine to be completely farfetched” (Essay 32).

62. Parsing Lessing's use of Mitleid is not always an easy task, and the word is variously translated as “pity,” “sympathy,” or “compassion.” Thomas Martinec explains that, “The German word ‘Mitleid’ comprises two essentially different meanings: ‘pity’ or ‘compassion’ to refer to the passion we feel when we see people suffer; and ‘empathy’ to describe the process by which we share the feelings of others… . Lessing uses the world ‘Mitleid’ in both meanings.” See Martinec, Thomas, “The Boundaries of ‘Mitleidsdramaturgie’: Some Clarifications concerning Lessing's Concept of ‘Mitleid,’Modern Language Review 101.3 (2006): 743–58, quote at 744.

63. See Moses Mendelssohn, On Sentiments, in Philosophical Writings (Philosophische Schriften, 1761), ed. and trans. Daniel O. Dahlstrom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 7–95.

64. Lessing in Essay 74 is quoting Mendelssohn. See Mendelssohn, Moses, “Rhapsodie; oder, Zusätze zu den Briefen,” in Philosophische Schriften, 2 vols. (Berlin: Christian Friedrich Voß, 1771), 2: 194 , at 30–1; cf. Mendelssohn, “Rhapsody or Additions to the Letters on Sentiments,” in Philosophical Writings, 131–68, at 142.

65. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Moses Mendelssohn, and Friedrich Nicholai, Briefwechsel über das Trauerspiel (Correspondence on Tragedy), in Werke und Briefe, 3: 662–736, at 713.

66. Ibid., 714.

67. Ibid., 713.

68. Ibid. The only exception to this rule is when the situation triggering our sensibility is specifically designed to evoke our compassion, to “sound our string,” as it were—hence the pleasure we derive from being “touched” by a tragic situation onstage.

69. Ibid., 714.

70. Cooper, Anthony Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury, “ Sensus Communis ” (1709) in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, etc., ed. Robertson, J. M., 2 vols. (1711; reprint, London: G. Richards, 1900), 1: 4199 , at 72.

71. “These tears of pity and of humanity feeling itself are the only intention of tragedy, or else it has none.” Lessing, “Vorrede zu: Des Herrn Jacob Thomson sämtliche Trauerspiele,” Werke und Briefe, 3: 755–61, at 757.

72. Lessing, “Letter to Nicolai, November 1756,” Briefwechsel, 668–73, at 671. Italics are Lessing's.

73. This view is not as chauvinistic as it might appear, and is in no way aligned with later theories of Aryan superiority. Rather, all cultures have the capacity to espouse the natural moral goodness common to all human beings but have become corrupted. Nature may bestow humans with moral character, but humankind is responsible for its maintenance.

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Theatre Survey
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