Marx-Engels Correspondence 1859

Engels To Ferdinand Lassalle
In Berlin

Source: MECW Volume 40, p. 441;
First published: in Die Neue Zeit, Nr. 18, 1922.

Manchester, 18 May 1859
6 Thorncliffe Grove

Dear Lassalle,

You will have found it somewhat strange that I haven’t written to you for so long, the more so since I owe you an opinion on your Sickingen [F. Lassalle, Franz von Sickingen]. But that is precisely what has kept me from writing to you for so long. With the current and universal barrenness of fiction I seldom have a chance to read such a work, and for years I have never had a chance to read one of this kind in such a way that the reading of it resulted in a detailed judgment, a precisely stated opinion. The rubbish isn’t worth the trouble. Even the few better English novels I read from time to time, e.g. those of Thackeray, have never been able to elicit this interest in me, despite their undeniable literary and cultural significance. But, having lain fallow for so long, my judgment has lost most of its edge and I need a good deal of time before I can permit myself to express an opinion. Your Sickingen, however, deserves better treatment than that sort of stuff and so I've taken my time. The first and second readings of what is in every sense, both as regards material and treatment, a German national drama, stirred my emotions to the extent that I was compelled to put it aside for a while, the more so as my taste has become so vitiated in these lean times that it has reduced me, I'm ashamed to say, to a state in which sometimes even stuff of inferior quality inevitably has some effect on me at the first reading. So in order to be wholly unbiased, wholly ‘critical’, I put Sickingen away, i. e. allowed a few of my acquaintances to borrow it (there are still a few Germans here who are more or less knowledgeable about literature). Habent sua fata libelli [books have their destinies] — if they're borrowed one rarely sets eyes on them again, and so I actually had to recover my Sickingen by force. I can tell you that, after the third and fourth readings, my impression has remained unaltered and, in the knowledge that your Sickingen can stand up to criticism, I shall now speak my mind.

I know that I am not paying you any particular compliment when I state the fact that not one of Germany’s present official poets would be remotely capable of writing such a play. However, fact it is and one all too characteristic of our literature not to be voiced. Taking the formal aspect first, your skilful manipulation of the plot and the thoroughly dramatic nature of the piece came as a very pleasant surprise. Admittedly you have taken a good many liberties with the versification but this is more bothersome in the reading than it would be on the stage. I should very much like to have read the stage version; as the play stands here it could certainly not be performed; I have had with me here a young German poet (Carl Siebel), a distant relative who hails from my neighbourhood, and has had a good deal to do with the stage. He may be coming to Berlin as a reservist in the Prussian Guard, in which case I may take the liberty of giving him a note for you. He thought highly of your play but considered a performance quite impracticable by reason of the long speeches in which only one actor is occupied while the others may run through their entire miming routine 2 or 3 times so as not to stand there like dummies. The last two acts give adequate proof that you experience no difficulty in making your dialogue brisk and lively and since, with the exception of a few scenes (as happens in any play), the same thing would seem to be feasible in the first 3, I don’t doubt you have taken this circumstance into account in your stage version. The intellectual content must, of course, suffer as a result — but that’s inevitable, and the complete fusion of greater intellectual profundity, of a consciously historical content (both of which you ascribe, not without reason, to the German drama), with Shakespearean vivacity and wealth of action will probably not be achieved — and perhaps not even by the Germans — until some time in the future. Indeed, that, to my mind, is where the future of the drama lies. Your Sickingen is entirely on the right lines; the chief protagonists in the action are representative of certain classes and tendencies, hence of certain ideas of their time, and derive their motives not from the petty appetites of the individual but from the very historical current by which they are borne along. But there is one advance that might yet be made in that these motives should emerge more of themselves, in a live, active, as it were spontaneous manner, more through the development of the action, while on the other hand reasoned debate (in which, by the way, I rediscovered with pleasure your old eloquence before the Assizes and the popular meeting) becomes increasingly superfluous. You yourself seem to recognise this ideal as a goal, since you draw a distinction between stage drama and literary drama; I admit that Sickingen could be turned into a stage drama along the lines indicated, difficult though this would be (for it is truly no mean accomplishment). The characterisation of the protagonists is linked with this. You quite rightly oppose the cheap individualisation now prevalent, which amounts to nothing more than petty intellectual fireworks and is an essential characteristic of ineffectual imitative literature. At the same time it seems to me that a person is not characterised merely by what he does, but also by how he does it; and in this respect it would, I think, have done the intellectual content of the play no harm had clearer distinctions and stronger contrasts been drawn between individual characters. The characterisation of the ancients no longer suffices today, and it is here, I think, that you might to your own advantage have paid rather more attention to the importance of Shakespeare in the historical development of the drama. But these are minor points which I bring up only to show you that I have also concerned myself with the formal aspect of your play.

Now, as regards the historical content, you have presented what to you were the two most important aspects of the movement of that period very vividly and with justifiable reference to subsequent developments: the national aristocratic movement represented by Sickingen, and the humanist-theoretical movement, with its more extensive ramifications in the theological and ecclesiastical field, the Reformation. The scenes I like best are those between Sickingen and the Emperor and between the Legate and the Archbishop of Trier (here, in the contrast between the narrow-minded German prince of the church and the worldly Legate with his aesthetic and classical culture and political and theoretical foresight, you have, too, pulled off a nice piece of individual characterisation which nevertheless stems directly from the representative character of the two protagonists); in the scene between Sickingen and Charles the characterisation is also very striking. However, in making Hutten tell his life-story, the content of which you rightly describe as essential, you have chosen a desperate means of introducing that content into the play. Also of great importance is the conversation in Act V between Balthasar and Franz during which the former remonstrates with his master about the genuinely revolutionary policy he should have followed. It is here that the real tragedy becomes apparent; and, precisely because of this significance, it seems to me that it should have been rather more strongly indicated as early as Act III, in which there are several opportunities for this. But again I digress.

The attitude of the towns and the princes at that time is likewise portrayed more than once with great clarity, thereby pretty well exhausting what might be called the official elements of the movement as it then was. But something upon which I should say you had failed to lay due emphasis are the non-official, plebeian and peasant elements, with their concomitant theoretical representation. In its own way the peasant movement was just as national, just as hostile to the princes, as that of the aristocracy, and the colossal dimensions of the struggle in which it succumbed contrast most significantly with the levity with which the aristocracy, leaving Sickingen in the lurch, gave itself up to its historical calling of sycophancy. Even allowing for your concept of the drama which, as you will have seen, is rather too abstract, not realistic enough, in my opinion, I should say that the peasant movement deserved closer attention; certainly, the peasant scene with joss Fritz is true to type and the individuality of this ‘agitator’ is very accurately portrayed but, relative to the aristocratic movement, it does not represent with sufficient force what was then already a surging torrent of peasant agitation. In accordance with my view of the drama, which consists in not allowing the ideal to oust the real, or Schiller to oust Shakespeare, the introduction of society’s plebeian section, so wonderfully colourful at the time, would have provided material of a quite different kind with which to animate the play, an incomparable backdrop for the national aristocratic movement going on down-stage, which would itself thus appear in its true light for the first time. What bizarre portraits does this period of dissolving feudal ties not bring forth! Vagabond beggar kings, hungry mercenaries and adventurers of all kinds — a Falstaffian backdrop which, in a historical play in this sense, must needs be even more effective than in Shakespeare! But apart from that, I should say more particularly that neglect of the peasant movement is what has led you to give an incorrect idea, or so it seems to me, of one aspect of the national aristocratic movement also, while at the same time allowing the truly tragic element in Sickingen’s fate to escape you. In, my view, it never occurred to the bulk of the nobility then subject directly to the emperor to form an alliance with the peasants; their dependence on the income deriving from oppression of the peasants did not admit of this. An alliance with the towns would have been rather more feasible, but this did not come about either, or only in isolated instances. The national aristocratic revolution could, however, only have been effected by means of an alliance with the towns and the peasants, particularly the latter; and to my mind the tragic element lies precisely in the fact that this essential condition, alliance with the peasants, was impossible; that the policy of the aristocracy was therefore necessarily petty; that at the very moment when the aristocracy sought to take its place at the head of the national movement, the bulk of the nation, the peasants, protested against its leadership and hence ensured its downfall. To what extent there is any historical foundation for your assumption that Sickingen really did have some contact with the peasants, I am not able to judge, nor is it in any way relevant. So far as I can recall, by the way, whenever Hutten’s writings are addressed to the peasants, they skate over the ticklish question of the aristocracy and seek to focus the peasants’ wrath primarily on the clergy. But in no way do I dispute your right to portray Sickingen and Hutten as though it had been their intention to emancipate the peasants. However, this immediately presented you with the tragic contradiction whereby these two found themselves placed between the aristocracy on the one hand, who definitely did not want this, and the peasants on the other. Here, in my view, lay the tragic clash between the historically necessary postulate and the impossibility of its execution in practice. By discarding this element you reduce the tragic conflict to the fact that Sickingen does not join battle straight away with Emperor and Empire, but with one prince only (although here too your tact rightly leads you to introduce the peasants), while his downfall is made to ensue from nothing more than the indifference and pusillanimity of the aristocracy. This would, however, have been quite differently motivated had you laid more stress at an earlier stage on the mounting peasant movement and the mood of the aristocracy, inevitably grown more conservative as a result of the earlier Bundschuh and Poor Konrad movements. All this, incidentally, represents only one way in which the peasant and plebeian movement might be brought into the play; one could think of at least ten others which would be just as good, if not better.

As you can see, I am judging your work by a very high standard, indeed the highest there is, from both the aesthetic and the historical point of view, and the fact that I have to do so in order to raise an objection here and there will provide you with the best proof of my appreciation. Between ourselves criticism has, of course, for years been necessarily as outspoken as possible in the interests of the party itself; but this aside, it is always a great pleasure to me and all of us when we are given fresh proof that our party, irrespective of the field in which it makes an appearance, invariably does so with distinction. And that is what you, too, have done on this occasion.

In other respects it would seem that world events are about to take a truly delectable course. It would be difficult to imagine a better basis for a thorough-going German revolution than that provided by a Franco-Russian alliance. The water has to be right up to our necks before we Germans are gripped en masse by the furor teutonicus; and this time we would seem to be in sufficient danger of drowning. Tant mieux. In such a crisis all existing powers must necessarily be ruined and all the parties crumble one after another, from the Kreuz-Zeitung. to Gottfried Kinkel, and from Count Rechberg to ‘Hecker, Struve, Blenker, Zitz and Blum'; in such a struggle the moment must necessarily come when only the most ruthless and resolute party is in a position to save the nation and, at the same time, the conditions be given which alone make it possible to jettison completely all the old trumpery — internal dissension on the one hand and, on the other, the Polish and Italian appendages which are the legacy of Austria. We must not cede an inch of Prussian Poland and what [...]