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Ludwig Tieck’s "Puss-in-Boots" and Theater of the Absurd

A Commentated Bilingual Edition


Gerald Gillespie

Johann Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853) was one of the most formative influences of the romantic movement, inspiring such major figures as Novalis and Hoffmann. Not only did his tales and novels shape the course of German romantic fiction; as a translator he helped to naturalize Shakespeare and Cervantes; as an editor he was among the first to recognize Kleist.
Tieck’s precocious invention of ironic-fantastic comedy quickly found resonance among fellow romantics, who worked under the parallel influence of the Goethean revolution in drama exhibited in Faust. Yet Tieck’s play Puss-in-Boots (1797) had to wait a full century before its impulses were transmitted, by Pirandello, to modern anti-theater and theater of the absurd.
The Tieckian direction anticipates the metaphysical strains both of symbolist and of existentialist theater and the beneficent absurdism of Wilder and Ionesco. As the boundary between stage and audience completely dissolves in Puss-in-Boots, we experience the transcendent delight of pure theater and unsettling doubts about our own roles on the world’s stage.


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Notes to the Play


1. The original edition of the play omits Schlosser from the list of dramatis personae, probably through oversight, since he has a noticeable number of lines. In the Phantasus version of the play, the personages Fischer, Müller, Bötticher, Leutner, Wiesener, and neighbor are desig- nated “Zuschauer,” spectators, though several function distinctly as contemporary critics. An equivalent grouping of names in English would be something like Fisher, Miller, Cooper, Bellman, and Mead- ows. In his reworking of the play, Dorst replaces the original names, except for Leutner, which suggest the solidity of the bourgeoisie of Tieck’s age and that different moment of constricting literary prejudices. By naming them Siedendanz, Blume, Pelzig, Leutner, and Bratfisch, he introduces instead an undertone of absurdity congruent with our own historical position after the theater of the absurd. Though able to discuss the play in terms of epic theater, theater of the absurd, and so forth, Dorst’s invented public, in imitation of the obtuseness of Tiecks’, declares that the actual (i.e., paying) public, to whose existence the playwright on stage finally calls attention during the performance, is just a fiction created by him to confuse them and a well-known part of the dramatic strategy of modem theater. Tieck’s basic point–that old theatri- cal illusion is outmoded–is extended to cover the willing adjustment of today’s public to the new message and medium which they tenaciously interpret as high-level entertainment. Since Tieck viewed his fictive spectator-critics as puppet figures, Dorst specifies they act as...

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