“Schiller’s Wallenstein is so great that there is nothing else like it.” — Goethe
How’s that for a blurb? Goethe didn’t just offer praise, he directed the premiere of all three parts of Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy. The third, Wallenstein’s Death (published as Wallenstein II, as the two previous plays comprise the first volume), comes from an era that didn’t believe in spoiler warnings; besides, the general’s death today in 1634 was a well-known historic fact. The art, of course, is what Schiller does with the situation.
Wallenstein’s Death is a classic five-act verse drama that combines history and tragedy, leavened with a very few scenes of comedy. It is set in the Bohemian cities of Pilsen and Eger (now generally known in English as Cheb) amidst the Thirty Years War. Wallenstein has been a great general for the Imperial party in the war, but he no longer believes that the Emperor desires peace, nor does he think that the Swedes can be completely defeated. As the play opens, he is considering taking Europe’s fate into his own hands by bringing the army he commands over to the Swedish side and compelling the Emperor in Vienna to sue for peace. Vienna suspects such a maneuver — or perhaps the Emperor is simply jealous of Wallenstein’s victories — and has sent orders that the general is to be brought to heel, to give over his command in favor of the Emperor’s son. Those still-secret orders are in the hands of one of Wallenstein’s most trusted lieutenants, Octavio Piccolomini (one of the titular characters of the trilogy’s second part). Octavio’s only son, Max, is a young officer in Wallenstein’s household and cannot believe that his idolized general would see himself as anything other than the Emperor’s truest servant. Further, Max has fallen in love with Wallenstein’s only daughter Thekla, who loves him in return. With those main characters and a sufficient supporting cast, Schiller addresses some of the great questions of history and politics, and of the human heart.
The play zips along. Each act has no fewer than seven scenes, and the third act counts 23. In part, that is because Schiller breaks scenes more frequently than an English verse dramatist would (almost every entry or exit gets counted as a new scene) but partly because he writes briskly and keeps his characters in motion right up until they meet their appointed fates. Part of the business of the play is also keeping track of who is betraying whom, and who is trying not to have to take a side until they see which way the wind is blowing.
Wallenstein begins by contemplating taking his army over to the Swedes, convincing himself that the Emperor is already intriguing against him, so that he has nothing to lose and that Europe has much to gain. Some of Wallenstein’s lieutenants, having made preparations in the previous play, push him in this direction as well. But when the Swedish representative arrives, Wallenstein is less than fully committed. When is quick action required, when should something be carefully considered? Who is really free to choose their course of action, especially if they are responsible for others’ lives, for an army, for an empire? What does that freedom mean, and how can the right course of action be discerned? Are fates written in the stars? Or, for more modern audiences, are they determined by structural conditions?
Wallenstein and the characters around him all face these questions. They also wrestle with what it means to serve, what promises and oaths require, what the friendship of youth means when people have grown and assumed great responsibility. Should one be true to a commander who is untrue to the sovereign? Does loyalty to the sovereign require murder under cover of darkness? What if the sovereign errs and is jealous? In a system that prizes noble birth above personal ability, what should the talented low-born do?
Some of those questions are as timely now as when Schiller raised them.
Wallenstein himself is both a man at the height of his powers and one whose time has passed. He commands a vast army, but the soldiers are more than just the instruments of his will. When the word is spread — accurately or not — that he wants to change sides, most of the army departs in the night. He refuses to believe that Octavio Piccolomini could have any intention to undermine his position, yet Piccolomini is the very person with the Imperial orders that serve as Wallenstein’s death warrant. He spends most of the play on the brink of one decisive move or another, yet the audience sees far more of him recalling past decisiveness than exercising it in the present. In the end, he goes to bed and meets his end offstage, so diminished that he has disappeared.
Along the way, there is a coming-of-age story, as Max Piccolomini discovers that his fortunate commander operates in a complex world, where returning to the Kaiser on bended knee will not return him to favor and may not even save his head. He discovers that declarations of love are not sufficient to move families with royal ambitions. He discovers that his father, while claiming to uphold the Imperial order, must also intrigue and is working for a fallible sovereign. Max also discovers the costs of war.
Toward the end of Wallenstein’s Death there is a darkly hilarious scene among three of the men committed to actually killing the general. One has been organizing the party that will do the deed, and he tells the other two that they have been chosen. It’s a scene of misunderstanding reminiscent of the wedding guards in Monty Python, but with deadly intent and bleak comment on what it means to be a good soldier.
There is an English translation in part by Coleridge. A modern translation and adaptation was staged by the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC in 2013. As to the play’s greatness, Goethe was, of course, absolutely right.