Minna von Barnhelm, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
by Paul Mathers
I have heard it said that this is the most often produced play in the German language. It would not surprise me any more than to learn that, were there no Shakespeare, The Importance of Being Earnest was the most often produced play in the English language. This would not surprise me because of the universal appeal of comedy in the traditional sense (not so much full of yuks, but with the assurance that it’s not going to end with a body count and the characters you like will be content with their circumstances by curtain fall).
Life is tribulation for all beings. You toil and labor for a moment of happiness and then spend a day’s wages to go to the theater; you may not want a grueling experience. I’m not talking about what is best for the audience. I’m talking about what the audience wants. I might speculate that a portion of the audience might like to be coddled in light of the fact that they’ve just come off of the streets where reality is everywhere. Heaven knows I’ve had those moments myself. It is important to remember the balm of “slice of life” works of art which suggest that circumstances will work out in the end, if for no other reason than to feed humankind’s favorite demon: Hope.
Minna von Barnhelm tells the story of a couple separated by war. Major von Tellheim was wounded in the war and seems to be in financial ruin. There is humorous banter between his servant and the landlord. The mysterious lady who the Major is ostensibly ejected from his room to make room for (more likely because the landlord doesn’t believe he’ll be able to pay his bill) turns out to be the Major’s long-lost love, Minna von Barnhelm. There are a series of turn-arounds and the end is a traditional comedic one. I say that in such a way to suggest that, if you’ve not read it, but you have read a comedy before, you will get the idea.
In light of that, why would this play in particular be the most produced play in the German language? Well, a flip answer might be, “Some play has to be. Why not this one?”
A more accurate answer might be, “It encapsulates the idea of the German comedic so perfectly. It is the apotheosis of the German comedic.” Much like Earnest might be for English comedy.
When I was very young, I wanted to see all of the great films ever made. I tended to hang around with people much older than me and I got tired of hearing things like, “What?!!? You’ve never seen Battleship Potemkin?!!?“
So, I started hunting down great films. The boom time for this project was in college when I had access to the film department’s library. I watched a film every night for almost four years and I tried to get the greatest of the great. I wanted to watch every great film before I watched any other kind of film so as to not be the martyred slave of time. Essentially I’ve never stopped this project. I remember my reaction to Casablanca when I was 19. I thought, “Huh? That was one of the greatest films ever made? I mean, it was good and all but…”
I remember this, but for the life of me I have no idea why I thought that at the time. Today I think it is a masterpiece and my eyes get all distant when I think about it.
But I remember, specifically, a conversation I had with a fellow film buff after I watched it in which I realized, in the course of elucidating my feelings about the film, that the script was a work of absolute, impenetrable perfection. In retrospect, I probably had not lived enough to plumb the emotional depths. Strangely, I had no problem grasping the greatness of Citizen Kane or The Godfather.
This is not meant to compare any of these works. Barnhelm bears very little resemblance to Casablanca. I simply employed the analogy to illuminate the subtleties of a perfect work versus a great work of great pomp and circumstance which announces itself miles before you can see it.
My inner cynic adds, at this point, that another reason for its frequency of production may be that it requires a half dozen actors and the set of an 18th century German inn as opposed to, say, Faust which essentially requires the entire universe to appear onstage.
All of which to ask, was is a good read? Yes, I enjoyed it. I chuckled at Just a few times and I appreciated the turn of events. Analyzing the structure of a well-written, pleasing comedy can help me in my own future writing. Would I recommend it? Sure. Will I ever read it again? Probably not. Would I ever produce the play myself?
Probably not. It is not my thing. When I imagine the plays I should like to direct, I find my taste tending towards that of Orson Welles. I want the plays that march the entire universe before the audience. I like my Sturm with a heaping helping of Drang. People who know me may be surprised that I am close to calling something too twee for my taste, I whose reality show would likely be called Tweemaster, but there it is. Something about happy endings, even when they are well done, strikes me as less realistic than anything found in the Fantasy section of the bookstore.
But for the sake of the tranquility of the audience and the limitations of theatrical budgets, it is good that these plays exist as well. I suppose.