This essay appeared in the programmes for both the Chichester and Hampstead productions under the title 'Lessing's Humanity'

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781)

If there were ever to be a patron saint of dramaturgs then Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wouldn’t be a bad candidate.  He was German (a good start), held the post of literary adviser during at least one of the many 18th century attempts to launch a German National Theatre and penned “the first really substantial German contribution to dramatic theory”, which was even called Hamburgische Dramaturgie.  He discoursed polemically on subjects from fine art to theology, was a qualified medic and knew English, French, Spanish, Latin, Greek and Hebrew.  He wrote the first long-running German comedy, the first bourgeois tragedy, and in Nathan The Wise created one of the most significant dramatic works of the European Enlightenment.  He was also an inveterate gambler, a keen horseman, an enthusiastic dancer and quite capable of arguing one case passionately today and the opposite just as fervently tomorrow. 

Exactly how he’d take the idea of canonisation I’m not so sure.  The son of a Lutheran pastor (who was appalled when his son abandoned his theological studies for the theatre, and not at all appeased by young Gotthold’s suggestion that he might become the German Molière) Lessing’s relationship to Christianity was never straightforward.  His final work, The Education Of The Human Race (which posits a kind of post-religious Christianity of the kind favoured by much modern theology and presents an individuated God a hundred and fifty years before Jung) tellingly takes its epigraph from St Augustine: “For the same reasons this is all in a certain sense true and in a certain sense false”.  It seems to have been the narrow-minded superstition of contemporary Christianity, exhibited in its slavish adherence to a Bible that “clearly contains more than is essential to religion”, which aroused his rationalist ire.  But just as Nathan’s empiricism does not deny the existence of angels, so Lessing’s rationalism in no way excludes the spirit, nor did his intellectual relativism reject the possibility that there might in fact be a definitive truth. “Religion is not true because evangelists and apostles taught it, but they taught it because it was true” he argued in the course of the religious controversy that would eventually give birth to Nathan, and in his version of Boccaccio’s story of the rings the possibility is held out that one day a judge might come who can tell us which of the three rings is the true one. But Lessing famously wrote that if God offered him the choice between the truth and the quest for the truth he would choose the latter.  The truth is out there, says Lessing, he’s just not entirely sure it’s healthy for us to know it.  Why? Because when we believe we have the truth we tend to do terrible things to other humans.

Lessing certainly knew what the Christian claim to the truth had done to the Jews in Germany even before the events of the twentieth century.  A review of his early comedy The Jews described it as improbable because a Jew could not be upright and noble.  In reply Lessing quoted a letter from his closest friend Moses Mendelssohn (grandfather of the composer), who was known as the ‘German Socrates’, was idolised and visited by intellectuals from all over Europe, yet entered Berlin through the Rosenthal Gate, the only one open to Jews and to cattle, and struggled all his life to gain any kind of legal status for himself and for his family.  To Lessing his Jewish chess companion was living proof of one of the Enlightenment’s major tenets: he had “become what he was by the force of his own thinking, with the help of only a few books”.  Selbstdenken  - independent thinking for oneself - was always paramount to Lessing, he relished it in himself and sought to provoke it in others: “I am not duty-bound to resolve the difficulties I create.  May my ideas always be somewhat disjunct, or even appear to contradict one another, if only they are ideas in which readers will find material that stirs them to think for themselves”.

This wilfulness may go someway to explain the extraordinary confection that is Nathan The Wise and which makes it quite unlike anything else Lessing wrote or anything else in the German theatrical canon.  In part this uniqueness must have resulted from the play’s need to use subterfuge to hide its unorthodox religious views.  A dramatic fable set in a historical and oriental setting would not be subject to the same censorship as a polemical pamphlet.  Lessing broke with his own and contemporary convention by calling it neither a tragedy nor a comedy, but ‘a dramatic poem’ and wrote it, unlike any of his other completed plays, in verse.  But the iambic pentameter is so shot through with interruptions and run-on lines, exclamations and elisions (not to mention Lessing’s own system of speech-based punctuation) that the pulse of the verse is often hard to perceive.  Nor does its poetry consist much in lyrical outbursts but more in the symmetry of its construction, which adds considerably to the sense of Providence at work; a pattern of redemption whose closest kin at times seems to be the late plays of Shakespeare. 

It’s well known that Lessing was one of the first great German champions of Shakespeare.  While theatrical orthodoxy held in esteem the pale imitations of French classicism, it was Lessing who pointed out that for all their flouting of Aristotelian conventions Romeo And Juliet, Hamlet and Othello are greater plays than the tragedies of Voltaire, and encouraged his compatriots to study Shakespeare. But unlike his followers it was not the mixing of comedy and tragedy that appealed to Lessing, indeed he argued against it, and though there’s certainly a Shakespearean mix in Nathan, the play as a whole tends towards an Aristotelian unity of time, if not quite action and place.  What Lessing valued in Shakespeare was the power of his psychological penetration.  Once again, it was the human and the personal that attracted this most polemical of writers.  And it is especially poignant therefore that this great work of the Enlightenment should have at its core a human tragedy.  In 1776 at the age of 47 he married Eva König, a widow to whom he had been engaged for five years.  A son was born on Christmas day the following year, but he survived only a few hours, Eva herself died shortly afterwards.  “My wife is dead,” Lessing wrote to a friend, “and so now I’ve had this experience too.  I’m glad there aren’t many similar experiences left for me to have”.  For a man so determined to believe in the benevolent design of the universe it must have been a bitter test.

Ten years after the end of the Nazi regime (under which both Nathan The Wise and The Jews were banned) and at the height of the Cold War, the German-born Jewish writer Hannah Arendt selected Gotthold Lessing as one of her Men In Dark Times.  She noted how the theme of friendship runs through Nathan The Wise: “this friendship is obviously so much more important to Lessing than the passion of love that he can brusquely cut the love story off short … and transform it into a relationship in which friendship is required and love ruled out”.  She concludes that “In the end Nathan’s wisdom consists solely in his readiness to sacrifice truth to friendship”.  Looking at her own age she considers “Suppose that a race could indeed be shown, by indubitable scientific evidence to be inferior …Would any such doctrine, however convincingly proved, be worth the sacrifice of so much as a single friendship between two men? … Lessing would not have found any difficulty in answering the question.  No insight into the nature of Islam or Judaism or of Christianity could have kept him from entering into a friendship with a convinced Mohammedan or a pious Jew or a believing Christian.  Any doctrine that in principle barred the possibility of friendship between two human beings would have been rejected by his untrammelled and unerring conscience.  He would instantly have taken the human side and given short shrift to the learned or unlearned discussion in either camp.  That was Lessing’s humanity”.  Saint or no he is a man for these times.