Written in the WInter of 2011 to accompany a free reading of the play, directed by Gus Heagerty.
Goethe started writing Egmont in 1775, at the age of 25, inspired by the first news of the American Revolution. Coursing with vital energies and radiating a palpable belief in world-historical change, Egmont is a young man’s play, embodying the energies and ideals of the revolutionary awakening. Independence would be declared in 1776, the Bastille stormed in 1789 and Thomas Paine would publish his Rights of Man in 1791. Politics follows philosophy, philosophy follows art. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe got there first.
The middle 1770s was a prolific time for the young Goethe. In 1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther, with its voguish glorification of melancholy suicide, had made him a figure of international literary fame. In 1775, he was immersed in Egmont, the prose dramas Clavigo and Stella, as well as an unfinished verse drama called Prometheus. Rumor swirled of a manuscript based on ancient German folktales, known only as Faust. By the end of the year, the Duke Karl August would invite Goethe to his court at Weimar, an unprecedented honor which would have fateful implications for the development of German culture. The poet of the age of idealism would live the rest of his life as a free man, but in the service of an enlightened despot.
When Goethe revised Egmont in 1787, he abandoned the original play’s verse, opting for an analytical and muscular prose. More importantly, the play’s fevered political dramaturgy was now tempered by a downbeat and almost mystical portrayal of character. Set during the Dutch revolt against the Spanish, Egmont is no mere historical pageant, and his Egmont is no mere historical figure, despite his superficial resemblance to the 16th-century Flemish count. Faced with repeated opportunities for open rebellion, Egmont chooses instead to remain steadfast in his identity. Rather than an external drama of action and incident, Goethe dramatizes instead the conflict of the self divided. Over the course of 13 carefully constructed tableaux, progressing from the free streets of Brussels to the confinements of the Spanish dungeon, Egmont gradually emerges as a new kind of dramatic hero, a representative of human freedom in the face of tyranny.
Goethe’s sense of this inner necessity, paired with the stirring political sentiments of the 1770s, has made Egmont a powerful and challenging work to this day, and it continues to be dogged by history. Perhaps the most remarkable performance of the play came on June 15, 1810, in the shadow of the Napoleonic Wars, when the play was accompanied by Beethoven’s famous Overture (Op. 84, later used as the anthem for the Hungarian Revolution in 1956). But it seems just as apt a play for now. Its depiction of passive resistance in the face of tyranny anticipates 20th-century figures such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as their spiritual descendants. Goethe, who witnessed Napoleon’s armies in person, detested the violence of war. One suspects that he would have very much sympathized with Occupy Wall Street.