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Wallstein, traduite de l'Allemand par M. Benjamin Constant
de Rebecque. 8vo. Paris, 1809.
The recent attention which has been directed to Schiller's tragedies of Wallenstein, naturally leads to research into those popular impressions on which the author calculated when he presented to his countrymen this singular personification of an extinct species, and vivid picture of an age so peculiarly fit to become the property of romance. Favoured by the haze which two centuries throw over the character of men and events, Schiller might have ventured greater liberties with the truth than he has taken. But he has not affronted the imaginative cast of the Germans by defacing, or essentially altering, their traditions. He has only blended, with what they have heard from their fathers, with what lives in monuments scattered over their land, a few inventions accordant with the spirit of those traditions, and beyond the province of the historian. He has filled up, from the richness of his genius, the outline left on the minds of a romantic people by an æra of thrilling interest and excitement.
Wallenstein belonged to the heroic age of the German empire. He was among the last of a race of towering spirits, whose fire and activity raised them nearly on a par with the demi-gods of antiquity, and strongly contrasted them with their sluggish, contemplative descendants. An Iliad might be composed of the men who figured in the thirty-years' war; and, as far as the martial spirit and wild originality of its heroes, it would not fall short of its great original. It would have this ingredient of the sublime, that throughout the land where the German language is spoken the names of the mighty dead of that war are associated with everlasting impressions. Imagination could scarce invest them with deeper lineaments than tradition has done; and if the attributes of terror prevail, it is because the nature of warfare in those days presented its conductors more frequently in the light of scourges of humanity than of defenders of its rights, or avengers of its wrongs. But the poet who could catch and transmit what was truly great and majestic in their character would be reckoned among the benefactors of his country. Whether the writings of Schiller have not tended to graft some portion of the stirring, chivalrous energy of the seventeenth century on the German character of the nineteenth, is an investigation which we may not here pursue; but, certainly, we should infer from his “ Wallenstein” that he has made the regeneration as easily as possible, by giving to his warriors of the former period all that metaphysical motive and abstraction so much in vogue among the Germans of the latter times.
Körner, at least, was transformed by Schiller's magic, and superinduced the soldier over the poet and profound idealist.
What first strikes us in the three tragedies of Wallenstein is the perfect indifference of Schiller to adapt them to the taste of any nation but his own, or even to suit them to the dramatic rules observed in Germany. He seems to have been less solicitous to weave a fable that should please, and act well, by the gradual development of its parts, than to omit none of the traits that might recall the military enthusiasm of a glorious epoch, and connect it with the fascinations of high poetical conception. In one of these tragedies the action is not even commenced ; and yet it is in that very one that the grandeur of Wallenstein, as a chieftain, is most strikingly pourtrayed. Every thing in it has reference to him. All the characters talk of him, fear him, feel him present, till the spectator almost partakes of the illusion; and becomes conscious of the might of that man before whom so many and so variously constituted minds bow down. The whole riot and disorder of the camp is ocularly before him; and he hears the terms upon which these ferocious troopers of every creed and country consent to march under Wallenstein, and to know no will but his. Without this preparation we should miss that which gives such immense interest to the “ taking off” of this ambitious chief-the assurance that he might have attained his object but for himself alone.
In the words of M. Benjamin Constant de Rebecque,
“ The scenes follow one another without being linked together. But this incoherence is natural: it is a moving picture, where there is no past nor future. The genius of Wallenstein presides over this apparent confusion. The minds of all are full of him—all celebrate his praise, agitate themselves with the rumours of the count's dissatisfaction, and vow never to forsake the general who protects them. We distinguish the symptoms of an insurrection ready to break out if Wallenstein but give the word ; and, at the same moment, we unravel the secret motives that modify the attachment of each individual—the fears, the mistrusts, and the private interests that swell the general impulse. We behold an armed people a prey to every popular fermentation ; impelled by their enthusiasm, and retarded by their misgivings; striving to reason, and not succeeding from want of practice; spurning allegiance, yet making it a point of honour to obey their chief; trampling upon religion, yet hearkening eagerly to every superstitious tradition ; but still a people inveterately proud of their strength, and full of contempt for every profession but that of arms; who know no virtue but courage, and no aim but the pleasures of the day.”
" It would be impossible to produce upon our stage this singular production of the genius, accuracy, and, I shall add, erudition of the Germans; for it required no little erudition to collect into one body all the points that distinguished the armies of the seventeenth century,
and which appertain no longer to any modern army. In our days every thing in the camp, as in the city, is fixed, regular, and subordinate. Discipline has superseded commotion. If partial disorders occur, they are mere exceptions, which are provided for ; but in the thirtyyears' war, disorder was the permanent state, and the enjoyment of gross licentiousness the amends for dangers and fatigues."
“ Armies in those days were not, as in ours, subject to political authority.” They were rather a body of partisans of some celebrated leader, who had little or no commission from sovereign powers. He it was who enlisted them, paid them, promoted them. His fame attracted and retained them, and pillage alone enabled him to support them. The generals themselves were, for the most part, men who had emancipated themselves from all authority and institutions. The sword was their only appeal. Some scheme of ambition or revenge incited them to muster a little troop of followers by influence on their paternal estates, or simply by favour of the renown of their juvenile exploits. With these they dashed into the thick of quarrels between sovereign states, and managed either to turn the fortune of an action, or to do some gallant feat, by which they earned a reputation that was thenceforth the gauge of their importance in the struggles of the empire. “ It was not princes only, but German and foreign gentlemen, who, with no ascendancy but military genius, levied little armies, and sold themselves to the contending sovereigns; or, sword in hand, attempted to become sovereigns themselves.”
The state of the times fostered this military enthusiasm. Oppression, insecurity, and habitual turbulence had thrown all ranks out of their natural state of citizenship. The chance of safety, if not of success, was on the side of the soldier rather than the peasant. The more the plains were desolated, the more recruits were driven into the ranks : men plundered of all their effects, and cruelly outraged in their domestic relations, soon became plunderers themselves, and sought a brutal retribution for their wrongs by violating the homes of others. They but looked round for the leader who, by the success of his arms, or the license of his camp, promised most to gratify their ravening appetites : under him they ranged themselves even against the religion they professed ; and under him they continued till their propensities were checked, when they immediately deserted in battalions to the standard of the enemy. The pretence of religion but added fuel to the flames : it armed the fanatics of all creeds. But the real motive of the war was less to establish the principles of the Reformation than to secure the independence of the numerous princes of the empire: and though the former object was effected along with the latter, every one who looks into the constitution of the armies that produced it must admit that it was brought about as much by the enemies, as by the friends, of the Reformation.
To embody all these characteristics of the age, and to force them on the mind of the spectator, demanded a much larger share of a drama than is usually given to the detail of external coincidences not essential to the plot. Schiller has united them in one play, called “The Camp of Wallenstein;" a prologue, as it were, of nearly two thousand lines, in which no part of the action that constitutes the drama is unfolded. He has equally violated the established rules in his “ Piccolomini;” for though in it the plot commences, and the subordinate agents are displayed, yet the curtain drops before any thing is concluded, as if mere suspense were its ultimate aim. It is only in the third piece, “ The Death of Wallenstein,” that the interest awakened by the preceding two is satisfied ; yet it is deficient in this, that it jumps in medias res, without any explanation of what is gone before.
“ The three pieces appear incapable of being represented separately: they are, however, in Germany. The Germans thus tolerate a piece without action, as The Camp; an action without development (denouement), as The Piccolomini ; and a development without previous exposition, as The Death of Wallenstein."
Though we shall make ample use of the preface and notes of M. B. Constant de Rebecque, it will not be for the purpose of attracting attention to his version of “Wallstein, traduite de l'Allemand;" because, as he admits, it is no translation.
“ There is not a single scene in the three tragedies of Schiller which I have retained entire: there are some in my piece the idea of which is not to be found in Schiller. He has forty-eight dramatis persone, while I have only twelve. The unities have obliged me to recast the whole."
Yet he has not come up to the beau ideal of a French tragedy. It would have been difficult, as he pathetically observes, to compress nine thousand verses into two thousand; especially as the Alexandrine, which is the only metre tolerated in French tragedy, forces a translator to use circumlocutions. However, he has altered, or distorted, at such a rate, that his “Wallstein” bears not the least resemblance to its original; and, as an original itself, is one of the tamest productions in the world. But, as his preface is a comparison on some points of German and French tragedy, we do not hesitate to retrieve a few of his remarks from the oblivion into which they have sunk by reason of their connexion with a work that never can be read as a translation of Schiller, nor yet as a fair sample of M. Constant's own genius. And we have no doubt that honour will redound to the German theatre from the contrast in which it is placed with that of France, by a
Frenchman, who formally gives the preference to his own, even when exhibiting its defects most prominently to view.
“ German authors," he says, “ are enabled to employ in the development of character a number of accessaries that could not, without derogating from the requisite dignity, be admitted on our stage. These, however, give life and truth to the picture.”
He instances some of them. One is where Goëtz Von Berchlingen, in Goëthe's tragedy, having been long besieged, and almost starved in his castle, commands his lady-ladies carried the cellar-key in those days to regale his thirsty followers with wine. The fair housewife, after some delay, produces a solitary flask, which she protests is the last; and that she had reserved it in a snug corner for him. This very affecting case M. Constant thinks would be laughed at on the French boards. The honest Germans, however, who regard drinking in a more serious light, sympathize with the hospitable Teutonic knight; and are startled into tears at this proof of his loving wife's consideration for her lord's partialities.
A better chosen instance is, where Joan d'Arc, in Schiller's tragedy, after having liberated France by her prowess, is persecuted by the ingrate people, and forced to fly the torments prepared for her as a witch. In a state of craving want she takes refuge in the cabin of a peasant, from whom she entreats a cup of water. She is about to convey it to her lips when the peasant's son enters, recognises her, and dashes the cup from her hand, with a rebuke of his father for affording relief to a sorceress. “Thus,” says M. Constant, “by one word the two most striking circumstances, the epoch and the situation, are recalled to the mind of the spectator.” Yet, this incident is proscribed from the French drama, chiefly because " the pomp inseparable from our Alexandrines demands a sustained nobleness” that would ill comport with the mention of such household utensils as cups or glasses, or such vulgar sensations as hunger and thirst. The French critics would actually split with laughter at the thought of a heroine guzzling upon the stage; and nothing would be able to save the tragedy from perdition.
“ The Germans make ample use of these strokes. Unforeseen meetings, arrivals of subaltern characters, that are not indispensable to the main action, furnish them with a class of effects not known upon our theatre."-" With us every thing passes directly between the heroes and the public. The confidants are deliberately sacrificed. They are brought forward merely to listen, occasionally to give answers, and at times to narrate the death of the hero, who, in such case, cannot inform us of it personally. But there is nothing moral in their whole existence; every reflection, opinion, dialogue, is strictly forbidden them. It would be contrary to theatrical subordination for them to