Sometimes characterized as that country’s answer to Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) is one of Germany’s greatest poets, playwrights, and public intellectuals. His first play, The Robbers (1781), written when he was still a teen, was a key text in the “Storm and Stress” (Sturm und Drang) movement of the late 18th century, and a seminal influence on what would later come to be known as Romanticism. With his blank-verse tragedy, Don Carlos (first staged in 1787), Schiller helped invent the aesthetic form for German classical drama, and the play’s thematic emphasis on freedom of thought (Gedankenfreiheit) and resistance to tyranny constituted his foundational contribution to the German Enlightenment (Aufklärung). Made an honorary citizen of the republic of France in 1792, Schiller documented his ambivalent response to the French Revolution and the Terror in his contemporaneous History of the Thirty Years’ War (1791-3), as well as his groundbreaking theoretical essay, “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man” (1794). Despite all this, he is perhaps most famous as the author of the “Ode to Joy” (1785), set so unforgettably by Beethoven for the climax of his Ninth Symphony.
Demetrius is an unfinished work, dating from the end of Schiller’s life, when he left his professorship at the University of Jena and settled in the nearby court of Weimar. With his friend and spiritual brother, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Schiller had helped to launch “Weimar Classicism,” a short-lived German Renaissance of the arts, philosophy, and most important of all, stage practice. Schiller’s epic Wallenstein trilogy inaugurated Weimar’s Court Theatre in1799, and he continued to write at a furious pace, producing four more experimental masterpieces. He wrote the definitive work of Elizabethan realpolitik with Maria Stuart (1800), reconceived Joan of Arc as a secular saint in The Maid of Orleans (1801), reinvented the Greek chorus in The Bride of Messina (1803), and codified operatic (not to say Star Wars) dramaturgy with Wilhelm Tell (1804, later adapted by Rossini, as Don Carlos was adapted by Verdi).
For Demetrius, Schiller set himself the task of adapting a momentous historical era: the “Time of Troubles” in Russia between 1598 and 1613, when a series of pretenders, or “False Dmitrys,” laid claim to the throne by passing themselves off as the lost heir to Ivan the Terrible. It is the same story Alexander Pushkin would immortalize in Boris Godunov (1831), but Schiller got there first, and he had far superior instincts as a dramatist to his Russian counterpart. Whereas Pushkin bogs down in the intrigues around Boris, Ivan’s advisor and regent to the throne, Schiller reframes the action around the figure of the “true” Dmitry, a young man raised in a monastery believing he is the real Dmitry, and given an invading army by Poland, only to discover he may be a false icon after all.
In typically panoramic style, Schiller leads us through an epic series of set pieces, including a worm’s-eye view of the Battle of Dobrynichi, Dmitry’s tearful reconciliation with his “mother,” the storming of Moscow, and the disintegration of the kingdom into chaos. As the plot coils back on itself in ever-more byzantine configurations, the contours of perhaps his most ambitious play emerge. On the one hand, Dmitry is Schiller’s ultimate Enlightenment individualist: a dreamlike image of the free-thinking, free-acting, Napoleonic self-made man, an augur of the death of old Europe and its noblesse oblige system. The play’s central plot twist, coming directly at the middle of the play, opens up a vista of modern identity politics: how we each perform our own identities, how we can each be the emperor of our own self, how we can form together in an enlightened, more perfect union of Demetrii. On the other hand, Schiller also shows in the play how the Empire strikes back, how Old Europe doesn’t go down without a fight, Machiavellian plots, or Hobbesian brutalities.
Read from a modern perspective—and expertly adapted and “completed” by Peter Oswald, a British playwright and translator, most recently of Maria Stuart at the Folger in 2015—the play functions as an allegory of our contemporary political era. Like the Egyptian Spring or the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, it depicts an insurgency started under good intentions that leads to endless sectarian splintering. Like our recent election, it depicts the tensions between national sovereignty and meddlesome outside interests. These politics, as always in Schiller, are finely balanced within the dramaturgy of the plot and the characters, never dogmatic or doctrinal. He takes seriously the idea of the man who would be Tsar, imbuing it with Christlike resonance at times; but he also suggests the intractable collision of cultures that comes with all attempts to remake history. Though Schiller would die before completing Demetrius, at the age of 46, due to complications from tuberculosis, Oswald’s reconstruction suggests it would have been his crowning achievement. As Goethe said of his dear friend: “The idea of freedom assumed a different form as Schiller advanced in his own development and became a different man. In his youth it was physical freedom that preoccupied him and found its way into his works; in later life it was spiritual freedom.”