GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM LESSING, the first of the truly German dramatists, was born in a Lutheran clergyman's family. As was a frequent custom in clergymen's families, his father looked after his early education, later sending him to a famous school at Meissen. So apt a pupil was young Lessing that at 16 he was ready for the University of Leipzig.
At the university he studied theology, then medicine, and later literature and philosophy. But already he had made a connection with the stage through translating French plays for Frau Neuber's theater. In 1748 Frau Neuber put on Lessing's own maiden effort, Der Junge Gelehrte. From that time on, regardless of his financial fortunes, Lessing gave his entire interest to some form of writing. For a time he was employed in making translations by Voltaire, who was at this time living in Germany. This contact, however, soon ended in disagreement, according to some authorities, because Lessing betrayed a literary confidence of Voltaire's.
The friendship could not have lasted long, at any rate, because Lessing soon found his own dramatic beliefs directly opposed in principle to Voltaire's pseudo-classicism. His revolt against the Voltairean school is expressed in practical fashion in his first important play, Miss Sara Sampson (1755), a bourgeois tragedy of epoch-making importance to the German stage.
In 1767 Lessing's famous Minna von Barnhelm appeared, the first German comedy with characters and action concerned with contemporary German life. Up to now, Lessing's income had been so independable that he had not even considered marriage. In 1770, however, he was made court librarian for the Duke of Brunswick at Wolfenbuttel. With an income thus assured he married, only to lose his wife and an infant son within two years. To assuage his grief, he plunged more deeply than ever into literary work. He completed during this period the remarkable prose tragedy, Emilia Galotti, and wrote the powerful Nathan the Wise, a play which departed decidedly from precedent in its choice of subject.
Lessing was not only the first truly German playwright, but he is known, too, as the "father of German criticism." Notable among his critical works is the celebrated Hamburg Dramaturgy which should have added materially to its author's income. That it did not lay in the fact that its excellence was immediately realized and it was promptly pirated. The Laökoön, another critical work, took for its subject the fields of poetry and painting.
Lessing's literary activity continued with unimpaired mental vigor right up to the time of his sudden death while on a trip to Brunswick in 1781.
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