Theater of Salvation
The Figure of the Baroque Mourning Play between Gryphius and Kleist
While it is generally understood that theater and theatricality constitute the space between the “fall from grace” and the “regaining of paradise” in Kleist’s oeuvre, the theatrical traditions in which these concepts have developed are less well known. In my dissertation I argue that the religious implications of Kleist’s theater can only be fully understood when viewed in relation to the baroque martyr play. In baroque drama, the passion of Christ is ostentatiously re-presented by the death of the martyr, while a powerful apparatus of allegorical commentary asserts the significance of this death as a re-actualization of the promise of salvation. But precisely in re-presenting it, the baroque martyr play unintentionally transforms salvation into a theatrical event – a consequence which the Jesuit dramatists of world-theater happily embrace, while their protestant counterparts struggle to ground theater in a transcendent reality whose ultimate proof can only be death. Both strategies are radicalized by Kleist when he stages with his “Lustspiel” Der zerbrochne Krug a theater of salvation, in which fall and redemption are both reduced to “mere” figures: Judge Adam, for example, is both a figure of Adam and Oedipus, and much of the play’s comic energy results from this double figuration; at the same time, however, there is a tragic dimension to this figurative play, since Adam cannot escape from his figural role and finally is condemned by it. This problem of a radically “entgrenzt,” or unbounded, theater is also characteristic of the literary strategies that Kleist developed while publishing the Berliner Abendblätter; these, on the other hand, would spill beyond the frame of his journalistic medium into the literature of modernity.
The issues of theology and theatricality that arise in Kleist and Gryphius, however, are also part of a broader poetological context that my dissertation addresses, by setting my detailed study of Kleist and Gryphius within a history of tragedy in the light of ancient and early-modern adaptations of the Oedipus-myth. Once tragedy, especially Sophocles’ Oedipus, becomes a poetological concern, every “tragic” adaptation unintentionally becomes an allegory of tragedy, signifying that what it cannot be in itself: Already in Seneca, the “fall” and destiny of Oedipus becomes a theatrical moment that signifies “tragedy”, rather than functioning as an element of the story-line. In later Christian adaptations of the myth, Oedipus’ “fall” can even be understood as a figure of Christ’s crucifixion; in Corneille, for example, the city of Thebes is purified from the plague in the very moment that Oedipus blinds himself, so that the catastrophe is turned into a happy ending. Neo-classical drama, I conclude, strives so hard to imitate tragedy in Christian terms, that it unwittingly betrays itself as parody. This development culminates in Kleist’s “Lustspiel” Der zerbrochne Krug, which presents the biblical story of the fall from grace as a refiguration of the Oedipus-myth.
Thus, the history of tragedy as genre underscores the problems that my close reading of Gryphius and Kleist uncovers: The promise of salvation can only be re-asserted in theatrical, “tragic” terms; as imitation of “tragedy”, however, fall and redemption are transformed into allegorical moments that signify theater: An inescapable tragedy of salvation that can only appear comic in a rather bitter way.
Excerpt from a Review: „Harst’s wide-ranging study, brimming with learned stylistic analyses of baroque language, glosses on the New Testament, Sophoclean tragedy, and references to early modern rhetorical debates, demonstrates how the question of the form of the Trauerspiel can still be thought, and how this lesser-known literary model is of vital theoretical interest. […] There is much to learn from and puzzle over in Harst’s strategy of uncovering the figure that emerges between texts, literary periods, and genres, and thereby exposes them to rethinking.“ (Jason Kavett, MLN 130/2 )