Anglo-German Encounters with Drama and Poetry

This post was contributed by Catherine Angerson, a PhD student in the Department of Cultures and Languages. Here, Catherine reports on the Royal Society of Edinburgh Susan Manning Symposium on ‘Anglo-German Encounters with Drama and Poetry, 1760–1835’ held at the University of Edinburgh on 13–14 June.

Speakers travelled from Germany, Iceland, England and Belgium to join colleagues at the University of Edinburgh for a fascinating two-day discussion of reciprocal contacts between British and German dramatic and poetic literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The event took place the week before the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union and so I and the other participants were conscious of the contemporary relevance of our historical topic.

The topicality of satirical dramas

A sepia tone image of The Scott Monument in Edinburgh, taken in 1845 by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson

The Scott Monument, Edinburgh, photograph by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, 1845

The symposium began with two papers about the translation and adaptation of English plays for the German stage. Sonja Fielitz (Marburg) introduced the audience to German translations of Henry Fielding’s dramas for the Mannheim theatre. The success of satirical dramas depended on their topicality, and if translated literally, jokes and puns would have been lost on a new audience. Johannes Birgfeld’s (Saarland) paper on August von Kotzebue’s translations of English comedies showed that plays were translated in order to meet an increasing demand for new dramas for dozens of new theatres that opened all over the German-speaking world from the 1770s onwards and for almanacs of plays that families could perform at home.

Plays, especially melodramas, could be adapted or reimagined for a new domestic audience by changing the names, setting or topical references. Barry Murnane (Oxford) demonstrated that English dramatic adaptations of German Schauerliteratur (Gothic fiction), on the other hand, were deliberately menacing and foreign, presenting Germans as the dangerous ‘other’.

German poetry and drama in late eighteenth-century Scotland

The second panel focused on literary relations between Scotland and Germany. Scottish authors began to look to Germany for new dramatic and poetic sources that would help to revitalise and inspire what they felt to be a dormant national literature. Lucy Linforth (Edinburgh) showed that Walter Scott was aware of traces of the Scottish ballad Sweet William’s Ghost in Bürger’s ballad Lenore and that he used his knowledge of the Scottish ballad when he created his own translation of the German poem. Michael Wood (Edinburgh) examined the positive reception of German drama by Henry Mackenzie and Walter Scott in the 1780s and 1790s within the philosophical context of the Scottish Enlightenment. Lessing’s application of his theory of ‘Mitleid’ in dramas such as Emilia Galotti is closely allied with the role of ‘sympathy’ in Scottish moral sense philosophy and the sentimental novel.

The politics of Anglo-German cultural exchange

Phd student Catherine Angerson

Catherine Angerson

My own paper, which was part of a panel on ‘the politics of cultural exchange’, examined reviews of German poetry and drama in the Monthly Review. I linked the growing interest in German literature in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century to the intellectual culture of ‘rational’ Dissent and the networks of literary groups and families (such as the Aikin-Barbauld circle in Norwich and London) that allowed liberal-minded Dissenters to dominate the publication and writing of literary reviews during the period of study. I argued that ideas found in German literature were appropriated by the reviewers in support of their own religious, aesthetic or political aims and that the reviews contributed to some of the wider debates that played out in the pages of literary journals, particularly between proponents and opponents of political and religious reform in the decade following the French Revolution. New research presented at this event is revealing national and regional differences in the history of Anglo-German cultural exchange that have not been explored before.

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