Opening statement

Jane O. Newman: Benjamin’s Library and the Origin of the German Mourning Play


The questions that govern my investments in Benjamin’s Library concern the ends to which the study of the Baroque was put as a means of interpreting the chaos that engulfed Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century. My prism is the study of the seventeenth-century ‘mourning play’ that is Benjamin’s Origin of the German Tragic Drama (1928), and its engagement with debates about the legacies of early modernity for the late modern world. Put another way: Benjamin’s Library proposes that we read the title of Benjamin’s infamously opaque book against the grain. Rather than assuming that it refers to the odd dramatic texts – the mourning plays proper – of the Baroque, with their mysterious allegorical intermezzi, arcane topics and overheated speech, I suggest that Benjamin’s subject in the Trauerspiel book was another kind of “trauriges Spiel,” or mournful play, namely the one of the German nation itself as it had emerged out of early modernity and traveled forward into his time. This is not to say that Benjamin does not take as his main concern the dramatic oeuvre of the German Baroque and its reception over time. But as he knew: “Like the term ‘tragic’ in present-day usage…the word Trauerspiel was applied in the seventeenth century to dramas and to historical events alike.” Scholars of the massively lethal events that rolled across central Europe during the signature war of the Baroque, the Thirty Years War (1618-48), agree that the mid seventeenth century was justified in using the term in this way. Benjamin and we might be pardoned for accepting its ongoing aptness to the situation in Germany both in the midst of World War One and on into the fraught post-war years. In such a reading, Benjamin’s title would refer to the origin of Germany’s Trauerspiel, to “der Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels.”

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