Goethe’s Experiments in Music and Theater, 1791–1817

Goethe’s Experiments in Music and Theater, 1791–1817

Ashley Elizabeth Clark

The decades flanking the turn of the nineteenth century are often considered the most productive years of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s literary and scientific life. However, the fact that these are also the years in which he directed the Weimar Hoftheater (Court Theater) is generally only glossed over by historians of science. This is particularly intriguing considering that most, if not all, writing on Goethe’s Weimar years employs the metaphor of “experiment” to describe how Goethe and Schiller developed Weimar Classicism. In light of Goethe’s simultaneous development of an experimental method, the lack of account of these theatrical experiments forms a gap in current scholarship. The history Ashley Clark intends to tell is temporally bound by the years 1791 and 1817 when Goethe was employed as Director General of the Weimar Court Theater.

During this period, Goethe explored the relationship between subjective experience and objective truth in his poetry and prose. He recognized how a subjective lens could distort experimentation on natural phenomena, resulting in misreadings of the objects and events under investigation. As a remedy, he explicitly outlined a systematic method of experimentation, which served as the groundwork for his epistemology. The underlying question that leads Ashley Clark's dissertation research is whether we can locate this method of investigation in Goethe’s goals and actions as Theater Director.

In other words, can we think of Goethe’s activities in the theater as one of many branches of his experimental epistemology? Such an investigation requires reconsideration of Goethe’s relationship to music and acting, which have previously been discussed only tangentially to his more “scientific” investigations by historians of science. Since his time, scholars have become entrenched in the modern mode of strict disciplinarity and thus, generally have focused their research on either one path or another. These intellectual divergences become physically evident when one must now traverse the University of Chicago campus to find resources on “Goethe the Poet” in the Regenstein Library, “Goethe the Scientist” in the John Crerar Library, and even “Goethe the Ducal Advisor” in the D’Angelo Law Library. The goal of this dissertation is to better understand the full potential of Goethe’s epistemology by investigating whether seemingly disparate endeavors were, in fact, merely a variety of pathways in the pursuit of a synthetic understanding of nature. This viewpoint relies on an assumption that there never existed a “Goethe the Poet,” a “Goethe the Scientist,” or even a “Goethe the Director,” but rather that there was one man named Goethe who endeavored to unveil the inner workings of nature in every aspect of life, including theatrical and musical performance.