Lessing on Lessing, in the Hamburg Dramaturgy

If you know Lessing principally as the author of the Laocoon (as I did), then Hamburg Dramaturgy, a collection of his popular theater reviews, is sure to cast him in a stunning new light. Who knew Lessing was such a wit? (I, at least, did not.) Though he is still known for his ironic literary style, the academic quips on which this reputation is based can hardly compare to the sharp-tongued prose and relentless raillery of his then-widely-read and much-acclaimed print column.

In fact, if it wasn’t for Victor Lange’s footnote, you might not know that the performance reviewed by Lessing (below) was of a play written by Lessing himself. For that reason (but not that reason alone), the suggestiveness for which he was famous seems to shine through all the more clearly in this strange, brief, hamstrung review of a performance of his own Miss Sara Sampson.

“It is not possible to demand more from art than what Mdlle. Henseln achieved in the role of Sara, and indeed the play altogether was well performed. It is a little too long and it is therefore generally shortened at most theatres. Whether the author would be well satisfied with all these excisions, I almost incline to doubt. We know what authors are, if we want to take from them a mere bit of padding they cry out: You touch my life! It is true that by leaving out parts the excessive length of a play is clumsily remedied, and I do not understand how it is possible to shorten a scene without changing the whole sequence of a dialogue. But if the author does not like these foreign abbreviations, why does he not curtail it himself, if he thinks it is worth the trouble and is not one of those persons who put children into the world and then withdraw their hands from them for ever.” (“G. E. Lessing, ”No. 13,” in Hamburg Dramaturgy. Translated by Helen Zimmern. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1890 (1962): 38).