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Written in the Spring of 2012 to accompany a free reading, directed by Jenny Lord.

According to contemporary reports, the world premiere of Emilia Galotti did not go well. Instead of ecstatic tears and rapturous applause, the customary response for a brand new work by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the “German Sophocles,” the curtain fell instead to a shocked silence.

The date was March 14, 1772. The occasion was the birthday of Duchess Charlotte of Brunswick, the sister of Prussia’s Frederick the Great. Charlotte, highly educated, had turned Brunswick into a cultural center during the age of Enlightenment. In the 1820s and 1830s, both parts of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic dramatic poem, Faust, would premiere on the Brunswick stage.

But Lessing’s play delivered cultured German audiences an experience for which they were almost entirely unprepared. Instead of the morally perfect emotions of virtuous pity and sweet sorrow, Lessing’s audience experienced something more inchoate, an emotion almost approaching fear. The young Sturm und Drang poets, including Goethe and Schiller, quickly latched onto the play as a model, and a lively critical debate sprouted up, which has followed the play up to the present day.

In his theoretical writings, such as 1766’s Laokoon, an analysis of the famous statue from antiquity, Lessing discusses his concept of Mitleid, or sympathy. Tragedy, Lessing writes, should not teach a moral lesson. It should instead engage the audience in an emotional process. This has become such a precept of the theatrical experience now that stating it seems obvious, but at the time Lessing’s observation registered with uncanny force. The audience in 1772 may not have realized it, but the modern era in theatre had begun.

Most critics have categorized Emilia Galotti as a political drama, an early example of the bürgerliches Traurspiel, or bourgeois tragedy. The play’s plot, taken from the Roman story of Virginius, involves an Italian Prince falling desperately in lust with the virginal Emilia Galotti, a middle-class maiden engaged to be married. It is easy, and tempting, to draw parallels between the court of Prince Hettore Gonzaga and the petty despots who held German culture back, even as it was screaming for its own independence.

But Emilia Galotti was also an early example of that most modern and provocative of genres: the tragedy of sex. Lessing’s title character is a paradoxical combination of virginal and sensual urges. Lessing’s play, similarly, is an admixture of classical virtue and passionate eroticism, exploring philosophical concerns—politics, religion, even art itself—through the lens of human desire.

And what about the ending was so shocking? That’s for you to rediscover.