Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



  • (1749 - 1832) Germany's greatest literary figure, muchof whose writing was for the theater. The son of a lawyer, Goethefirst became interested in drama after watching plays performed byFrench Army companies and enjoying the local marionette theater (wherehe saw a piece that would later inspire his masterpiece Faust).

    In 1765 he attended the University of Leipzig to study law,but suffered a physical breakdown. While convalescing, he read, andwas greatly influenced by, the plays of Shakespeare and the contemporarywritings of the German dramatist G. E. Lessing. When he hadrecuperated, Goethe left Leipzig to complete his studies at the Universityof Strasbourg, where he met the writer Johann Gottfried Herder, inwhose company Goethe saw his first Shakespeare play.

    Soon after graduating, he published his first play, the historicaldrama Götz von Berlichingen (1773). Despite its extremelength (54 scenes), the play created a sensation with its emotionalintensity and racy plot; it is usually considered the first dramaof the Sturm und Drang movement. Two years later, Goethesettled in Weimar at the behest of the 18-year-old duke, where hedirected entertainments, led the town's amateur theatrical group,and acted in his own works.

    In 1786 Goethe visited Italy, and returned nearly two yearslater with a changed outlook on life and art; he had renounced youthfulromanticism in favour of a more measured classicism. His drama ofhumanity and reconciliation Iphigenie auf Tauris, originallywritten in 1779 but recast in verse in 1787 (see Iphigenia),is evidence of this changed outlook. Friedrich Schiller calledthe work "astonishingly modern and un-Greek". MeanwhileGoethe fell in love with Christiane Vulpius and the couple createda scandal by living together for 18 years and having several childrenbefore eventually marrying in 1806. They remained together until Christiane'sdeath 10 years later.

    In 1790 Goethe published the first fragment of Faust,a play he had already been working on for some 20 years. The followingyear, the duke appointed Goethe as director of his new state theater.With Schiller's encouragement, Goethe drew up a set of 91 rules toimprove the resident company's acting technique and worked with individualactors for months before rehearsals. The result was the most integratedensemble of the era and the creation of a new and influential styleof acting (the so-called Weimar style).

    Schiller, who became co-director at the theater, urged Goetheto finish the first part of Faust, which he did in 1808. Goetheproduced most of his friend's plays and when Schiller died in 1805,lamented that he had lost "half of my existence." SubsequentlyGoethe's enthusiasm for the theater diminished, and when the duke'smistress took control of the company in 1817 he resigned. Goethe continuedto work on the second part of Faust until a few months beforehis death in 1832. The work, a drama of mankind's indomitable spirit,was his crowning achievement.