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Aurelie’s Vision: Theatre and Politics of the Nation in Goethe’s Wilhem Meisters Lehrjahre

by Konstanze Baron

Politics and theatre are closely connected in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. While it is generally taken for granted that the novel displays and enacts a series of models of the theatre, the same may be said of politics. Different conceptions of the theatre, so my argument, parallel different conceptions of the political community and ensuing forms of goverment. Wilhelm’s experiences with the theatre may therefore be regarded as experiments in political leadership and social reform.

In this context, a particular attention must be devoted to the figure of Aurelie. As an actress in the group surrounding Wilhelm and Melina, Aurelie is clearly part of the world of theatre. She is however the first figure in the novel to proclaim a decisively political vision of the stage. In her view, the ideal purpose of theatre is the formation of the nation: the actor/actress on stage presents an ideal performance to the audience, which is thereby elevated and united. Central to the unity of the nation is the activity of the leader, whom Aurelie finds in her lover Lothario and whom she expects to ‚form’ (bilden) the nation.

My presentation will focus on the figure of Aurelie and offer a detailed analysis of her idealist vision of the theatre and the project of nation-formation connected with it. It will also ask for the implementation of this vision in Goethe’s novel: while it seems that Lothario willingly accepts the role ascribed to him by Aurelie when he promises – in what looks like a copy of Rousseau’s social contract – to work for the moral good of the people, Aurelie’s melancholy and death make it seem doubtful that Goethe regards her project as fully realizable. There appears to be an incurable lack/disunity in the nation which prevent it from achieving true self-fulfilment. It may be no accident, after all, that the paternalistic political project expounded at the end of the novel presupposes the exclusion of the women who first conceived it.

AsK, September 2012

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