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Louis F. Peck, An Adaption of Kleist’s „Die Familie Schroffenstein“, in: The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 44 (Januar 1945), 9-11

Eine frühe Adaption von Kleists „Die Familie Schroffenstein“

M. G. LEWIS’S Romantic Tales (1808)\1\ contains a prose narrative in twelve chapters entitled Mistrust, or Blanche and Osbright; a Feudal Romance. In his preface the author states, not very helpfully, that it is „of German origin“ and that „the idea of ‚Mistrust‘ was suggested by a Tragedy, from which I have borrowed a great part of the plot, and one of the most striking scenes: I have also occasionally inserted in my Narrative such speeches as pleased me.“\2\ Lewis, who was habitually – even ostentatiously – careless in identifying his sources, was in this case probably ignorant of the authorship of the tragedy to which he referred, if, as seems likely, he was acquainted with only the anonymous first edition. When he wrote his preface for Romantic Tales, moreover, he may even have forgotten the title of the German work. It was his practice, when translating an rewriting another’s story, to change the title of the original and to rename the characters, and when he published his own version, often years later, to recall vaguely that it was „from the German.“ Wide and careless reading also increased the difficulty of making specific acknowledgments, as the following complacent footnote from one of his dramas suggests: „I suspect, that somewhere or other there exists a scene in some degree resembling this interview between Rugantino and the conspirators; but wheter I read it in english or french, spanish or german, I have not the most distant recollection.“\3\
Whether in the present instance Lewis had or had not forgotten, students of German-English literary relationships of the Romantic period may wish to note that his source for Mistrust was Heinrich von Kleist’s five-act tragedy Die Familie Schroffenstein, published anonymously in Bern, 1803.\4\ A glance at Lewis’s version may interest Kleistians curious to know the treatment accorded this drama in the hands of a „Gothic“ romancer.
Die Familie Schroffenstein portrays a disastrous feud, kept alive by jealousy and false suspicions, between the houses of Rossitz and Warwand. Whatever philosophy Kleist meant to express, Lewis considered the story, as his title Mistrust suggests, a warning against hastily formed, uncharitable suspicions. His statement concerning his source by no means exaggerates the extent of his borrowing. He availed himself of Kleist’s principal characters, though he changed all names: thus Rupert of Rossitz and Silvester of Warwand become respectively Rudiger of Frankheim and Gustavus of Orrenberg; Kleist’s lovers, Ottokar and Agnes, are renamed Blanche and Osbright; and Jeronimus becomes Ottokar, a name presumably suggested by Kleist’s hero. The blind and aged Silvius of Warwand, who plays no essential part in Die Familie Schroffenstein, Lewis omitted, though some of this character’s speeches are retained. When Lewis admitted borrowing „one of the most striking scenes,“ the reader can only wonder which, of a generous number of possibilities, he had in mind. The first seven chapters <10:> of Mistrust reproduce rather closely story in Acts I-III of the drama and several conversations are translated or paraphrased. At the same time, he freely added, omitted, and rearranged details. Kleist’s hero, for instance, swears vengeance in the opening scene, and later discovers that the girl he loves is the daughter of his hereditary enemy. Lewis’s Osbright, on the other hand, is merely a spectator at the oath-taking scene; he had, we later learn, once rescued the heroine from banditti and already knows her name when the story begins. From Act IV Lewis took practically nothing except the cottage scene (Scene 3), in which Ottokar (Lewis’s Osbright) finds the country girl Barnabe chanting spells and stirring the witch broth and learns from her the true circumstances of his brother’s death. To this scene Lewis devoted Chapter VIII, omitting entirely the episode of the hero’s imprisonment and melodramatic escape.
Act V of Die Familie Schroffenstein contains but one scene, the cave in which Ottokar an Agnes meet. Aware theat his father Rupert has determined to kill Agnes, Ottokar changes costumes with her and causes her temporarily to withdraw. Rupert enters, mistakes Ottokar for Agnes, and kills his own son. After Rupert’s departure and Agnes’s return, Silvester, her father, arrives, and equally misled by the change of costumes, stabs to death his daughter Agnes. Then, drawn by that strange magnetism so often observed in final scenes, all the principal characters find their way to the cave, where a sorrowful reconciliation is effected.
Lewis rejected almost entirely this fifth act. Perhaps he considered it too abrupt an ending, for he concludes Mistrust with an eloborate cescendo of thrills sustained through four chapters. His hero, Osbright, having resolved to elope with Blanche or die in a crusade, summons her to the cave. She joins him after escaping by the help of disguise from the castle of Orrenberg, where her parents had confined her. Barbara (Kleist’s Barnabe), having been captured and released by Rudiger’s men, overhears their plans and warns the lovers of approaching danger. Blanche and Osbright thereupon exchange costumes, and the former walks safely by Rudiger, only to be captured by her father Gustavus, who, supposing her Osbright, imprisons her at Orrenberg. Gustavus next overcomes Rudiger, but, too noble for revenge, determines to conquer his enemy by generosity. In the hall of Orrenberg he proffers Rudiger friendship and proposes the union of the two houses by the marriage of Blanche and Osbright. When the supposed Osbright is led forth and proves to be Blanche, Rudiger rushes in horror from the hall. Though the matter is by no means clear, it seems that Rudiger has somehow arranged for the assassination of the supposed Agnes. As the villain now hastens to the cave to present this deed, the modern reader experiences genuine fear that he will arrive just in time. But the fear is illfounded – whatever weaknesses characterized Gothic fiction, the incongruously happy ending was not one of them. Rudiger not only finds his son assassinated, but also kills himself, and in a melancholy summary the other characters are variously consigned to convent, pilgrimage, and grave.
In most cases Lewis adopted Kleist’s characters ready-made, merely exaggerating their leading traits. Upon two, however – Rupert of Schroffenstein and his natural son Johann – he bestowed particular attention. The former, as presented by Kleist, is a man driven to commit murder by an inordinate passion for vengeance, yet who suffers bewilderment and horror when the deed is done. Following this lead, Lewis devoted several pages to the analysis of Rudiger’s motives. When this charakter takes an active part <11:> in the narrative, however, he loses all semblance of humanity and leaps up before us like a ludicrous nightmare. Kleist’s Rupert, solemnly swearing vengeance in the presence of his supposedly murdered child, is tame compared with Lewis’s Rudiger, who, in a paroxysm of grief and rage plunges into the grave, rips open the coffin, and holds the dead child aloft. His appearance, exhibiting a peculiar vividness and distortion which Lewis could achieve, is no less startling than his actions:

With involuntary horror the friars started back, and them as if changed to stone by a Gorgon’s head, they remained gazing upon the dreadful countenance, which presented itself before them. Count Rudiger’s stature was colossal; the grave in which he stood, scarcely rose above his knees. His eyes blazed; his mouth foamed; his coal-black hair stood erect, in which he twisted his hands, and tearing out whole handfulls by the roots, he strewed them on the coffin, which stood beside his feet.\5\

In view of the predilection of Gothic fiction for the theme of insanity, Lewis’s preoccupation with Kleist’s Johann ist not surprising. In the German work this youth, frustrated in his love for Agnes, first desires to die in a duel with his half-brother, then losing his mind, attempts to force Agnes to kill him. Lewis leads up to Eugene’s (Johann’s) insanity, which in the drama is unconvincingly sudden, by supplying a life history. Eugene’s mother, it appears, broke conventual vows to elope with the already married Rudiger but, overcome by remorse, disappeared after the birth of the child. Ten years later Eugene, already strange and melancholy, was shocked by the return of his unknown mother, who at the point of death told him the secret of his parentage. This episode and the death of his younger half-brother prepared the way for his ultimate insanity.
Although Lewis showed ingenuity in expanding Kleist’s story and took advantage of the greater freedom allowed by narrative form to motivate the dramatist’s stormy characters, his adaption of Die Familie Schroffenstein is not a memorable production. It is nevertheless an interesting specimen of German Romantic literature reworked for the Gothic market in England.


University of Tennessee

\1\ Four vols., London. Mistrust appears in Vol. 1.
\2\ Romantic Tales, I, viii-ix.
\3\ Rugantino, or The Bravo of Venice, New York, D. Longworth, 1810, p. 17. Rugantino was first published in London, 1805.
\4\ These details of publication I take from John C. Blankenagel, The Dramas of Heinrich von Kleist: A Biographical and Critical Study, Chapel Hill, 1931, p. 54. Professor Blankenagel’s summary of Die Familie Schroffenstein first led me to compare Kleist’s drama with Lewis’s story.
\5\ Romantic Tales, I, 20-21.

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