Penthesilea: A Tragic Drama
Heinrich von Kleist
Translated and with an introduction by Joel Agee
Pictures by Maurice Sendak
by Steve Dowden
A number of conspicuously able and ambitious writers of the nineteenth century foundered and sank from view in their own time. The resurrection of these sacrificial victims in the twentieth century helped to shape the identity of literary modernism. The classic American example is Moby Dick. The sensibility of this strange novel, lost on Melville's mid-century contemporaries, spoke with great urgency to the readers who rediscovered him in the 1920s. In the modernist myth of the artist and his relation to the world, Moby Dick figures centrally-not only the novel, but its author's embittered withdrawal into silence, a relation perhaps best described as exile.
To early German modernists, three all-but-forgotten figures of the nineteenth century seemed prophets of the modern soul: poet Friedrich Hölderlin, dramatist Georg Büchner, and the versatile dramatist, fiction writer, essayist, and journalist Heinrich von Kleist. All three writers' lives conform to the proto-modernist pattern of unacknowledged achievement followed by withdrawal into exiles of various sorts.
Hölderlin, a lyric genius of rare originality and profundity, suffered not least from the dismissive criticism that Goethe inflicted on him. After the period of his great and difficult hymns, Hölderlin's mind came apart at the seams, and he succumbed to madness. From 1808 until his death in 1843, the insane poet lived alone in a tower in Tübingen, cared for by a carpenter and his wife. Büchner, for whom Germany's most prestigious literary prize is now named, was a young revolutionary, exiled from his home for political reasons. With staggering originality, experimental audacity, and stylistic control, his Danton's Death and Woyzeck revolutionized the language of tragic drama, with vivid, powerful prose that departed from both Shakespearean and antique models. But as if in a story by Thomas Mann, Büchner died of typhus in 1837 at the age of 23, leaving a legacy of four dramas and an extraordinary tale of madness entitled "Lenz." The German expressionists would reclaim his work for the twentieth century.
But before Büchner there was Heinrich von Kleist. In the late eighteenth century, the world of German letters was much taken with the "noble simplicity and tranquil grandeur" exemplified in Johann Joachim Winckelmann's idyll of Greek antiquity. Writers such as Goethe and Schiller transposed this vision of Greek myth, art, and culture onto the stage, in works such as Goethe's Iphigenia on Tauris, and into poetry, such as Schiller's "Gods of Greece." This was a world and a literary culture unprepared for Kleist's savage imagination. His 1808 verse drama Penthesilea (one of eight works he wrote for the stage) not only broke the rules of Aristotelian tragedy-it takes place without traditional acts in 24 consecutive scenes-but also contested the prevailing Goethean view of classical antiquity. Kleist's Greeks resemble Nietzsche's in their instinctive world of passion, violence, and erotic conflict.
In Penthesilea, Kleist envisions an Amazon attack on Achilles and his fellow Greeks as they lay siege to Troy. The Amazons intend to capture young Greek warriors in order to take them back to Themiscyra, capital of the Amazon empire. There they will celebrate "sacred orgies" with their captives-"ecstasy beyond restraint"-in order to insure the continuation of the Amazon lineage. According to Amazon law, each woman must meet the father of her daughters in battle, defeat him, and take him prisoner. (Let it be noted, however, that this is catch-and-release program: once the Amazon is pregnant, she liberates her captive lover. If a boy is born, though, the unlucky infant does not fare so well.)
Penthesilea, young queen of the Amazons, meets Achilles in battle. She is smitten in every way. Achilles deals her a pitiless blow with his lance (of course), that sends the proud virgin sprawling in the dust, weak and deprived of her reason. He "tears her breast," we are told, and "injures her soul." Love, in Kleist's world, is brutal, humiliating, and wounding. It is a combat that anticipates the love-world of Strindberg. Though Achilles has mastered Penthesilea, his blood is aroused with a desire for her that disarms him, literally and figuratively: "Your eyes are better aimed than these arrows," he says to the Amazon warrior princesses who surround him, "By the Olympians, I don't speak in jest, / I have been wounded deep inside, I feel it, / And as a man disarmed in every sense, / I lay myself before your little feet."
Achilles offers himself up to Penthesilea. But that unironic crack about "little feet" gives away his complacent condescension. Their feet may be cute, but these warrior maidens are dangerous. Above all, the wounded queen is dangerous. Playful Achilles challenges her to single combat, but appears unarmed, ready to be defeated by her in accordance with Amazon law and led back to her city as her love slave (much to the disgust of his comrade in arms Odysseus).
Penthesilea, blinded by her injured pride and volcanic passions, arrives with murder in her eyes. Armed with a bow, she shoots Achilles through the throat, sets her man-killing dogs on him, and then pounces, hyena-like, onto his chest, tearing his flesh with her own teeth. Like most of the action in the play, this scene is reported, which places a heavy burden on the resources of poetry. It is here that Kleist excels, and Joel Agee's exceptionally fine blank verse translation admirably captures the narrative force and romantic extravagance of his poetry. In this passage the Queen moves in on her unsuspecting lover for the kill:
Maurice Sendak, a close reader of Kleist's language, gives us her blind fury as her blank eye, powerfully suggesting the inhuman malice that moves her; his sprawling Achilles also recalls Penthesilea sprawling after their first meeting. Sendak's fine illustrations, with their heavy lines and watercolors, are reminiscent of William Blake's in their compressed and expressive solidity. They distill and extend Kleist's text. Each picture has an effect like that of a composer's setting of a poem in song, serving to heighten and illuminate aspects of the original.
The dogs, which Kleist early on uses as images of desire in his iambic pentameters, eventually materialize as the literal images of consuming passion. Those vulvar roses all around the dying Achilles (possibly Sendak means for us to recall Blake's "Sick Rose") stand for the "Feast of Roses" that he had hoped for, the conjugal festival in which the Amazon girls and women take their mates:
Kleist had hoped to win Goethe's respect, and with it the respect of his age, with Penthesilea. But Goethe, whose watchwords were balance, restraint, and renunciation, could not admire a play that drove violence, lust, and nihilistic rage to their outermost tragic consequences. In a January 1808 letter to Kleist (the only one Goethe ever wrote him), he bluntly rejected the work. Kleist, a lonely and vulnerable soul under the best of circumstances, was devastated. The snub probably clinched his sense of exile.
By 1811, at the age of 34, no longer writing and in debt, Kleist's life's work was already behind him. His withdrawal, he decided, would take the form of suicide. He persuaded Henriette Vogel, a married woman suffering from cancer, to join him in a double suicide. Beside a lake on the outskirts of Berlin, Kleist shot her through the heart and then put the pistol in his own mouth and fired. Kafka, Mann, Gide, and other Kleist enthusiasts came much later. His work would have to wait until the twentieth century, with its experience of grotesque extremes, to find an audience who fully appreciated his unrelenting use of the tragic form.