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Peter Oswald’s version of Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart,” whose run at New York’s Broadhurst Theater ends in mid-August, succeeds in making this 1801 warhorse of the German Classic crackle on a modern stage. Schiller (1759“1805) was guilty of historical distortions no worse than those in Cate Blanchett’s “Elizabeth” films, and his treatment of character is infinitely superior. At his best, no tragedian after Shakespeare surpasses him. “Mary Stuart” depicts the conflict between the Protestant Elizabeth and the Catholic Mary, quite differently from the two Blanchett films, which crawl with ominous Spaniards and lurking Jesuit assassins. It is noteworthy that the Catholic cause gets a more sympathetic look from a nineteenth century enemy of the Church than from twenty-first century Hollywood.

That may have do to with the fact that Schiller was a great if often flawed artist, while the scriptwriters of Hollywood are not. Heinrich Heine remarks in “Shakespeare’s Girls and Women” that although “The Merchant of Venice” is anti-Semitic in intent, it is not so in effect, because Shakespeare cannot help but bring out the humanity of every character he depicts. He may have intended to portray Shylock as a monster, like Marlowe’s Barnabas, but instead shows a human being more sinned against than sinning. By the same token, Schiller finds greatness of soul in the unfortunate Mary Stuart, the Catholic antipode to Elizabeth I, and makes Elizabeth into a monster. No stricter apologist of the Protestant cause set pen to paper than Schiller, who saw in the Protestant revolt against Spain and in the revolt against the Empire in the Thirty Years War the first stirrings of European freedom. In his unpublished poem “German greatness” he wrote,

Schwere Ketten drückten alle
Völker auf dem Erdenballe
Als der Deutsche sie zerbrach
Fehde bot dem Vatikane
Krieg ankündigte dem Wahne
Der die ganze Welt bestach.

Heavy chains oppressed
All the peoples of the earth
When the German (Luther) smashed them,
Declared a feud against the Vatican,
And War against the insanity
That corrupted the entire world.

As an historian, Schiller prefigures the Whig interpretation of history, in which enlightened Protestantism gradually triumphs over the medieval obscurantism of the Catholic Church. Schiller’s interest, to be sure, is not religious but political; his neo-Hellenic “Classicism” was explicitly non-Christian. In that vein he wrote a great deal of faux-classic poetry that has aged rather badly.

His two book-length histories are unabashed Protestant polemics. The first is a sympathetic portrayal of the Netherlands’ revolt against Catholic Spain, whence came the materials for his “black legend” drama about Philip II and the Inquisition, “Don Carlos.” The unspeakably evil Grand Inquisitor in Schiller’s drama is said to have inspired Dostoyevsky’s character in The Brothers Karamazov . The second is a history of the Thirty Years War, which makes the astonishing claim that “Europe came out of this frightful war unoppressed and free” because it destroyed forever the principle of Catholic universal empire. And his novella “The Spiritualist” ( Der Geisterseher ) is a Gothic tale of Catholic intrigue against a Protestant ruler.

All the more striking, then, is Schiller’s fictional account of Mary Stuart’s last confession. As Mary faces execution on false charges of conspiring against Elizabeth I, she despairs that her captors have prevented her from making her final confession and receiving the sacraments. A former servant, Melville, arrives to reveal that he secretly has become a priest and has brought a host blessed by the Pope to administer her final Communion. [Note: The excerpts below are from the Joseph Mellish translation of 1800 ; they do not do justice to Schiller’s elevated language, which manages to maintain an elevated tone without sounding stilted. Peter Oswald’s version, while inelegant, is much better.]

Melville: . . . Here is a priest”here is a God;
A God descends to thee in real presence.

[At these words he uncovers his head,
and shows a host in a golden vessel.

I am a priest”to hear thy last confession,
And to announce to thee the peace of God
Upon thy way to death. I have received
Upon my head the seven consecrations.
I bring thee, from his Holiness, this host,
Which, for thy use, himself has deigned to bless.

Is then a heavenly happiness prepared
To cheer me on the very verge of death?
As an immortal one on golden clouds
Descends, as once the angel from on high,
Delivered the apostle from his fetters:”
He scorns all bars, he scorns the soldier’s sword,
He steps undaunted through the bolted portals,
And fills the dungeon with his native glory;
Thus here the messenger of heaven appears
When every earthly champion had deceived me.

Mary confesses her sins, including her complicity in the murder of her first husband, takes Communion, and goes to the scaffold to expiate her youthful misdeeds with her own death, in a state that Schiller portrays as beatific. The scene surely is one of the most touching representations of Catholic ritual ever to be shown on the stage.

Earlier in the drama, the Catholic conspirator Mortimer explains to Mary why he became a secret convert during his travels on the Continent:

I scarce, my liege, had numbered twenty years,
Trained in the path of strictest discipline
And nursed in deadliest hate to papacy,
When led by irresistible desire
For foreign travel, I resolved to leave
My country and its puritanic faith
Far, far behind me: soon with rapid speed
I flew through France, and bent my eager course
On to the plains of far-famed Italy.
‘Twas then the time of the great jubilee:
And crowds of palmers filled the public roads;
Each image was adorned with garlands; ‘twas
As if all human-kind were wandering forth
In pilgrimage towards the heavenly kingdom.
The tide of the believing multitude
Bore me too onward, with resistless force,
Into the streets of Rome . . . . I ne’er had felt the power of art till now.
The church that reared me hates the charms of sense;
It tolerates no image, it adores
But the unseen, the incorporeal word.
What were my feelings, then, as I approached
The threshold of the churches, and within,
Heard heavenly music floating in the air:
While from the walls and high-wrought roofs there streamed
Crowds of celestial forms in endless train”
When the Most High, Most Glorious pervaded
My captivated sense in real presence!
And when I saw the great and godlike visions,
The Salutation, the Nativity,
The Holy Mother, and the Trinity’s
Descent, the luminous transfiguration
And last the holy pontiff, clad in all
The glory of his office, bless the people!

Schiller, the artist-apostle of “aesthetic education,” describes a conversion to Catholicism mediated by the beauty of Catholic art. Mortimer, to be sure, becomes a fanatic, driven by his passion for Mary as much as by his religion; he sets in motion a desperate attempt to rescue the imprisoned Mary, and kills himself to avoid capture at the end of the drama. Nonetheless, his report of his conversion rings true.

“Mary Stuart” is only one of several instances of Schiller’s inability to stay on message as a Protestant partisan. I have never quite known what to make of “Maid of Orleans,” in which his fictional Joan of Arc is torn between her saintly mission and earthly love, and dies on the battlefield rather than at the stake. It is the most sentimental and in my view the most dated of his mature plays. Schiller’s Catholic hero par excellence is the Imperial Field Marshal of the Thirty Years’ War, Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583“1634), the protagonist of a trilogy written in 1799. The Wallenstein trilogy arguably is Germany’s national tragedy, and in a certain way Europe’s. The idea of Christian universal empire died during the Thirty Years’ War, when France dictated the Peace of Westphalia and created the system of sovereign states in its own image.

Schiller’s Wallenstein, as the critics observe, deviates widely from the historical personage, all the better to personify Europe’s tragic unravelling during the Religious Wars. To suppress the Protestant rebellion that began in 1618 in Bohemia and quickly spread to northern Germany, the Austro-Spanish Catholic empire made a deal with the devil, in the person of Wallenstein, a minor Bohemian noble who became one of the great military entrepreneurs of all time. He was asked to raise troops for the Empire, and said (in Schiller’s words), “I can’t feed twelve thousand, but fifty thousand won’t die of hunger,” because they can take what they need. Wallenstein brought every freebooter in Europe to his banner, creating a monstrous army that crushed the Protestant opposition, but in turn starved out the population of Imperial territory. This form of military organization caused the depopulation of central Europe by nearly half during the course of the war. As Schiller depicts the army, it is a “new people” called out of the nations, a parody as it were of the Christian ekklesia . Wallenstein became powerful enough to challenge the empire, and negotiated treasonably with the Protestant side. The Austrian court arranged his assassination in 1634. France, which had entered the war on the Protestant side, emerged victorious and the political principle of universal Christian empire died forever.

After Wallenstein crushed the Protestant coalition in 1628, Cardinal Richelieu of France subsidized a Swedish expedition to Germany to save the Protestant cause and keep the war going, under King Gustavus Adolphus, the only commander to beat Wallenstein in open battle, although the 1633 victory at Lützen cost the Swedish leader his life. At this point Wallenstein began negotiating to defect to the Protestant side and impose a peace on the empire under circumstances that remain unclear.

Schiller’s fictional Wallenstein has grave failing. His will is paralyzed Hamlet-like at crucial moments, as he studies the stars for guidance. In his arrogance he despises the loyalty of subordinates who eventually are suborned to betray him. Schiller turns a minor historical figure, the Imperial General Octavio Piccolomini, into the master manipulator for Emperor Ferdinand of Hapsburg, and invents for him a son, Max Piccolomini, as a foil. Max is borne by idealism of youth and Imperial as well as personal loyalty. Wallenstein’s proposed betrayal leaves Max distraught, and he leads his dragoon in a suicidal charge against the Swedish lines. Wallenstein’s daughter Thekla kills herself on Max’s grave.

Schiller’s Wallenstein is a protagonist of high nobility who aspires to European universality. (In case anyone doubted this, he spells out his view in a later poem, “Thekla: A Ghostly Voice.”) His mercenary army, an “outcast of all foreign lands, unclaimed by town or tribe,” is the agency through which Wallenstein hopes to impose a universal peace. Despite his sympathies for the Protestant cause, Schiller has little sympathy for the Protestant leaders. We meet one in the person of the secret Swedish emissary to Wallenstein, Colonel Wrangel. Wrangel tells him that the Swedish Chancellor Oxenstierna doubts that Imperial soldiers will break their oath to cross over to the Swedish side. To this Wallenstein replies (Coleridge translation):

. . . He judges like a Swede,
And like a Protestant. You Lutherans
Fight for your Bible. You are interested
About the cause; and with your hearts you follow
Your banners. Among you whoe’er deserts
To the enemy hath broken covenant
With two lords at one time. We’ve no such fancies.
. . . this army
That calls itself the imperial, this that houses
Here in Bohemia, this has none”no country;
This is an outcast of all foreign lands,
Unclaimed by town or tribe, to whom belongs
Nothing except the universal sun.

The Catholic generalissimo cedes the moral high ground to the Protestants and describes the Imperial Army as an “outcast.” Offered the moral high ground, Wrangel ignores it: he replies that the Swedes want German territory to settle:

The Swede, if he would treat well with the German,
Must keep a sharp lookout. We have been called
Over the Baltic, we have saved the empire
. . . No, not for gold and silver have there bled
So many of our Swedish nobles”neither
Will we, with empty laurels for our payment,
Hoist sail for our own country. Citizens
Will we remain upon the soil, the which
Our monarch conquered for himself and died.

Behind Sweden’s religious motivation, in short, lurks a narrow territorial one. None of the Protestant leaders could represent European universalism, for an historical reason never mentioned by Schiller. After the first, sad defeat in 1620 of the Bohemian Protestants and their “Winter King” from the Palatinate, the Protestant cause quickly became the instrument of French policy. By subsidizing any Protestant prince willing to take on the Imperial army, and throwing French troops in when none was handy, Cardinal Richelieu and his successor Cardinal Mazarin succeeded in drawing out the war for thirty years, destroying Germany as a prospective adversary, and dictating the terms of the Peace of Westphalia. The second half of the war was largely a Franco-Spanish war fought on scorched German earth. Schiller misses the historical truth, but his portrayal of the Swedes is dramatically true.

On the contrary, there is an element of universalism even in this monster that Wallenstein has called into being, this “outcast” imperial army made up of the adventurers and freebooters of Europe. Schiller saw in the soldier-folk the possibility of a new European people. In 1799, after Napoleon’s Italian and Egyptian campaigns, military universalism overshadowed the European agenda. Schiller’s Wallenstein is both the historical Wallenstein as Schiller imagined him, and an example and warning to Schiller’s Corsican contemporary, who bore with him the hopes and fears of enlightened Europe.

Schiller’s support of the Protestant cause was nominal rather than heartfelt; he was no Christian, but man of the enlightenment, a self-styled “citizen of the world.” He wrote at the cusp of an era in which a new kind of European universalism would be tested and found wanting. Although Schiller had vaguely republican sympathies, he despised the destruction of civil society in the French Revolution. As he looked back through European history for exemplary personalities as well as cautionary tales, he found both”only among Catholic personages. His catholicity brought him back to Catholic protagonists. Not the daughter of Henry VIII, but rather the Franco-Scottish Mary Stuart, not the self-interest Protestant princes but rather the larger-than-life Generalissimo Wallenstein, attracted him. Rather than the Whig version of history, we have a profound insight into Europe’s tragedy.

What we learn from the personal conflicts in Schiller’s dramas is a lesson radically at variance with the Whig interpretation. Once the principal of universal Christian empire broke down, Europe became impossible to govern. ungovernable in a fundamental respect. What the reader takes away from Schiller’s dramas is the inability of great souls like Wallenstein or Mary to resolve their respective crises. “There is no such thing as chance; and what seem to us merest accident springs from the deepest source of destiny,” Schiller once wrote. As an historian, Schiller was tendentious; as an artist, he intuited the deep sources of Europe’s ultimate failure. What was it that ultimately undermined every attempt at European universality?

In a 2008 essay in First Things (under the pseudonym “David Shushon”) I addressed the unique character of universal empire in the European polity:

Because Christians are a new people called out of the nations, Christian theocracy must be supranational in character. The various political states of Europe were fostered by the Church, which furnished them with language and culture; but those states were subordinated, in some sense, to a Latin-speaking supranational Church that was senior partner to a universal empire. . . . Christianity can only flourish within a political model that transcends nationality such that the Christian’s citizenship in the People of God takes precedence over citizenship in a Gentile nation. As a citizen of a universal empire, the individual Christian was subject to a supranational political authority that stood above the Gentile nation and suppressed its ethnocentrism.

Europe’s tragedy was the ruin of the never-completed, always-contested political framework of universal empire that uniquely allowed its people to be at once citizens of nations and members of the ekklesia .

Schiller’s artistic instinct goes unerringly to the nodal events of the dissolution of the empire. As Russell Hittinger wrote in a First Things essay, “Two Thomisms, Two Modernities,”

The Reformation and the religious wars, culminating in the 1648 treaties of Westphalia, destroyed the old medieval common law of Christendom by creating a system of states having diverse confessional allegiances. A new common law, however, evolved among the peoples under Catholic rule. It was built on a complex and evolving set of treaties, informal agreements, and legal fictions through which the Church conceded to Catholic sovereigns rights over many aspects of ecclesiastical life”in exchange for which those sovereigns protected the Church from schism and supplied the resources for missions across the world . . . . This political system is what writers in the nineteenth century called the ancien régime, because Catholics had no living memory of any other order. But it was, in fact, neither ancient nor medieval.

The more Schiller delved into the leading personalities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the more he understood that Europe’s tragedy was a Catholic one, and a tragedy of Catholic leaders”for Europe’s was theirs to lose. In his sympathetic portrayals of Wallenstein, and Mary Stuart, among others, he attempts to recreate the internal conflict of the leaders who lost Catholic Europe.

As an American considering these events with hindsight, I do not believe Europe’s catastrophe could have been avoided. The Pilgrim Fathers left Holland in 1620 fearing that the crushing of the Protestant rebellion in Bohemia and Germany would lead to a Spanish invasion of the Protestant Netherlands. In fact, they drew the right conclusion, abandoned Europe, and built something new and inherently more hospitable to revealed religion”the first truly non-ethnic state founded upon Biblical principals. The tragedy is that Christendom proved inhospitable to Christianity and had to be remade into America. Schiller’s last play, “William Tell” (1804), is not a tragedy but a heroic drama with a happy ending, American style. It lacks the tragic tension of “Wallenstein” or “Mary Stuart.” and we know that his Swiss burghers really are American revolutionaries playing dress-up. Nonetheless it underscores the point that if Europe’s crises had a happy ending, it is the founding of the United States.

David P. Goldman is associate editor of First Things .

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