GRABBE, Christian Dietrich (LITERATURE)

Born: Detmold, Westphalia, 11 December 1801. Education: Educated at Gymnasium, Detmold; studied law at Leipzig University, 1820-22; and also in Berlin. Family: Married Luise Clostermeier (separated). Career: Attempted, unsuccessfully, to become an actor, 1823; established a legal practice in Detmold, 1824; military legal officer, 1826-34, resigning under pressure because of his dissolute lifestyle; quarrelled with Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Tieck, and Karl Immermann, losing their friendship and support; lived in Dusseldorf, 1835; contracted a spinal illness, and returned to Detmold. Died: 12 September 1836.



Werke und Briefe, edited by Alfred Bergmann. 6 vols., 1960-73.

Werke, edited by Roy C. Cowen. 3 vols., 1975-77.


Herzog Theodor von Gothland (produced 1892). In Dramatische

Dichtungen, 1827.

Scherz, Satire, Ironie und tiefere Bedeutung (produced 1876). In Dramatische Dichtungen, 1827; translated as Comedy, Satire, Irony and Deeper Meaning, 1955.

Marius und Sulla (produced 1936). In Dramatische Dichtungen, 1827.

Nannette und Maria (produced 1914). In Dramatische Dichtungen, 1827.

Dramatische Dichtungen. 2 vols., 1827.

Don Juan und Faust (produced 1829). 1829; translated 1963.

Die Hohenstaufen I: Kaiser Friedrich Barbarossa (produced 1875). 1829

Die Hohenstaufen II: Kaiser Heinrich der Sechste (produced 1875). 1830.

Napoleon; oder, Die hundert Tage (produced in a shortened version,1869; complete version produced 1895). 1831.

Aschenbrodel (produced 1937). 1835.

Kosciuszko (incomplete; produced 1940). 1835.

Hannibal (produced 1918). 1835.

Die Hermannsschlacht (produced 1934). 1838

Critical Studies:

Grabbes Leben und Charakter by Karl Ziegler, 1885, reprinted 1981; Christian Dietrich Grabbe by R. von Gottschall, 1901; Christian Dietrich Grabbe: Sein Leben und seine Werke by O. Nieten, 1908, reprinted 1978; Die Glaubwurdigkeit der Zeugnisse fur den Lebensgang und Charakter Christian Dietrich Grabbes, 1933, and Christian Dietrich Grabbe: Chronik seines Lebens, 1954, both by Alfred Bergmann; Grabbes Werke in der zeitgenossischen Kritik, 6 vols., 1958-66, and Grabbe in Berichten seiner Zeitgenossen, 1968, both edited by Alfred Bergmann; Grabbe: Glanz und Elend eines Dichters by F. Bottger, 1963; Idea and Reality in the Dramas of Christian Dietrich Grabbe by A.W. Hornsey, 1966; Christian Dietrich Grabbe by W. Steffens, 1966, revised edition, 1972; The Dramas of Christian Dietrich Grabbe by R.A. Nicholls, 1969; Grabbes Dramenformen by W. Hegele, 1970; Christian Dietrich Grabbe by R.C. Cowen, 1972; Deutung undDokumentation: Studien zum Geschichtsdrama Christian Dietrich Grabbes, 1973, and Brecht und Grabbe: Rezeption eines dramatischen Erbes, 1979, both by Hans-Werner Nieschmidt; Destruktion und utopische Gemeinschaft. Zur Thematik und Dramaturgie des Heroischen im Werk Christian Dietrich Grabbes by Manfred Schneider, 1973; Grabbe-Studien by Alfred Bergmann, 1977; Byron und Grabbe: Ein geistesgeschichtlicher Vergleich by Ulrich Wesche, 1978; Grabbe und sein Verhaltnis zur Tradition by David Horton, 1980; Geschichte und Gesellschaft in den Dramen Christian Dietrich Grabbes by Detlev Kopp, 1982; Christian Dietrich Grabbe: Leben, Werk, Wirkung by Lothar Ehrlich, 1983; Literaturrezeption und historische Krisenerfahrung: Die Rezeption der Dramen Christian Dietrich Grabbes 1827-1945 by M. Vogt, 1983; Grabbe im Dritten Reich. Zum nationalsozialistischen Grabbe-Kult, 1986, and Christian Dietrich Grabbe: Ein Symposium, 1987, both edited by W. Broer and W. Kopp; Die Logik yon Zerstorung und Grossenphantasie in den Dramen Christian Dietrich Grabbes by Antonio Cortesi, 1986; Christian Dietrich Grabbe: Leben und Werk by Lothar Ehrlich, 1986;Grabbes GegenentwUrfe: Neue Deutungen seiner Dramen edited by W. Freund, 1986; Christian Dietrich Grabbe by Ladislaus Lob, 1996; Christian Dietrich Grabbe: Dramatiker ungeloster WidersprUche by Ron C. Cowen, 1998; Lachen der Verzweiflung: Grabbe, ein Leben by Jorg Aufenanger, 2001.

”What is to become of a person whose first memory is taking an old murderer for a walk in the open air?,” Christian Dietrich Grabbe asked Karl Immermann in a reminiscence about his childhood. While the question, as usual with Grabbe, contained an overstatement of the truth, the answer is that he became one of Germany’s major dramatists. He was described by Sigmund Freud as ”an original and rather peculiar poet,” by Heine as ”a drunken Shakespeare,” and by Immermann as both ”a wild, ruined nature” and ”an outstanding talent.” Although the image of a flawed genius, which dogged Grabbe in his lifetime, still persists, the irregularities of his plays are now more often regarded as an integral part of their originality.

The only child of the local jailer, Grabbe felt oppressed and alienated in his provincial home town of Detmold where, as he wrote to Ludwig Tieck, ”an educated person is looked upon as an inferior kind of fattened ox” (letter of 29 August 1823). Physically sickly and emotionally unstable, swinging between sullen shyness and aggressive self-assertion, arrogantly demanding recognition but unwilling to please or to conform, uncouth in company, erratic in his post as army legal officer, entangled in a destructive marriage, and precipitating an early death by excessive drinking, he appeared as the archetype of the dissolute bohemian artist. While it is not clear how far his ”bizarreness” was natural or assumed in order to shock, the ”Grabbe legend” soon became confused with, and has often overshadowed, his work.

After his death Grabbe was forgotten owing to the classical orientation of literary fashion until later in the 19 th century when both nationalists and naturalists rediscovered him as a kindred spirit. In the 20th century, expressionists welcomed him as a fellow-outcast from bourgeois society, dadaists and surrealists acclaimed him as another rebel against rationality, the Nazis celebrated him as a champion of ”blood and soil,” and Brecht placed him alongside J.M.R. Lenz and Georg Buchner in the ”non-Aristotelian” strain leading from the Elizabethans to his own Marxist epic theatre. On the German stage he was first adopted in the 1870s, revived in the early 1920s and late 1930s, and finally included in the standard repertory—chiefly with Scherz, Satire, Ironie und tiefere Bedeutung (Comedy, Satire, Irony and Deeper Meaning) and Napoleon; oder, Die hundert Tage [Napoleon, or, The Hundred Days]—in the 1950s, although he is still largely unknown in other countries.

In philosophical terms Grabbe is generally seen—together with Byron, Lamartine, Leopardi, and Heine—as the product of a period in which idealism was superseded by materialism, with young writers facing a spiritual void in a mood of post-romantic scepticism and melancholy. His early plays—particularly Herzog Theodor von Gothland and Comedy, Satire, Irony and Deeper Meaning, a gothic melodrama and a black comedy—reveal the despair of ”intellect spent and emotion shattered” (letter to George Ferdinand Kettembeil, 4 May 1827). A similar disillusionment awakens superhuman desires in Don Juan und Faust (Don Juan and Faust)—his only play to be performed while he was alive—which ”glorifies the tragic fall of the sensualist and the metaphysician” alike (letter to Christian von Meien, 6 January 1829). Nihilism also underlies his later plays— notably Napoleon and Hannibal—which blend the longing for powerful heroes with a sense of futility in view of the baseness of human nature and the impermanence of all things. Current affairs were of little interest to him. Thus he abandoned a trendily patriotic Hohenstaufen cycle after two instalments on the Emperors Barbarossa and Heinrich VI, while his last play, Die Hermannsschlacht [Arminius's Battle], was inspired by his ”best childhood memories” (letter to Louise Grabbe, 8 January 1835) of its setting in the Teutoburg Forest near Detmold, rather than by the chauvinism traditionally associated with the topic. Nevertheless, his pessimism and cynicism can be interpreted as an oblique response to the uncongenial socio-political conditions of the ”Restauration” era.

By common consent Grabbe’s prime achievement consists in his innovations in historical drama. Unlike the historical plays of Schiller and his followers, which were classical in style and idealistic in message, his are prosaic in language, episodic in structure, and realistic in outlook. They portray history as determined not by ideas or individuals but by mass movements and the contingencies of time, place, and circumstance. Foreshadowed in Marius und Sulla, further developed in Die Hohenstaufen, and culminating in Napoleon and Hannibal, his re-creation of the broad flow of history itself has been much admired. He was hardly exaggerating when—referring to Napoleon but with his historical drama as a whole in mind—he claimed to have brought about ”a dramatic-epic-revolution” (letter to Kettembeil, 25 February 1831).

Grabbe’s ”revolution” in historical drama involved a revolutionary handling of drama as such. Dismissed in the past as signs of ineptitude, capriciousness, or a pathological psyche, his approaches now seem eminently modern. Teeming with incongruities and distortions, deliberately avoiding harmony or beauty, his disjoined actions, ambiguous characters, and dissonant dialogues not only express the conflicts he experienced in his own age but anticipate the ”open” form and ”absurd” content favoured by dramatists today.

Commenting on Napoleon, Grabbe once declared: ”I haven’t taken any trouble over its shape as a drama. The present stage doesn’t deserve it” (letter to Kettembeil, 2 October 1830). On another occasion, however, he noted: ”Drama is not bound to the stage . . . the proper theatre is—the imagination of the reader” (letter to Wolfgang Menzel, 15 January 1831). We cannot tell whether Grabbe’s refusal to compromise with the stage resulted from his anger over the theatrical conventions of his day or from more general doubts about theatrical production as a vehicle for poetic utterances. If the latter is true, then the paradox of a born dramatist who does not believe in theatre could be the key to both the successes and the failures of this maverick in the evolution of German drama.

Next post:

Previous post: