THE great writer who, after the death of Schiller, might have been named to continue the evolution of German drama to modern and national form could find no hearing in the age of Romanticism and of Fate-drama. Thanks to the exertions of Ludwig Tieck, public attention began to turn to him in the second decade of the nineteenth century without, however, his being recognized in his true greatness and historical importance. Only much later did it become clear that HEINRICH VON KLEIST, while he was aiming to unite the art of Aeschylus and Shakespeare, was on the way to a new and national drama in harmony with the spirit of the age.
Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist, born at Frankfort on the Oder, October 18, 1777, became an author late in life. At the age of fifteen, as a member of an old Prussian family of soldiers, he joined the Guards in Potsdam, serving reluctantly. During the Rhine campaign of 1792 he felt the deep gulf between the duties of a man and those of a soldier. In 1799 he gave up his military position but again and again sought refuge under the wings of the Prussian eagle when life pressed him too hard. In his native city he collected with an insatiable thirst literary, historical and philosophical knowledge and thereby probably laid the foundation of that derangement which all too soon was to lame his power of will and purpose. His portrait shows a beardless boyish face with melancholy eyes, lines of suffering about the mouth and a splendid forehead. His intercourse with cultured circles of Berlin, to which city he returned in 1800, awakened in him the idea of winning bread and fame as an author. He soon found in Robert Guiskard's fate a subject of imposing grandeur. In fruitless wrestling with this task he dissipated his life's energies during the following years. Restlessly he wandered away from his native place. Paris could not give him peace nor was his hope fulfilled that in Switzerland, in the idyllic quiet of country life, he would recover from his unrest.
A few months only of happy life were granted him while he led in Berne the modest life of a poet in company with the sons of Wieland and Soloman Gessner and with Heinrich Zschokke. For a time he now allowed his Robert Guiskard to drop into the background, and his first work, Die Familie Schroffenstein, took form. In spite of the fact that Ludwig Uhland, who looked after its publication, subjected it to a thorough revision, even in this form it still bears testimony to the independent originality of Kleist, scarcely influenced by any predecessors.
Not from the mighty primal impulses of mankind but from distrust, that black poison of the soul, does ruin proceed. It destroys both sexes; the blossoms of love, unfolding amid hate and murder with magical fragrance, fade away under its pestilential breath. With compelling necessity the course of action follows from the given data and the characters are seen to be most sharply and realistically conceived. Most remarkable is the difference between his language and that of his predecessors. In place of the figurative, copious and sentimental diction of Schiller, gilded over with an even brilliancy, in Kleist exuberance and concise brevity appear in turn. His pictures do not disdain the repulsive and common, but every shade of thought and feeling is brought to clearest expression. Acute, indeed subtle explanations are introduced while the action rushes on. Limpid flow is lacking in the verse, oftentimes the sentences burst forth and tumble over each other like rocks down the mountain. Men forge their own fates, there is no interference by a higher power standing apart from the world of reality.
In the second work of these months at Berne, Kleist gave to German literature one of its best comedies, Der zerbrochene Krug. The same pleasure in acute argumentation, noticeable in Die Familie Schroffenstein, is found in this play. The effective forms of legal proceedings, which writers were very fond of using at the beginnings of German comedy and especially in the carnival plays, are here taken up again for a higher purpose. For no longer is it a question of the reproduction of an amusing scene; here a human figure of the significance of a type appears in the village magistrate, Adam, who with low, foxy shrewdness tries to turn the suspicion for the deed he himself has done upon another, and thereby becomes involved deeper and deeper in ruin. This court-scene is a really brilliant performance but fitted out with a wealth of striking features almost too great for the stage. It serves, however, the purpose of giving an impression of the most complete material reality. In this regard the play forms a striking contrast to the unpractical idealism of his predecessors and contemporaries.
Lastly, in Switzerland, too, Robert Guiskard developed more and more towards completion. But we only possess a few introductory scenes which Kleist restored with difficulty after he had destroyed the great play in a paroxysm of the blackest despair. The fragment takes its place among the greatest dramatic creations of all time. In it the difference between the ancient and the modern view-point is overcome by putting in the place of fate the plague, that inexorable power which rules in the world of reality and which cuts down men without any consideration for their plans and purposes. The style unites the dignified power of Aeschylus with the passionate subjectivity of modern writers. The chief characters stand out at the very first glance in plastic beauty and are at the same time endowed with a rich soul-life full of splendour and color. The function of the Greek chorus is represented by individuals taken from the whole body who give expression to the feelings of all.
After he had come through a severe illness in Switzerland, Kleist was justified in venturing with Robert Guiskard to try to gain admission into the circle of noble spirits who had come together in Weimar. Wieland especially gave him a kindly welcome, Schiller also made him advances in a friendly spirit and Goethe tried to constrain him to co-operation in his works, though they appealed but little to his nature. But the morbid ambition of Kleist could not submit to looking up to the great man of Weimar. "I will tear the wreath from his brow," he cried, and was consumed with passionate, fruitless incitement of his own powers; "Hell gave me my half-talent, Heaven gives a whole or none at all." He could not endure the serene air of Weimar. Once more he was driven to restless wandering through the world and the end was that destruction of his great life-work, which meant renunciation of all his plans. Modestly he re-entered Civil service and in Königsberg he found a couple of years of quiet, during which first of all he made his thoughtful recast of the Amphitryon legend. No longer, as with Plautus and Molière who had treated it before him, is the subject ridicule of the deceived husband; it is rather the almost tragic perplexity of feeling on the part of the constant and faithful wife Alkmene. When the god avows to her that he had come to her in the form of her husband, then holy tremors pass over her but she wishes this night blotted out of her memory. There is something allied to the mysteries of the Christian religion in this new, soulful content given to the old heathen legend.
Penthesilea, likewise begun at Königsberg, also lays bare the innermost depths of a woman's heart. Again a new content is given to a Greek legend, which to our modern feeling is scarcely comprehensible. By endowing the heroine with a supreme need for love and at the same time with an unconquerable desire to gain the mastery over her lover, the poet creates an extreme type, a strange mixture of attractive and repulsive features, but after all grand and symmetrical. all the charm of his language, melodious and yet not cloying, of his images full of feeling and picturesque effects, Kleist poured out in Penthesilea as in no other work; and yet it is just the very one which is most difficult to comprehend.
He only finished it in Dresden, after the misfortunes of the Fatherland had startled him out of his brief period of quiet in Königsberg and an unfortunate incident had caused him to be thrust into prison in France. And now for the third time he tried again, from another point of view, to portray the essential character of the loving wife. As a companion picture to Penthesilea he wrote Käthchen von Heilbronn, whose heroine voluntarily endures every ill treatment and every disgrace which the loved one heaps upon her. Clothed with all the charm of the fairy-story the gracious figure had an effect like a miraculous picture. But in contradistinction to the vague, fantastic manner with which the Romanticists of his day treated similar subjects, here everything is set forth clearly and definitely. Kleist chose the popular form of the drama of chivalry and by a revision met the requirements of the stage better than he had done before. For this reason Käthchen attained a popularity beyond any of his other works and was proof even against the wretched stage-versions in which it had to appear.
A burning hatred of Napoleon drove the author out of Dresden when Austria rose in 1809 to fight for freedom. At that time he wrote Die Hermannsschlacht to inspire the Germans to a national war against the conqueror. But embittered passion could produce no work of art and the unsuitable material, which had always been intractable to dramatists, helped to bring about the failure of this powerful drama, though it was very impressive in individual passages.
When Austria was vanquished, Kleist again and for the last time sought help in Berlin. He brought with him a new work, Der Prinz von Homburg, a companion piece to Hermannsschlacht. It showed where the poet saw the hope for the salvation of his native country, namely, in the Prussian spirit of unconditional obedience and in a readiness to sacrifice everything for the state. Kleist does not make his prince despise death like the ordinary heroes of tragedy; on the contrary, he trembles so violently in its presence that everything else in comparison with mere existence seems as nothing. But the conviction of the necessity of discipline conquers even this fear of death and the prince is ready to suffer the punishment he has deserved for his transgression. Thus the power of the sense of duty, through which Prussia has become great, is upheld in all its strength. In the Prinz von Homburg Kleist produced his best and last work. All the brilliant characteristics, which make his figure stand out prominently from the great crowd of dramatists, he displayed in this work as never before and combined them with full mastery over all artistic devices. His power as a poet was still increasing when despair and an intolerable disgust of life drove him, on November 21, 1811, into voluntary death.
In his lifetime only Der zerbrochene Krug and Käthchen von Heilbronn were put upon the stage. Kleist's fame blossomed late and even then his attempt to create a realistic drama met with little appreciation. The field belonged to the false idealism of the descendants of classicism.