A Mourning Dramatist in Revolutionary Paris

August von Kotzebue: Meine Flucht nach Paris im Winter 1790. Für bekannte und unbekannte Freunde geschrieben. (My escape to Paris in the winter of 1790. Written for known and unknown friends.)

Published in Leipzig, 1791, first edition.

August von Kotzebue (1761–1819) is a name that generations of German schoolchildren have already made fun of (“Kotze” is the German equivalent of puke). The fact that this man appears in their history books is less due to his life than to his death: Exactly 200 years ago – in 1819 – he was murdered by student Karl Ludwig Sand. This is regarded as the first political murder in German history. The motive: Kotzebue had criticised and mocked the national democratic ideas of student fraternities – a bad idea in the tense atmosphere of post-Napoleonic times. The murder – and the prevailing excitement about it – led to the Carlsbad Decrees, a resolution of the states of the German Confederation containing surveillance and censorship laws with the purpose of gaining control over the heated national liberal atmosphere.

Kotzebue – More Than a Murder Victim

However, remembering him only as a murder victim doesn’t do Kotzebue justice. He was a renowned author whose plays were incredibly successful and performed all over Europe. He is considered the most performed German playwright of the 19th century! The secret of his success? His pieces were… well, let’s say: close to the people. They were primarily for entertainment, had hilarious storylines, exaggerated characters and happy ends. And he produced them en masse: He wrote more than 200 plays.

Therefore, it was difficult for him to be taken seriously in his hometown Weimar. The great minds of Weimar Classicism looked down on his trivial works and were jealous of his success. Goethe and Kotzebue were cherished enemies for decades. But even Goethe had to grudgingly incorporate Kotzebue’s pieces into the theatre’s programme – the demand was too high.

A Painful Loss

Let’s turn our attention to the book at hand: This is no drama, but Kotzebue’s first autobiographical work. However, those who expect an adventurous story behind the sensational title “My escape to Paris in the winter of 1790” will be disappointed. Kotzebue did not flee from persecution but from his grief. Kotzebue, not quite thirty years old, had just lost his first wife, Friederike von Essen.

The reader immediately realises that he must have loved her incredibly because he describes his wife’s disease and agony in a heart-breaking manner on the first 40 pages. The cover page depicts her face and bears the legend “The gentlest of her sex”.

This little book is of no use, and perhaps it is also only little entertaining.” That’s how Kotzebue begins his book. “I wrote it to ease my heart, I wrote it in the unhappiest days of my life. Losing the wife whom I loved unspeakably drove me forth into the world.”

The world, whose distractions he welcomed with open arms, was Paris at first. He went to numerous theatre and opera performances, visited a wax museum “well worth seeing” – nothing less than the original exhibition of Madame Tussaud! – and even there he thought of his wife: “What would I give to own such a depiction of my Friederike!”

In the Eye of the Storm – or: The Revolution Had Its Rest Breaks, Too

When Kotzebue tried to forget about his grief in Paris, the times were not that dangerous: In 1790, the Storming of the Bastille had already occurred more than a year ago. The National Assembly met, the king was de jure still in power, but the deputies denied his authority. The Reign of Terror would not begin until two years later when the king was executed.

The women of Paris bring the king back to the capital – a revolutionary event that occurred one year before Kotzebue arrived.

For those interested in history, Kotzebue’s report is extremely exciting. “Here and everywhere they talk ad nauseam about liberty, and everything related to it”, he writes. He speaks of defamatory nicknames for the royal family and of aristocrats, who called the National Assembly “the twelve hundred majesties”. Through him we experience how tangible the tension was within the city and how it broke out now and then. For example, he reports on a scandal in the theatre: A duchess applauded loudly and brought about the repetition of a scene – a choral scene in which a queen was cheered on. This made the citizens sitting in the stalls furious. Obviously, the argument behind it was something completely different: Until today, it is well known how unpopular Queen Marie Antoinette was. The citizens left the theatre, fetched fruit from the market and this is how Kotzebue described what followed: “In the twinkling of an eye, the entire loge was covered with fruit, the poor duchess with bruises, and one could be glad that the knife, which flew through the air along with the fruit, did not hit her.” According to Kotzebue, only her cold-blooded calmness saved her from worse injury.

Kotzebue even met King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette once, however, they made little impression on him: “The king passed me waddling and looked as if he wanted to say, ‘I am quite sick of this!’ The Queen sailed past me for she, and all of her ladies in waiting, wore crinolines that large that they looked like Montgolfières from afar.” After all, Kotzebue had kept a bit of his sense of humour despite all the grief.

He didn’t stay in Paris for long. During the next years, Kotzebue lived in Mainz, Vienna, Weimar, Saint Petersburg and Mannheim. He also came to terms with his loss. In 1794 he married again, in 1804 a third time.

 

If you would like to read Kotzebue’s book, you may do so here.