Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (22 January 1729 – 15 February 1781) was a German writer, philosopher, dramatist, publicist and art critic, and one of the most outstanding representatives of the Enlightenment era.
His plays and theoretical writings substantially influenced the development of a German literature. Furthermore, he is now widely considered to be the very first dramaturg.
Why is Lessing so important?
Academics see Lessing's works such as Miss Sara Sampson and Emilia Galotti as amongst the first European bourgeois tragedies, his Minna von Barnhelm as the model for classic German comedies and his Nathan the Wise as the first German 'drama of ideas'.
In terms of European 'bourgeois tragedies' (or bürgerliches Trauerspiel), the form developed in 18th-century Europe and was a direct product of the enlightenment, highlighting the emergence of a bourgeois class with its own set of ideals. The genre is defined by the fact that its protagonists are ordinary citizens, citizens that must overcome adverse circumstances or resist a change in their world.
Up until the rise of the bürgerliches Trauerspiel, the cultural belief at the time was that the tragic hero had to be drawn from the nobility, as only they were seen as capable of suffering and worthy of dramatic literature.
Lessing, Emilia & the Theatre
Lessing's Emilia Galotti is often seen as one of the most shocking plays of its time, but viewed through the prism of Lessing adapting the Roman myth of Virginia, the story relocated to his time and sphere is a fascinating exploration of social order, the role of women in society and the nature of power.
The power of the play is best observed as the rapid descent from high comedy to dark tragedy, echoing Lessing's powerful desire to make the audience feel something profound. For Lessing, theatre was his pulpit.
'Compared with this, how indifferent, how cold is our people towards the theatre! Whence this difference if it does not arise from the fact that the Greeks felt themselves animated by their stage with such intense, such extraordinary emotions, that they could hardly await the moment to experience them again and again, whereas we are conscious of such weak impressions from our stage that we rarely deem it worth time and money to attain them. We most of us go to the theatre from idle curiosity, from fashion, from ennui, to see people, from desire to see and be seen, and only a few, and those few very seldom, go from any other motive.'
(Lessing, Hamburg Dramaturgy, p.244)