The best thing about zipping through Wikipedia’s entry on these two plays by Friedrich Schiller — the first volume of Schiller’s Wallenstein plays comprises Wallensteins Lager (Wallenstein’s Camp) and Die Piccolomini (The Piccolomini) — was learning that Goethe directed both premieres. (He also directed the premiere of the trilogy’s third part, but I am still reading that one.) I probably should have known that already, but one of the quirks of earning a degree in German from a small university is that Goethe and Schiller are not taught every semester, and the one time it was offered when my reading had advanced to where I could have benefited from the course was when I was in Germany. That was the spring and summer that Communism began to fall in Central and Eastern Europe, so I can hardly say I regret missing the course. A visit to Weimar in the spring of 2016 prompted me to fill in some of the gaps in what I know of German classics, and so I picked up copies of several of Schiller’s plays.
The worst thing about reading them was putting the small book down for about two months in the middle of The Piccolomini. Stepping out for intermission is ok, but I really should have returned after a shorter interval.
The trilogy follows the final stages of the life and career of Albrecht von Wallenstein, a military leader during the Thirty Years War. (Schiller was 50 years closer in time to the war than the present is to Schiller.) At the time the plays open, Wallenstein belonged to the Imperial party in the war, had won significant victories, and had amassed the largest army at that stage of the war. That army is making its winter quarters in and around the Bohemian city of Pilsen.
Wallenstein’s Camp is almost cinematic, moving through the camp in eleven brisk scenes, as a camera would move through establishing shots to show the army, its factions, its effects on local inhabitants, and different types of people within the army, before finally zooming in on the army’s commanders. Raw recruits, experienced soldiers, hunters, innkeepers — all cross the stage briefly to relate their experiences of this war. A priest excoriates the godlessness of the soldiers (a comment by Schiller on the supposedly religious nature of the conflict), and soldiers heckle him from the stage, rather proving his point.
The Piccolomini is a classic verse drama in five acts. In contrast to much of English drama of this sort, the climax of the play comes at the very end of the fifth act. That is partly the result of the play’s role in the trilogy as a whole, but it gives the pacing a different feel from Elizabethan dramas. As the play opens, Duke Wallenstein and his Emperor are unhappy with each other. Wallenstein has a powerful army, but has not dealt a crushing blow to the Protestant party; the Emperor suspects that he does not intend to deliver a decisive victory to the Imperial party. Wallenstein believes that the court in Vienna is intriguing against him, wishing to deny him the laurels and position due a great general. Both, as it happens, are correct, though neither needs to be. Mistrust and ambition drive all concerned toward tragedy, though that result is postponed until the third play. The Piccolomini sets the stage. Because of this structure, all three plays are often condensed into a single theatrical production. (It was performed this way, for example, in 2013 at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC.)
As Vienna sends envoys with secret orders to depose Wallenstein if he is seen to be unfaithful, so Wallenstein sends envoys to the enemy Swedes, with an aim to bringing peace to Europe. Each faction strives to keep secrets from the other. These are embodied in the Piccolomini, father Octavio and son Max. Octavio is a senior commander under Wallenstein, but more loyal to the Emperor. Max is a young officer, enthralled by the glorious Wallenstein and in love with his general’s daughter. Father and son alternately hide and reveal, as some commanders push to tie Wallenstein more closely to the Swedes while others seek to preserve his freedom of action. The play ends with a confrontation between Max and Octavio that threatens to reveal all, undoing the delicate balance that has served both Wallenstein and the Emperor.
Wallenstein shows Schiller as a great dramatist. Particularly in Wallenstein’s Camp, he sketches his characters quickly, setting out their conflicts and motivation with an economy of words that brings across a wide range of emotions in the play’s eleven scenes. The Piccolomini focuses on intrigue and ambition, but the intersection of love and dynastic thinking gets its due as well. The costs of war, and the differing perspectives that the old and the young have on martial glory, are never far from the characters’ actions. The trilogy concludes in Wallenstein’s Death, a tragedy in five acts.