Egmont by Goethe

by Paul Mathers


Yeah, Goethe wasn’t really big on yuks.

Goethe wrote these amazingly grand plays which, unfortunately, are often so grand that they are rarely produced.  We are the poorer for it.

Egmont is, as you might imagine, a play dealing with the events surrounding the execution of Count Egmont in 1568.  The date and the location (The Netherlands) might ring some bells over political and religious turmoil, and you would do well to trust those bells.  Part of the brilliance of the piece is that it traces the events from many different angles.  Egmont is clearly meant to be viewed as the protagonist (more on that in a moment) but nearly equal time and attention is given to the situations of the townsfolk, his mistress and her spurned lover, the soon to be ousted Regent, the Duke who orders the death of Egmont, and his tortured son.  In doing so, Goethe gives us a full and fair picture of the situation, why it is happening, what it means to all of the people involved.

There are moments in which this angle of fairness almost derails Goethe’s intentions.  It is clear that Goethe had political motivations.  The virtues of liberty and freedom and served liberally.  However, there is a scene in which Egmont and the Duke of Alva butt heads over the freedom of the people to practice the religion of their choosing.  The Duke responds thusly:

“Liberty!  A fair word when rightly understood.  What liberty would they have?  What is the freedom of the most free?  To do right!  And in that the monarch will not hinder them.  No!  No!  They imagine themselves enslaved, when they have not the power to injure themselves and others.”

Although the Duke is meant to be the antagonist in the piece, I can identify with this sentiment.  Personally, I feel that humans need governing for just these reasons.  Goethe lived through those years in Europe as they witnessed the excesses leading up to the French Revolution, the Bourbon Restoration, and Napoleon (which, at the very least, we know that Goethe’s friend Beethoven was enamored and subsequently disgusted with).  Goethe would have lived right through the center of the ideals of the Enlightenment, the Seven Years’ War, and the Revolutionary War of the United States would clearly have been known to him.  In other words, Goethe lived in a time and place where people were riding high on idealism.  Egmont seems a perfect hero/martyr with his uncompromising demand for liberty.  However, Goethe stays true to the democratic spirit by allowing counterpoints reasonable and equal airtime.

Another effect of the high idealism is that there isn’t a whole lot of spectacle to the play.  There are a great deal of scene changes and one imagines lavish sets, but the action is largely people talking about things.  Sometimes with great agitation and urgency, but there are no fist fights or explosions, no dragons, no one even dies onstage.  There is a brief dream sequence.  I may sound like I am being a dash facetious, but from a stagecraft point of view, this offers a specific challenge to any production.  A lavish set will dazzle an audience for precisely the amount of time it takes the brain to register an image and a lavish production budget is usually reserved for, in our time anyway, productions that will guarantee a return on the cost of spectacle.  Therefore, the play might have assumed a certain level of intensity on the part of the audience due to external circumstances and, indeed, played in the proper context, the intense emotions circle around constant human concerns and frustrations.  However, what I am driving at is that the real challenge of the play is for the actor.  The actor must be the Prometheus in this piece.  They must ratchet up the intensity to make it matter to the audience.  Far from daunting, to the intrepid actor this is what they live for.  This is their meat and potatoes.

Egmont also has the distinction of having an even more famous, and more often performed, piece associated with it.  Beethoven’s Egmont Overture is probably even better known than the Goethe’s piece, at least outside of Germany.  Here’s Von Karajan’s:

Next up, I will finish the Goethe volume.