This spring I went to Weimar. It’s a good weekend outing from Berlin, about three hours by train, and it’s lovely in May. The park on the Ilm, in particular, is splendid, with views and points of interest coming in and out of sight just as Goethe had intended. His country house, where he lived during his early years in Weimar and where he still retreated from official business during his later years, is on the opposite side of the park from the city (and the ducal court, in his day). It’s a modest affair, quite in contrast to his town house, which features a courtyard that carriages could drive in and out of, and an entrance stairway designed to impress visitors to the statesman, scientist, and writer. Schiller’s house was on the edge of town when he lived there, but is on the main pedestrian street now. It has been handsomely preserved and gave me a sense of both his family life and how he wrote.
Although I have a degree in German literature, I never took a class that focused on Goethe or Schiller. The university is small, the German faculty smaller still, and that class was only offered periodically. The only time it was taught when I was sufficiently proficient in the language was while I was abroad on an exchange program. (On the other hand, one of the final hurdles for the degree is a comprehensive exam on anything the faculty in your major thinks you ought to know about the subject, so I did read Faust, Werther, and familiarized myself with much of the rest.) It was nice to partly close this odd gap in my education by visiting the places where both men had lived and worked. While I was at Schiller’s house, I also picked up several of his plays, in the handy yellow Reclam editions that anyone who has studied German literature will instantly recognize.
Schiller wrote Die Räuber (The Robbers) as a very young man, and it was published in 1781, when he was 22. The five-act play follows the fortunes of the ruling family in a fictional small German state. The elder son, Karl, has been away from the court, while the younger has stayed with his aging father. Franz, the younger, plots to have his father disinherit his brother, playing up tales of Karl’s waywardness and deliberately distressing their father. Karl hears that he has been cut off, and decides to show his father and the world what an outlaw career could really be like. He builds up a band of robbers in the Bohemian forest, and they become notorious throughout the land. Karl himself tries to be something of a Robin Hood, but his underlings compete to see who can commit the worst atrocities. Franz tries to bring about his father’s death (without resorting to outright murder) so that he can rule their land with an iron hand.
It’s all very melodramatic, and indeed, Schiller is one of the fathers of European melodrama. The play was a sensation at the time — eight years before the French Revolution — for its anarchy, its comments on the nobility, on religion, on morality, on evil, and many other subjects. The characters are violent and heedless, on and off stage. There is a good priest, who tries to get Karl to surrender his band and repent, but the robbers send him packing. For good measure, they escape from the forces of law and order, killing them (off-stage, in this case) in huge numbers.
The Robbers is not subtle. For a modern reader, accustomed to characters who show their feelings and intentions rather than declaim them from center-stage, it can be a bit off-putting. No wonder Verdi adapted the play into an opera. Wikipedia tells me that there are two recent translations into English, one that leans toward imitation of the original language, and one that leans toward adapting archaic idioms into contemporary language. Both are legitimate approaches to translating a play, but I have not read either. Next up from Schiller are two volumes of plays about Wallenstein, a general in the Thirty Years War.