Translations and adaptations for the stage
Quicklink: Royalty quotes and perusal scripts
Minna von Barnhelm is available on DVD and as a printed book.
The translation is also available as a printed book which may be ordered directly from Amazon.com.
The play and the playwright, as seen by the translator
We owe far more than we know to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. With his plays, European drama turned decisively away from the classic stage to the modern. His portrayal of Just in Minna von Barnhelm is a fond farewell to the commedia tradition and Hans Sachs; his portrayal of Major von Tellheim and Minna bring the handsome young man and lovely young lady of three centuries of European comedy into the modern world, complete with morality, psychology, and history. Characters will no longer float in a timeless sea, without reference or footing in a recognizeable world. Now they will be rooted in world we know, a world of social pressure, monetary economy, and psychological motivation.
And war. It is easy to forget that Minna von Barnhelm is, at heart, a war play. The Seven Year's war has just swept over the characters and over Lessing himself. He wrote the play less than half-a-dozen years after the end of that war, and set it in the confusion of the earliest months of peace. His hero, Major von Tellheim, is a Prussian, coming to serve the King from a place up on the Baltic in what is now Poland. His heroine, Minna von Barnhelm, is from the Austrian side; specifically, from Saxony, or even more specifically from Thuringia--from the center of Europe, far from the sea, hundreds of miles from Tellheim's home lands. Furthermore, they met and learned to know each other in a context of war, when Tellheim refused to participate in exactions his superiors wanted him to force on captured territory.
Lessing is an old-fashioned moralist of the Enlightenment. He has a reason for telling his story, and his reason is this: People are basically good, and people are what matter. Even the violent, arrogant and loud-mouthed Just will take care of a half-drowned poodle--after his fashion. Even a stiff-necked Prussian officer can learn that a good woman loves him, no matter what state his honor may fall into. And even a fun-loving gal from Thuringia can learn that the stuff of the human heart can be explosive, and if you play with it, you had better be more careful of what you do than she thought she had to be.
How the story is told
Major von Tellheim is on his last legs. The government will not repay him extremely large amounts of money owed him, and he is nearly destitute; in his eyes, he is dishonored because the government doubts his honesty. All his has left is his quarrelsome, arrogant, thoroughly obnoxious, but utterly devoted servant, Just. He is too proud to accept help from his former sergeant, Paul Werner, who wants nothing better than to be his seargeant again and go off to fight the Turks. Poor as he is, he does everything he can to help Frau Marloff, the widow of his former captain of horse. Thrown on his last resources, he pawns his engagement ring. He gives it to Just to pawn, and Just pawns it with the innkeeper--and thereby hangs a tale.
Tellheim is being thrown out of his inn so that the landlord can rent the rooms to a pair of fetching young women just come to town. And who are they? None other than Minna von Barnhelm and her maid Franziska. They are here from Saxony, now that peace has "broken out," and they are searching for Tellheim. Minna fell in love with Tellheim when his troops occupied her part of Saxony. Since then, he has stopped writing to her, and she is determined to find him, bring him home, and enjoy a happy life with him.
Minna discovers that the officer who had her rooms before her is her very own Tellheim and makes the innkeeper bring him to her. Tellheim nearly falls over dead from shame and shock--shame that she should find him as he is, rather than as the dashing officer he was when he courted her; shock that she should turn up here, far from home, seeking him--a man worthless in his own eyes. He flees from Minna in an agony of self-doubt.
Minna learns about the pawned ring and redeems it. After a complex series of maneuvers, involving Franziska, Just, Paul Werner, and a dissolute French officer named Riccaut de la Marliniere, she succeeds in planting her own ring on Tellheim, and confronting him with his own ring--confident that he will mistake the one for the other. She also leads him to believe that her uncle, who is her guardian, has thrown her out of her home over her love for Tellheim. She means to use this joke to get him to see that he himself is what matters to her, not his debts, or his riches, or his ring. However, she loses control of the game; Tellheim not only fails to recognize the ring, but reads the whole joke backwards--first thinking she has thrown him over completely, then thinking he must defend her against her uncle, then thinking she has rejected him again. When at last she can straighten him out, and the whole affair along with him, her uncle, Count Bruchsall, arrives on the scene; the exact opposite of what Tellheim thinks of him, and quite willing to see his beloved niece marry an officer of the other army--so long as she loves him.
Sex in the age of reason
For me, this play is part of a cycle. With The Mistress of the Inn, The Game of Love and Chance, and Minna von Barnhelm, we have a very fair selection, from three different languages, of a very interesting phenomenon: the romantic comedy of the age of reason. In an age that so greatly valued the head, what did people make of the heart? We can observe that the heart was taken very seriously indeed. In all three plays, people give very serious consideration to the problems of love; they examine carefully who their lover is, why they love that person, and how they should love that person in return. The answers are not always obvious, and are shot through with a spirit of fun; whaever else your lover may be, playing tricks on your love--especially if you hope to teach something at the same time--is always within bounds, though the outcome is never guaranteed. Every one of these lovers who tries to teach, winds up learning as well.
There are eight named characters; two of them, the two older men (Count Bruchsall and Riccaut) can be play by the same versatile actor. The stage must clearly represent two different areas of the inn--Minna's rooms (formerly Tellheim's) and at least one public area where various characters can meet and talk more or less in private. It is also possible to move out onto the street in front of the inn for certain scenes if desired. It seems unlikely to me that most directors and designers would go outside the period for costumes, which need to clearly convey civilian versus military, and on the military side, Austrian versus Prussian. There are food props and a variety of hand props that play important parts in the production, most particularly the two rings, which need to be readily visible. Playing time is approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes; there would normally be two intermissions.
Files available for download
A video clip of the scene where
Tellheim tries to tell Minna
why he must leave her. Minna is played by Amy Caldwell; Tellheim by
All text and images on this page are copyright 2005 Robert Bethune.
Photographs are from a production done by MCRT at Riverside Arts Center, Ypsilanti, Michigan.