In November, NWTC will present The Natural Daughter, written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1803. The production will be directed by John Brigg, and uses a new translation by Edward Seymour. In an attempt to find out more about this rather obscure play Alison Kelly talked to Edward over the summer.
AK Why did you decide to translate The Natural Daughter?
ES I was interested in the play for several reasons. First of all, it's a natural progression after Iphigenia, which I translated nine years ago (and directed for the Club at the Kulturfabrik in Esch). The main figure, Eugenia, is again a feisty female, younger and less experienced than Iphigenia but equally impressive: ready to take a leading role in governing her country, over 100 years before women had the vote.
AK Let's move on to the ideas: what would you see as the main idea of the play?
ES It starts with the title: nature, and relationships. Eugenia (which means ‘well-born') believes that she's a natural-born leader, but society excludes her because she's female and illegitimate. Her father, named simply ‘Duke', a wealthy leading politician whose support for the King (his nephew) is in doubt, has educated Eugenia in accordance with the ‘natural' theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She's confident, talented and attractive: an emancipated woman, well ahead of her time. So when, as the play opens, chance enables her to meet the King, the three of them strike a deal: his recognition in exchange for their royalist support, despite of their libertarian beliefs.
AK Ah, so ‘natural' is not just saying that she's his biological daughter?
ES It's also saying that nature is a powerful and dangerous force, as Goethe and his contemporaries believed. When the French Revolution erupted, about 14 years before he wrote this play, it shocked and horrified neighbouring countries - including Germany (made up then of small states rather like today's Luxembourg). The impact on people was, I believe, very similar to the impact of 9/11 on us. They were witnesses of a collision between two rival views of the world, and forced to take sides, some sympathising with the ‘well-born' ideas behind the principles of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, while others were appalled by the cataclysmic effects on ordinary people: marauding armies rampaging through Germany, Italy and Spain in the name of freedom, and years of war as the royalist armies fought back. Goethe himself took part in some of these counter-revolutionary campaigns, as a representative of the Duchy of Weimar.
AK But the politics, as I understand it, doesn't come into the play explicitly.
ES No, the play is about the effect of extraordinary events on ordinary people.
AK So it works by metaphor, or ...
ES It works by making the characters representative of the main forces of society. All the characters are well-rounded people, but, apart from Eugenia, they only have symbolic names. There is the revolutionary figure of the Cleric, sympathetic to libertarian ideas and immensely ambitious. The Secretary is the Duke's servant but he is also a conspirator, totally unscrupulous in the name of progress - and self-enrichment. These two are uneasy partners, united in their determination to overthrow what they see as a corrupt society for the good of the people.
AK So is your main interest in the play's underlying philosophy, or in Goethe as a playwright?
ES I'm interested in the way Goethe understands, and empathises with, the humans whose conflicting purposes (one of the play's key words) cause such havoc. Ironically, Goethe's audiences would have seen the play as a contemporary picture of society, whereas the figures of the Governess, Abbess, Princess, King etc. are to us much more remote, like something out of a fairy tale.
AK You say it was intended as the first of three plays, a trilogy that was never finished?
ES It's not clear whether it was to be a trilogy, or two five-act plays performed in three instalments. Its ‘unfinished' status partly explains why the play is relatively unknown. Goethe wrote a brief plan for the sequel, but never carried out the plan.
AK Why was that?
ES Perhaps he changed his mind about the French Revolution, and perhaps he thought he'd said everything he wanted to say by the time he reached Act V of The Natural Daughter: the ideas came to interest him more than the fate of the characters.
AK So in a sense it is complete.
ES Yes, I think you can argue that it is complete. It's not a well-made play in the modern sense: there are some loose ends that are left untied. But life's like that too, then as now.
AK How did audiences react to that when it was first produced, in 1803?
ES Well, Goethe sat in the middle of the audience and directed what he thought were appropriate reactions, so it's a bit difficult to tell! His friends were polite, but people were startled by it: critics have been arguing ever since about what Goethe intended.
AK Modern audiences are more used to having the ends left untied: are we going to find that easier than early nineteenth-century audiences?
ES I should think so. There'll be a note in the programme explaining the background and inviting the audience to guess what the sequel will be: does Eugenia survive by adopting a strategy that she finds distasteful, and what do you think happens to the Duke, the King and the other characters who have disappeared from view?
AK You said at the beginning that Eugenia was an emancipated woman, but the decision she takes at the end of the play doesn't seem very liberated to me.
ES I think that's one of the play's main points, that liberation can take unexpected forms. Eugenia comes to this realisation after talking to the Monk, another symbolic figure who suddenly appears out of nowhere - and is perhaps a figment of her own conscience. The Monk's advice is shockingly different from everything that she has heard before, but it's what enables her to take her first decision as an independent adult, and that's why the play ends as it does.