Lenz, Jakob Michael Reinhold

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Lenz, Jakob Michael Reinhold (1751-1792): German Playwright.

Jakob Lenz was a follower and admirer of the young Goethe, Johann Wolfgang and among the most prominent representatives of the German “Storm and Stress” movement characterizing the youthful phase of the writings of the literary giants Goethe and Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von and their associates of that period. Lenz is best known for two satirical plays on social problems, The Private Tutor or The Advantages of a Private Education (1774), and The Soldiers (1776), and for his appearance in the 1836 story Lenz by Georg Büchner, who identified with his passionate revolutionary impulses and his mental instability.

Born in Sesswegen, in the Baltic province of Livonia, Lenz was the son of a pastor who later took an administrative job. The son also studied theology at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia), and at the University of Königsberg in East Prussia. While working as a private tutor in Strassburg, Lenz was briefly befriended with Goethe, whom he tried to emulate, going so far as to court his former girlfriend and follow him to Weimar which he fled after creating a scandal through a tactless satire of his idol. However, Goethe discussed Lenz’s troubled, self-destructive personality sympathetically in his autobiography, Truth and Fiction (1811).

The “Storm and Stress” movement was a youthful rebellion of son against father, individual against society, and opposition to the rationalism and moderation of the Enlightenment. Also defied are traditions of Aristotelian unity and comic and tragic forms. The name of the movement was taken from the title of a 1776 play by Klinger, Friedrich Maximilian von (1752-1831), another of the movement’s leading lights. The watchwords of the movement were Nature, Feeling, and Passion, and striving for the lifestyle of a “Titan,” a hero who “transcended the constraints of the world.” These writers extolled freedom in every sense, political, social, and aesthetic. However, as a group, their artistic talent did not measure up to their lofty goals.

Lenz wrote poems, theoretical works on the theater, and adaptations of comedies by the Roman Plautus. His play, The Private Tutor contains a complicated and melodramatic plot, along with pointed criticism of a tutor’s precarious and humiliating position in an aristocratic family. Written in brief scenes with accurately drawn milieu and believable speech, it became a model for future generations of social theater. The Soldiers is a loosely organized string of thirty-five fast-moving scenes. It attacks both a dissolute corps of aristocratic officers and the bourgeois ambition and vanity that lead to the seduction of a young middle-class woman with tragic consequences. Although he failed in his vain rivalry with Goethe and died in poverty, Lenz lives on through these two still highly regarded plays and through his influence on both experimental structures and social messages that typify later Naturalist and Expressionist drama of the twentieth century.

Further Reading:

Alan C. Leidner and Karin A. Wurst, Unpopular Virtues: The Critical Reception of J.M.R.Lenz, 1999.

Pamela S. Saur

Lamar University