On the trail of literature: In Potsdam, Lessing wanted to “make the old women cry”

Every step of the young talent was carefully followed: “Mr. Lessing was in Potsdam for 7 weeks,” wrote the Prussian officer Ewald Christian von Kleist on April 2, 1755 to Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim, the Halberstadt poet and patron of literature. “He is said to have made a comedy here in secret,” the author continues. “He might have made a better one if he hadn’t closed himself off; for there are fools to be laughed at here as well as everywhere else. But if I were a poet, it seems to me that I would not make comedies and satires, but rather loud poems of praise.”

What was created in Potsdam was actually not a comedy according to today’s criteria, but the tragedy “Miss Sara Sampson”. The 26-year-old Lessing, born in 1929 in Kamenz, Saxony, had studied medicine, theology and philosophy – and was now in a hurry to finish his play. Lessing himself is said to have enjoyed going to the theater in Berlin, as did Moses Mendelssohn. A piece from France once moved Mendelssohn to tears – the other, Lessing, was left cold. “Making old women cry” – he can do that just as well or better, says Lessing. He doesn’t need more than six weeks for something like this.

The spectators listened for three and a half hours, sat as still as statues, and cried.

Report from the premiere of “Miss Sara Sampson”

The bet stood. “Miss Sara Sampson” was performed for the first time on July 10, 1755 by the Ackermann Society in Frankfurt an der Oder, since there was no theater manager in Berlin for a performance. A contemporary account described the event: “The spectators listened for three and a half hours, sat as still as statues, and cried.” For the first time a play was called “bourgeois tragedy”. “Miss Sara Sampson” wrote theater history.

Lessing had more or less presented a touching play: the eponymous protagonist is torn between morality and decency. But for true love, she elopes with the flighty Mellefont. The two of them stay at an inn. But Mellefont’s ex-partner, Marwood, is waiting there, along with her daughter and a plan for reconquest – which, however, is only based on lust and passion. But Mellefont wants to marry Sara Sampson, against all conventions.

On the other hand, the Marwood has something. She poisons Sara at the inn. Sara makes peace with her father, who has followed her and is suddenly also in the dining room. He would now like to adopt Mellefont as his son-in-law. Mellefont refuses. The dying Sara forgives him too, and Marwood forgives her too. Mellefont, however, cannot forgive himself, not even – he stabs himself.

The young Lessing lodged luxuriously in Potsdam

Friends arranged for Lessing to work and live in the marquisate on Potsdam’s Havelbucht while he was writing the tragedy. It once belonged to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, then Frederick II bought it for his close friend, the French writer and philosopher Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d’Argens. The Marquis was a regular guest at the king’s famous round table at Sanssouci Palace. He also maintained close contact with Voltaire.

Honoring Voltaire-Lessing at the Marquisate near the mosque in Potsdam.
Honoring Voltaire-Lessing at the Marquisate near the mosque in Potsdam.
© Thilo Rückeis

Marquis d’Argens temporarily left the marquisate to Voltaire for his stays in Potsdam. The idyllic property consisted of a country house and garden house on two hectares with a large stock of fruit trees. The constant change of residents and owners since the middle of the 19th century had left the building in poor condition, especially since it was also used for commercial purposes.

On the website of the Potsdam city administration one reads: “Since 1847 the property had been divided, which ended the actual history of the Marquisate. The property line ran through the middle of the house. Half of it gave way to a new building as an apartment building in the 19th century.” The remaining parts of the Marquisate had to give way to new buildings in 1978. In 1992, the Potsdam artist Rainer Sperl created a memorial with column fragments at Zeppelinstraße 167, on which Lessing and Voltaire can be seen as bronze reliefs.

Only later did Lessing come into conflict with the censorship of the Prussian state

During the seven weeks in Potsdam, Lessing kept an eye on Frederick II’s summer residence, Sanssouci Palace, from the Marquisate. At that time, his image of the Prussian king was still largely untarnished. The young man wrote a hymn in praise of Frederick, which includes the following: “For a long time to come this country will (…) / rest in the bosom of peace / for its protector bears the laurels of great deeds in order to do greater ones.”

Lessing did not voice criticism, particularly of the censorship, until after 1763, when the Seven Years’ War was over. The writer pursued the plan to write a play about the love of the Saxon noblewoman Minna von Barnhelm and the Courland Major von Tellheim. However, the Prussian government accused the officer of criminal offenses in financial matters, which, however, proved to be unfounded. Lessing has Tellheim say bitterly: “The services of the great are dangerous and not worth the effort, the compulsion, the humiliation that they cost.”

Lessing became one of the most important German scouts. He reached his poetic climax in 1779 with his dramatic poem “Nathan the Wise”.

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