Friedrich Schiller was part of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) literary movement in Germany during the mid to late eighteenth century. Although not an organised, self-conscious group with unifying philosophical and/or literary principles, their collective dramatic works, nevertheless, do contain similar traits. Taking inspiration from Shakespeare’s strong focus on character, Sturm und Drang writers, like Schiller, tended to create characters that were victims of their environment, reacting in either an explosive and violent way or with passive and chronic melancholy, or both. These writers did not focus solely on character but also on why a character develops the way it does within the realm of a broader moral and social order (Leidner:xi). In order to understand why these writers developed this unique perspective and style, a basic understanding of their social and political environment is required.
Germany during the eighteenth century was “a patchwork of some three hundred tiny states”, most ruled by “Fursten” who, while not actually being royalty, were “sovereigns in their own right” (Leidner: vii). This socio/political situation had arisen during the latter part of the seventeenth century establishing an “extravagant baroque court culture” which was to be a major source of contention in coming years (Sharpe:6). Not only was Parliament composed of clergy, wealthy established families, military and other civic figures, but it used an outdated constitution and system from the previous century. To add further tension, in 1773 Pope Clemens XIV abolished the Jesuit order. The Jesuits were a very well respected across Germany, including the people of the Swabian district, where Schiller grew up. The foundations of society were increasingly unstable as the ruling hierarchy were becoming more at odds and out of touch with the wider, and much poorer, community. This cultural and social shift, along with the socio/political ascent of a new middle-class created the basis for an aggressive and scrupulous critique of German society using the theatrical stage as its platform. Schiller was a major force in this nascent movement and created a unique style and point of view that continues to resonate over two hundred years later.
When Schiller’s first play The Robbers was first performed at the Mannheim National Theatre in 1783, the reaction was verging on the hysterical as one eyewitness report noted: “The Theatre was like a madhouse: rolling eyeballs, clenched fists, stamping feet, hoarse cries in the auditorium! Complete strangers fell sobbing into each other’s arms. Women staggered almost fainting to the door” (Sharpe:29). The impact was so strong that, by order of the Duke of Württemberg, Schiller was placed under arrest and forbidden to write another play. Schiller took flight and left for Stuttgart. The main reason for this hysteria was the provocative inquiries into the existence of god by its two main characters: the brothers Karl and Franz. Karl is the much loved and respected first son. His quest is one of revolutionary anarchy. But unlike Franz, his real battles are taking place within his own conscience. Franz is the universally despised materialist and villain who is ruthlessly in pursuit of wealth and power. These two characters are rivals for their frail father’s (Old Moor) affection and when this is not forthcoming, embark on individual paths of deceit and destruction. Both confront their internal demons and both defiantly come to their own distinct conclusions. Written in the late eighteenth century, it is a play that looks at the nature of man as being subject to emotions, acting both irrationally and rationally using his idiosyncratic sense of reason and logic. Like Old Moor, god is distant and ineffectual leaving the protagonists ultimately responsible for their own actions. It is a play that sets the tone for the internalization of moral dilemmas and the voice of reason: the stark awareness of conscience. It is also a complex investigation into the notions of good and evil.
Two years after writing The Robbers, Schiller explained his ideas about the role of theatre in his essay The Stage as a Moral Institution (1784). In it he states “Both laws and religion are strengthened by a union with the stage” (Gerould:250). The stage he believed was a place where people can “hear the truth”, where “purer and better principles and motives” can be discussed, and “opinions about governments and classes might be reformed”, as well as it being “a great school of practical wisdom, a guide for civil life, and a key to the mind”(250-254). The stage, he believed, should ultimately act as a “moral force” by reinforcing the religious principles which civil society abides. But his idea that the stage is the “handmaid of religion and philosophy” (251) presents some major conflicts of interest, as the two are not necessarily always aligned with each other, including during his time - the Enlightenment.
We recognise the Enlightenment as an intellectually fertile period when fresh ideas in philosophy, science and the arts began to filter out into the public arena challenging old currents of thought, practices and belief systems. With the culmination of previous knowledge and experience, there was a new optimistic attitude to the world of ideas and possibilities. New lines of thought were wearing down institutionalised traditions. Brash and diverse approaches to old institutions were setting the stage for even greater change to come. Amongst its achievements, it emancipated science and intellectual life from the ecclesiastical clutches of the church and thus opening the way for broader and at times radical discourses to cultivate.
The Enlightenment was a milestone in human history, one that has, perhaps, yet to be surpassed and one worth revisiting and expanding on. Michel Onfray is resolute; “We can and must subscribe to the Enlightenment project which remains as viable as ever” so that we as a species can lift ourselves out of our “infantile condition” and into “adulthood” (4). Christopher Hitchens exclaims “we are in need of a renewed enlightenment” (283) and finds it “of interest… how many great minds thought alike, and intersected with eachother” during the eighteenth century (266). One example of this intersection is that of philosopher Immanuel Kant and Schiller. Kant, though religious, “overthrew the cosmological proof of God” (265) challenging the idea that religion and only religion can form the foundation for what is considered moral behaviour. Kant’s basis for morality, says Dawkins, was “duty for duty’s sake rather than for God’s” as seen in his golden rule to “act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (231). The idea is that despite a person being detached from religion or god, one is able – and has a duty – to use reason to autonomously come to the conclusion that it is best to behave with scruples in the interest of both oneself and for the benefit of others. “Moral autonomy is the self-legislation of practical reason in a sensible rational human being. Schiller takes this concept from Kant” (Roehr:120). Therefore if we have “moral autonomy” and “practical reason” as well as the ability to act sensibly and rationally then perhaps an approach based on atheism could reasonably be a solution when the idea of god comes into question.
Writers and thinkers of all persuasions, during this time, paid close scrutiny, in particular, to the pious and religious institutions, something not lost on Schiller. He notes in the preface to The Robbers; “These days it is in such good taste to exercise one’s sarcasm at the expense of religion that it is practically impossible to pass for a genius without deriding its most sacred truths” (Leidner:300). Being a religious man as well, his intention for writing The Robbers, he states, was firstly to copy “nature true to life” and hopefully provide “religion and morality no small revenge in depicting these malicious despisers of the holy scripture in the form of my most abominable robbers” (Leidner:300). It is ironic that by copying “nature verbatim” (300) Schiller endows his characters with the liberty of exercising their own free will which unintentionally aligns Schiller’s narrative with atheist discourse. Schiller was clearly a man of his time and The Robbers certainly challenged the dominant socio-politico-religious paradigm despite his nominal pro-religious intentions.
Despite the shock many felt initially, for many The Robbers contains a direct revolutionary message, especially given the events that were to unfold a few years later in France. In fact, so strong was this perception that, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Schiller was made an honorary French citizen by the French National Convention in 1792. Over ten years after its first performance its effects were still shocking people. In 1794 a young Coleridge exclaimed after reading the play, “Who is this Schiller? This convulser of the heart?” (Brandt:19). One hundred years after his birth Schiller was considered “simply a convenient emblem”, well respected and often quoted (Reed:106). Socialist revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg, in her letters from prison to friend Sonja Liebknecht writes that her mother thought Schiller and the Bible to be the “highest source(s) of wisdom” (Bronner:208). Luxemburg, who was actually born in Poland but relocated to Germany aged twenty-eight, was not so much interested in appropriating Schiller as the revolutionary figure but rather Schiller the idealist, though adds, “this could not be done without reading Karl Marx” (Martinson: 274). Some years later the Nazis had no qualms about appropriating Schiller as a comrade-in-arms and as a result, after World War Two, the works of Schiller were seen as tainted and “Nazi-infected” (281). It wasn’t until the 1950s that new perspectives on Schiller were investigated exploring beyond the image of the political agitator. However, it must be noted, the German Democratic Republic continued to view Schiller as a heroic symbol of communist ideals (281).
Post World War Two, The Robbers is rarely performed and investigations into Schiller’s work are largely scholarly and intellectual endeavours. Some scholars suggest, “more research is needed on performances of his plays and their reception” in order to explore more fully the continued impact of Schiller (293). In February 2008 the University of Toronto in Canada produced an ambitious interpretation of The Robbers set in a high school classroom. The rewritten script, commissioned by The Gate Theatre London in 1995, shortens the play by half. They appear to be following the trend that “theatres seem to have few scruples in refashioning Schiller’s plays in the style of the day, to be sure, this can uncover new aspects of his texts” (290). Indeed post-production notes by Director Johanna Schall (Bertolt Brecht’s grand-daughter) illustrate the issues of god and religion caused no great fuss. Apart from suggesting the story of Karl and Franz is fundamentally the biblical parable of the lost son according to Luke and that religion (and the Law) are merely “social constraints” to an individuals pursuit of happiness; the religious question was not considered of paramount importance, certainly not shocking or outrageous. Discussions appear to focus more on issues such as fathers, happiness, robbery and the structure and historical context of the play. Statistics from Schall’s audience survey accounts (in order) that 153 people thought the play was about fathers, 145 thought it was about death and interestingly in third position, only 113 thought it was about god. A review from The Varsity (University of Toronto’s student newspaper) condescendingly concluded this rewritten version of The Robbers while enjoyable to watch holds “ideas and ideology easily held by the young” (11.2.08). Although Schall points out the discussions were “very exciting and quite wild” it, unsurprisingly, was not received in the same vein as the original production and the topic of atheism hardly even mentioned.