Iffland, August Wilhelm

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Iffland, August Wilhelm (1759-1814): German Playwright.

August Wilhelm Iffland was born to a well-to-do bourgeois household in Hanover. His family’s visits to the theater fueled Iffland’s early interests. Nevertheless, Iffland began his theater career against his parents’ wishes in 1777. He began at the court theater in Gotha under the direction of Ekhof and Reichof, gaining fame as a character actor. After Ekhof’s death in 1779, he moved to Mannheim, where Wolfgang H. v. Dalberg organized a German national theater. Here he worked as actor, director, and dramatist. He starred in the theater’s most famous premiers—as Hieronimus Billerbeck in Goldoni, Carlo’s comedy, “Geschwind eh’ es jemand erfährt” (“Disappear Before Someone Discovers It”), as Franz Mooor in Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von’s “Die Räuber” (“The Robbers”) and as Secretary Wurm in Schiller’s “Kabale und Liebe” (“Cabal and Love”). Iffland aid Dahlberg’s efforts to bring Shakespeare to the German stage, when he played Shylock and King Lear. The lack of appropriate plays, the pressure of an established theater, and a relatively small audience encouraged him to start writing his own plays. Iffland’s first play, Albert von Thurneysen received warm acclaim, but his 1784 play Verbrechen aus Ehrsucht (“Crime Motivated by Ambition”) brought him fame. Between 1785 and 1796 Iffland produced twenty of his own plays, mostly five-act dramas, of which “Die Jäger” (“The Hunters”), Die Hagestolzen (“The Confirmed Bachelors”), Der Vormund (“The Guardian”), and Der Spieler (“The Gambler”) remain the most well known.

Political unrest in Mannheim and personal difficulties with Dalberg induced Iffland to accept a job at the Berlin Theater in 1796, where he became Director in 1811. Iffland helped make the Berlin Theater one of Germany’s premier stages. In 1801, his efforts to acquire a new building succeeded. Iffland’s theatrical program, which produced Shakespeare, Calderon, Lope de Vega, and Corneille, led to his later characterization as a sponsor of ‘world literature’ in Germany. Iffland also sponsored the German Classicists, when he featured Goethe, Johann Wolfgang’s Egmont and Tasso as well as Schiller’s Fiesco and Wallenstein. Iffland’s dramas of choice remained bourgeois drama. In addition to producing his own plays, he favored the plays of Kotzebue, August Friedrich von, Ziegler, Bretzner, Engel, and Großmann. From 1806 to 1811 he recorded his efforts in a Theater Almanac, which printed some of his new works: Das Gewissen (“The Conscience”), Erinnerung (“Remembrance”), Selbstbeherrschung (“Self-Control”), Frauenstand (“Women’s Place”), Das Vaterhaus (“House of the Father”), and Der Hausfrieden (“Peace of the House”).

Themes from his work reflect concerns faced in his personal life, namely reconciliation with parents, desire for familial security and harmony, idealization of country life, bourgeois and working class virtues, piety, and justice. Quite often in his plays, the familial idyll is disturbed by poor education of children, the mother’s wish to rise socially, the father’s failure, or through aristocratic influence, but familial harmony is inevitably restored in the fifth act. Even though his plays critique aristocratic intrigue, which he sees as a negative influence on bourgeois values, he did not advocate abolishing class distinction. He confines critique to aristocratic morality while portraying judicious, upper-class clerks, and during the French Revolution, his Kokarden (1791) argued against the people’s right to rule. His style is neo-classical, for he adheres to the unity of time and place, which is most often a neutral, bourgeois room. Following the example of Diderot, Denis, Mercier de la Rivière, Pierre Paul, and Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, Iffland avoided metered verse, instead utilizing a mixture of colloquial and rhetorical language in order to affect the audience’s sense of pathos. Ultimately Iffland’s goal was to raise bourgeois morality and consciousness, yet his plays affirm the status quo, thus reflecting the passive stance of the German bourgeoisie in the age of the French Revolution.

Further Reading:

Karl-Heinz Klingenberg, Iffland und Kotzebue als Dramatiker, 1962.

Wendy C. Nielson