Reading the 18th Century, 12/29/16 — rehearsing the revolution: Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers


Friends – I talked last time about one of my favorite German Enlightenment writers, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and his play about religious tolerance, Nathan the Wise. I mentioned that when we talk about German Enlightenment writing we see less of an immediate influence on American thinkers, because – as John Quincy Adams points out – there is an issue with translation until English language versions become available, which they do in the 19th Century.

Today I’m going to talk with you about my favorite piece of literature written in German, and what may be one of my favorite pieces of literature period. That’s the play The Robbers, written in the early 1780’s by a multi-faceted writer who is very famous still in Germany. His name is Friedrich Schiller.[i]

I’d like to share how I met Friedrich Schiller and encountered the first play that he wrote. A play that changed his life, changed the theater through the insertion of a new genre called “melodrama”, and became a weird sort of template for the French Revolution. [ii]

I meet Schiller in grad school. Yes, here I am still in school. I have decided, under the influence of my college boyfriend to try to get a Ph.D. Why I do this is a story in and of itself, but suffice it to say that I agonize over the fact that according to a lot of my teachers in elementary and high school, I am actually quite stupid. And lazy. So, if I can get a Ph.D. I will show everyone (including myself), that I am – surprise! – really quite smart. And hard working.

(I’m good, mom and dad, I’m good!)

I pick a challenging, somewhat arcane graduate program – Comparative Literature. That will show everyone, right? You have to read literature in 3 different languages! Only smart people can do that! So I pick French, English, and German, which I am in the process of learning.

I try to get into Yale. I don’t get in. I go to one place, which I hate. I go to another, which I also hate.

Because guess what? Ph.D. school is murder. I think about quitting every semester but my last one. It’s hell. And apparently there are no jobs in academics anyway. “So,” my parents keep asking, “Why are you DOING this?” They are not pleased. Although they aren’t paying (they can’t; they are broke).

My friend Jane, a brilliant art historian who speaks perfect German, encourages me. My friend Robert, who is a literary genius and can explain any critical theory to you in 10 minutes, encourages me. I persist. Barely.

During my second semester at the second Ph.D. school I take yet another grueling German literature class. But this time is different. I start reading a nutty play about boys who drop out of college and go live in the woods and become robbers. It’s like a combination Robin Hood, the Strawberry Statement (about student revolution at Columbia in the 60s) and the movie If, about British prep school boys gone rogue. It’s so cool! The story is over the top, but it works. There’s a good brother – the robber group leader – and a bad brother, who stays home, gets the good brother in trouble with Dad, and then tries to steal the good brother’s girlfriend as well as inherit the family title and fortune. He doesn’t succeed of course, but he DOES put his own father into a prison cell in the family castle.

This was a roller coaster of a read, despite the language barrier. The emotions were so intense! I understood the good brother’s desire to quit school and go live in the forest, and I related to the bad son’s fury at his father. There were many times during my young adulthood, when I would have gladly stuck my pissed off, unemployed Republican father in prison in the basement of our NYC apartment. But I digress.

The good brother – Karl Moor – also has big political dreams. He fantasizes with his classmates of forming a perfect society, a democracy of equals, where poor people are empowered, and where the rich and the powerful are held up at gunpoint and forced to stand and deliver.

But the problem is that what Karl really wants, is for his father to like him. His seeming political actions are motivated – almost entirely – by anxieties about his dad.

Freud would love it, right? Will it surprise you to know what Freud was a Schiller fan?

courtesy Schauspielhaus Bochum
courtesy Schauspielhaus Bochum

The bad brother – Franz – is just as obsessed with Dad. He’s the son no one likes, and he shares terrible memories of being mocked by his father as a small child. He is also driven by his own guilt at being the son who – in being born – killed his mother. Eventually, Franz suffers a complete mental collapse. Envisioning an End of Days scenario, where he alone is sentenced to damnation, Franz hangs himself. He is in every way, his own worst enemy. His personal rebellion against his father and against the family order is a complete failure.

But Karl fares no better. The alternate society that he envisions devolves into a gang of thieves who rape, murder and pillage. Karl leaves them, and gives himself up to the authorities. But he kills his girlfriend first.

Which is really creepy. If you know anything about single shooter –killers, you know that this is something that they do. They – and by they, I mean men who are killers – often kill their mothers and wives. Author Jo Scott Coe would recognize this pattern, and she writes about this contemporary phenomenon and its connection to misogyny and male bonding in her forthcoming book, Mass.

This is Schiller’s genius. He understands aspects of human psychology that still seem brilliant and resonant and true to us more than 200 years later.

Schiller gets how psychology interacts with the political. That psychology intersects with power. He gets how the authoritarian patriarchal family replicates in miniature the autocracy of the state. He gets how if you rebel against one, you are –perforce – rebelling against the other.

And if you’re not, then whatever you’re trying to do is going to collapse back on itself, becoming a distorted mirror of the thing you are ostensibly rebelling against.

Is it any surprise that a broke graduate student who had been a debutante till her father lost his job in the 60’s would sit in a library in North Carolina in the 70’s contemplating a contracting economic future and find herself in this play about a struggle for money, love, and freedom away from both home AND school? I’ll never forget how I felt reading The Robbers for the first time. I felt that Schiller travelled through time with this play to meet and get to know me. I felt — and I still feel — that he was — and is — my good friend.

And, would you be surprised to know that Marx read Schiller? He did.

Speaking of Marx, I should mention the interesting fact that France made Schiller an honorary citizen during the French Revolution on the basis of The Robbers. In return, Schiller wrote the Chamber of Deputies asking them to spare the life of the king.

A lot of scholars argue about what The Robbers is saying about revolution and rebellion. A lot of people see it as a conservative work. Some would probably argue that Schiller’s attempt to spare Louis showed he was a monarchist. But. I don’t believe that.

Consider a couple of items in the history of the play’s reception.

Would it surprise you to know that when the play was first staged, people in the audience – those nice 18th Century white people in breeches and powdered wigs and big dresses – stood up and screamed as though they were at Coachella?

You can read an eye-witness account of this performance here:

People fainted in the aisles. People cried and howled.

Maybe now is the time to point out that all the stage photographs shared in this post are from recent productions. They are from places like Germany, Croatia, and Hungary. There are also productions in the US. A recent Chicago staging by Strangeloop used an all female cast for this very masculine seeming play.

The Robbers lives.


The fate of Schiller’s plays during the Third Reich is admittedly complicated, because Hitler et al were determined to build up GERMAN art and literature. Still, plays like The Robbers and Don Carlos were problematic. You can read more about that issue here. ,

Another blogger argues that Hitler eventually forbade performance of Schiller’s plays. I am looking for the scholarly source on that one. My own scholarship books are still packed in boxes but I remember that a bunch of the plays were overtly forbidden while others were still in the repertoire because of their usability in terms of nationalist propaganda.

The reception history of The Robbers gets weirder still. In the divided Germany after WW2, both East and West Germanys staged the Schiller plays. He appealed to both sides.

That’s the point. Schiller’s work slides away from our abilities to slip it into an ideological slot, and then stroll away from it. The Robbers doesn’t give you a political program. But that’s not its job. Its job — and the job of most art in my opinion — is to let something out, give something VOICE so that it can be seen, and heard, and investigated. So it can be asked about and asked about and asked about and maybe eventually understood. Art’s job, literature’s job, the theater’s job is to get it – the mess of our psychologies and our politics — out into the open. Then the actual work can begin.

I think this is a Hungarian production of the play!
I think this is a Hungarian production of the play!

The “work” involved is pretty overwhelming because — as we know — the personal is political. BUT, Schiller suggests, the reverse is also true. The political is also, deeply, profoundly personal. So, the play is asking us to consider: How do the political and the personal connect in me, in you, and in us?

As we near 2017, I think Schiller is asking us (at least) two more very tough questions.

  1. What happens when people bent on power – for evil OR for good — don’t come to grips with their own emotions? Will they collapse? Or become monsters? Or both? What’s the solution?
  2. How can we change society w/o changing ourselves?

(I think he’s suggesting that we can’t).

  1. So…. How the heck do we do both an inner and outer revolution?

Cue World Party’s Private Revolution:

Seriously….Schiller stages over and over again stories about political rebels. These theatrical productions continually both argue that rebellion is inevitable and ask how rebellion can be turned from revolt into positive transformation. From Karl Moor to Don Carlos, Mary Stewart, Wallenstein, to Joan of Arc (Schiller writes about her and has her die on the battlefield!), to the now famous William Tell, Schiller keeps on asking this question through the most public, interactive art medium available to him at the time.

Here’s something else you should know about Schiller.

You know that end to Beethoven’s 9th. The “Ode to Joy’? Guess who wrote the words to that?


I want to end this post with Schiller the poet of joy. A child-prisoner at the Auschwitz death camp, scholar and author Ruth Klueger remembers reciting a Schiller poem to herself over and over to keep herself from collapsing.

Schiller kept her going.

There’s something about him that keeps you going. All these recent productions of The Robbers suggest that this is a play that keeps people going too.

Schiller keeps me going, personally, because, while he wrote tragedies, he also understood something very important that I resonate with, that I need, and that I deeply admire and appreciate.

He understood that without joy, no political or personal improvement is possible. Without our inner ability to experience happiness, hope, optimism, and/or a sense of wonder at the beautiful, we can’t get anywhere. He writes with admiration about children in a famous philosophical essay called “on naive and sentimental poetry” that is amazing and brilliant but this post is already too long so I’m not going to talk about it!

If Schiller were here right now, he would say something like as hopeless as our circumstances may feel to us, we have an obligation — call it personal, call it psychological (Schiller would call it aesthetic,) — to cultivate joy in order to move forward.

We must reach towards joy, even as we grapple — like the characters of The Robbers — with personal and collective trauma, with the failure of the family, the failure of patriarchy, the failure of the “system.” Even and especially when hysterical tyrants move among us (Von Moor senior is quite the passive-aggressive mess of a father, by the way and Schiller’s other plays are filled with tyrannical, petty, power-mad, vicious people).

We need to grasp joy. especially when those tyrants are among us, Schiller would say. And he should know. He was forbidden to write by his local ruler when The Robbers came out and he had to escape over the border to a neighboring duchy. He dealt with rulers all his life – some kinder than others. And don’t forget that he was still alive to experience a piece of the Napoleonic craze. He was remarkably silent about Napoleon. By contrast, when the emperor invaded the German states and at last appeared in the vicinity of Erfurt, Goethe dropped everything to go meet him.

Goethe et Napoléon 1er se rencontrent à Erfurt(Allemagne), dans le palais du gouverneur. 1808
Goethe et Napoléon 1er se rencontrent à Erfurt(Allemagne), dans le palais du gouverneur.

Nothing like one self-serving celebrity meeting a power-mad self-serving celebrity-imperialist! Sound familiar?:

Schiller would have stayed home. “How I detest such things,” I seem to recall him saying about the war in a letter to Goethe. Unlike the G. man, Schiller had actually been educated at the equivalent of an officers’ training school. That’s why perhaps, he loathed war. He was, although there weren’t words for it then, a pacifist. I suspect he asked the French Revolutionary Tribunal to spare that rotten king because Schiller was not a fan of killing people.

This extraordinary writer died quite young. But Schiller was lucky in that he found his community in the theater with writers and readers who understood and loved him. A friend fondly remembered seeing him at the theater, weeping openly as actors brought his beloved characters to life.

Friends in 2017  — may you find your community and thrive in it, may you make art and writing and thinking that wakes us up and helps us ask and understand, and may we move forward together in awareness and freedom towards a more just, more equitable, and more safe society.



On a lighter note:

If you speak German there is an AMAZING video summation of the play using Playmobil figures….

You can see it here:

Still not convinced how important Schiller is?

Check out the hamburgers named after his plays:



Postscript on Schiller’s readers:

Many famous writers read and appreciated Schiller. Dostoevsky read him. Brecht read Schiller, and adapted Schiller’s great Joan of Arc play.

The Brontes read Schiller. You’ll even find an actual section  of The Robbers rendered in the original German being read aloud in a key scene in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

Who in America read him? Some interesting people.

The Alcott’s were big readers of German Literature. Louisa May Alcott read Schiller.

See her “list of books I like:

And so did Alcott friend of the family, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson saw Schiller’s ideas on aesthetics as crucial for a literature of dissent:

See also the entry on Emerson in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Finally, the brilliant political thinker Murray Bookchin read Schiller.

[i] Schiller is best known as the very famous author Goethe’s “best friend.” Elsewhere I have written about how problematic this association really was. As I write I think that this “friendship” was more like the relationship between the WWE wrestlers Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho than like – I don’t know – the Hardy Boys or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But that’s another blog post. Let’s just say that it was a complicated bromance and that the egotistical Goethe (Kevin Owens) was not always so nice to the more handsome, more sensitive Schiller (Chris Jericho). I guess that makes Seth Rollins Kleist (which is a weird thought). So does that make Enzo Amore and Big Cass the Schlegel Brothers (ok, I’m stopping now).


[ii] A word about periodization. Schiller is writing at the end of the European Enlightenment, and he is generally considered to be a writer of the “Storm and Stress’ movement, which is a uniquely German phenomenon that a lot of scholars have connected to the Romantic literary movement that starts happening just a few years later.

But it seems clear to me that “Storm and Stress” is a latter development of Enlightenment thinking, influenced by philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau and Davie Hume. I’ll explain the late Enlightenment this way: If earlier authors like Voltaire and Swift see the potential for people to use reason and logic to figure out the problems of society, Storm and Stress authors investigate – long before the advent of psychology as a science – how our feelings influence us, and direct our actions in ways that we don’t understand and that can have drastic repercussions. Schiller is a master at delving into human psychology, and particular into trauma – a concept that doesn’t exist yet, but that Schiller, who underwent medical training, seems to grasp extremely well. I have written a lot about this, and you can read about it in my book Schiller’s Wound: The Theater of Trauma from Crisis to Commodity (Wayne State University Press) .Very briefly, Schiller was himself , in my opinion (based on his history and on his extensive personal correspondence where he spoke very openly) plagued by feelings of deep insecurity, depression, and anxiety – if we are to take his letters seriously, which I do. His brilliance lay in realizing that what he felt was connected inextricably to the ways his society worked, or in his case (and ours) didn’t work. What we feel infiltrates and is infiltrated by the power structures we inhabit, make, refine, and possibly – destroy.


3 thoughts on “Reading the 18th Century, 12/29/16 — rehearsing the revolution: Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers

  1. Wow, thanks for writing this. I’m hooked: can I find The Robbers in English anywhere? I would love to read it.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. The penguin translation isn’t bad but you might want to look at some of the performance clips on YouTube. They really capture the energy of the play. I think you might like INTRIGUE AND LOVE too. That’s his second play.

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