Theatre Scene and Trends

Who Was Kleist? A new Biography on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the Poet’s Death

Detail of the cover of Peter Michalzik's “kleist. dichter, krieger, seelensucher”, Propyläen Publishers, BerlinHe was probably a jagged man, and there are phases of his life which are so obscure that they have driven students of Kleist to wild speculations. Punctually for the anniversary of Kleist’s death, the theatre critic and editor of the Frankfurter Rundschau, Peter Michalzik, has brought out a new biography.

If you were involved with him directly, you could find yourself with a handful. As a letter writer and from a distance, a distance that he repeatedly took to his beloved sister and financial sponsor Ulrike, he could be exquisitely charming. Reading his letters, one catches glimpses of the poet in the making. They seem positively to invite us to draw conclusions about the work of Heinrich von Kleist, but fail to provide disclosures to the degree that scholars would like.

cover of Peter Michalzik's “kleist. dichter, krieger, seelensucher”, Propyläen Publishers, BerlinApproaching this shrouded life, one sees again and again how enthusiastically Kleist threw himself into projects and announced that now, right now, he was on the way to Olympus. Then he slips again into an enigma and leaves even his most trusted friends stunned. In August 1800, for example, he surprisingly treated himself and Ludwig von Brockes to a trip to Würzburg and was not sparing of hints in his letters to his fiancée Wilhelmine von Zenge that the journey concerned something great. But, since there is nothing significant to report of the stay in Würzburg, Kleist studies tend to fill the biographical gap with speculations.

Girlish feelings

Was Kleist underway as an economic spy, or did he go to Franconia to get rid of a phimosis? Was he planning, shortly before his Kant crisis, to achieve a breakthrough as a scholar, or was he attempting to live more openly the homosexual preference that was to manifest itself four years later? Then he wrote in a letter to his close friend Ernst von Pfuel that he had often “contemplated” Pfuel’s fair body, when his friend would climb out of the lake at Thun, “with truly girlish feelings”.

These are the sort of questions on which a Kleist biographer can take a position and which have stimulated repeatedly new attempts at a biographical approach to the poet. Four years ago, for instance, the Germanists Herbert Kraft and Gerhard Schulz and the features editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung Jens Bisky each published a biography of Kleist. Now, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Kleist’s death, another biographer has once again attempted to approach this enigmatic life: Peter Michalzik in kleist. dichter, krieger, seelensucher (Kleist. Poet, Warrior, Soul-Seeker) (Propyläen Verlag, Berlin 2011).

From another world

Heinrich von Kleist Memorial in Frankfurt/Oder; © sicherlich / Wikimedia commonsMichalzik enables us to grasp the life of the poet as it was embedded in his times. And he shows why Kleist so singularly did not fit into his times, in which a poetic drama such as Amphitryon hit the theatre world as if it were a comet that had lost its way on the earth. To Kleist’s contemporaries, according to Michalzik, it was as if “the play came from another world”. We shall probably never know Whether Kleist himself realised how strange his stories and plays were to his contemporaries. But apart from the question of his self-assessment, Kleist was in any case a man who provoked the interplay of admiration and resentment in others. This was probably already true of him at the time when he participated in the Prussian Rhine campaign against the French.

When Michalzik digs into this two-year “adventure”, he becomes archaeologist and historian, reconstructing how the young Kleist ranged with his regiment over the Rhineland, the Palatinate and the Palatine mountains. The result is a profile of his movements, which for the first time affords insights into what the young soldier could have experienced. Helpful here is his only extant letter of the time to his aunt Auguste Helene Massow in March 1793. Like many later letters, it is about money and how he must “pay most dearly for everything”. And he practices at playing the bruiser: “Thank God it will not be much longer, for we certainly march on Thursday or Friday [...] The French, or rather that robber rabble, is going to get knocked about all over”.

Director of his own life

Picture of Heinrich von Kleist, 1801, Drawing by Peter Friedel, Dresden, Otto Krug Collection; © Wikimedia commonsAt this time, Kleist is still an affable man. Later he will travel very often in order to be able to write away from family involvements. Increasingly visible then is also the gambler who juggles with high stakes and who, for all the inner turmoil, sees himself as the director of his own life. Towards the end of his short life, for example, he appears as publisher, editor and author of the Berlin Evening Paper and engages in an embittered running battle with August Wilhelm Iffland, Director of the National Theatre on the Gendarmenmarkt.

At this time he was the leading Berlin journalist. But the more he escalated his private war with Iffland, the more he hopelessly manoeuvred himself into social isolation. One evening in November 1811 he drove with Henriette Vogel to the Kleiner Wannsee. Two shots were fired, and a work survived to which it will be hard to find an equal.

Peter Michalzik: kleist. dichter, krieger, seelensucher Propyläen Verlag, Berlin 2011, 550 Seiten, 24,99 EUR

Jürgen Berger
The author is a theatre and literary critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, taz and Theater heute. From 2003 to 2007 he was a member of selection committee of the Mülheim Dramatist Prize and in 2010 of the jury of the Berlin Theatre Meeting. Since 2007 he has been a jury member of Else Lasker-Schüler Prize for Plays.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
June 2011

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