Leonce and Lena

Leonce and Lena ( _de. Leonce und Lena) is a play by Georg Büchner (1813 - 1837) which is considered a comedy, but is rather a satire veiled in humor. It was written in the spring of 1836 for a competition sponsored by the book publisher in Cotta. However, Büchner missed the submission deadline and the play was returned to him unread. It was premiered almost 60 years later, on May 31 1895, in an outdoor performance by the Munich Company "Intimes Theater", directed by Ernst von Wolzogen and with the involvement of Max Halbe and Oskar Panizza, exemplifying the fact that Büchner only gained prominence as a writer in the 20th century.

Erich Kästner considered "Leonce and Lena" to be one of the six classic comedies of the German language (also noting that William Shakespeare alone had written more comedies).

Plot Summary

Act One

The melancholic and dreamy Prince Leonce of the Kingdom Popo (in its territorial and intellectual diminutiveness a persiflage of the German city-states) has it brought to his attention that his marriage to Princess Lena of the Kingdom Pipi has been arranged. Not willing to tie the knot, he flees to Italy with his lazy bon vivant Valerio.

Meanwhile, the seemingly enlightened, but simultaneously completely vacuous absolutist King Peter calls for a privy council meeting to announce his decision to marry his son.

Act Two

On his way to Italy, Leonce and Valerio encounter two women. They are Lena and her governess, but Leonce and Valerio recognize them. Leonce immediately falls in love with the girl, while Valerio and governess lead a heated exchange. Leonce confesses his love to the girl, but she does not reciprocate. Leonce wants to commit suicide, but is stopped by Valerio, who tauntingly asks him to stop the "Lieutenant romantics", and turns the tragedy of death into a farce. Later on Lena falls in love with Leonce after all, and the two decide to grow old together.

Act Three

Meanwhile the government officials are practicing the festivities of the expected wedding. This scene is full of presumptuous sadism by the schoolmaster and the pitiless image of the suffering of the farmers.

A narrative gap follows, opening up the play to a multitude of interpretations. The scene shifts to the castle Popo again, a vantage point from which the entire breadth of the kingdom can be seen. The king and his followers are in mourning owing to the disappearance of the prince and thus the cancellation of the wedding festivities. Suddenly, four figures appear in the distance, who are later revealed to be the Governess, Lena, Leonce and Valerio. Leonce and Lena have disguised themselves to the point where they cannot be recognised and are referred to by Valerio only as two "world famous automatons" which are able to perfectly perform all human functions. In order to fulfil to his "kingly promise" of providing his guests with a wedding to be celebrated, King Peter decides to hold the marriage "in effigie," with the automatons playing the roles of the bride and groom. Once the ceremony has taken place, both "automatons" take their masks off, and are revealed to be Leonce and Lena themselves. Princess Lena, having fled from the Kingdom of Pipi for the same reason as Leonce (fear and disgust at the idea of being married to a stranger), now recognises the man whom she has just married to be Prince Leonce of Popo.

Leonce and Lena, before they had become aware of each other's true identity, had been prepared to deceive their fathers in order to be married. However, they now realise that their union was the product of a fate which neither of them was capable of circumventing. Leonce is fascinated by this idea of destiny and accepts, with a desperately comical irony, his lot to be that of a King whose kingdom consists only of dully obedient subjects. There is debate regarding Lena's reaction to her fate at the end of this scene: it can be interpreted either as one of dejected submission or blissful speechlessness. Valerio, on the other hand, has been appointed by Leonce as the State Minister, in return for his part in arranging the marriage. He announces that his intention to allow the existing system of order in the State dissolve into chaos, in order to alleviate the widespread poverty and destitution that is rife within the kingdom.

Characters

The characters of the play:

King Peter: King of the Kingdom of "Popo", a word which, in German, is children's language for "bottom". The deliberately ludicrous names attributed to the two imaginary kingdoms of the play is a very obvious satirisation of the numerous and (as Büchner saw it) ridiculously petty subdivisions of the German Empire at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. King Peter is a small-minded bureaucrat who frequently becomes tangled up in his own muddled philosophy and who must tie a knot in his handkerchief to remind him to spare a thought for his people.

Prince Leonce: Crown Prince of Popo. The character of Leonce can be seen as an amalgamation of characterisations from plays by different authors. Like Fantasio, the eponymous hero of the French play by Alfred de Musset, Leonce is much older than his years and jaded by melancholy; he cannot abide the insincerity and shallowness of courtly life and political responsibilities. He is averse to the idea of an arranged marriage, and though aware of his duty to his father wishes, flees the realm. There are also a number of strong links between the character of Leonce and, for example, Valeria, in Brentano's Ponce de Leon and Hamlet, the protagonist of William Shakespeare's tragedy. [M. B. Benn: Introduction, "Leonce und Lena and Lenz", pp xii - xxii. Harrap 1972]

Princess Lena: Crown Princess of the Kingdom of "Pipi". In children's language, "Pipi" translates roughly as "pee". Lena is similarly fearful of the idea of an arranged marriage and is unable to grasp why the State must "drive a nail through two hands which never sought each other out". She too flees with her Governess to avoid the threat of an imposed fate.

Valerio: Companion to Prince Leonce. He might be described as hedonistic in his preoccupation with food, drink and a comfortable living, and this coarsely materialistic aspect of his character is stark in contrast with the dreamy, contemplative melancholy of Leonce.

The Governess: Princess Lena's governess and compaion. She takes pity on the mournful Lena in the first Act of the play and facilitates her fleeing the realm.

Rosetta: Concubine of Prince Leonce. Rosetta loves Leonce but is treated cruelly by him in return. In Leonce's own words, he is "bored through loving her", and makes every effort throughout their encounter (in the first Act) to stifle any remaning sentiment he entertains for her.

Schoolmaster: Seen in the third Act directing the masses of downtrodden peasants as to how they should behave, as they line the streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of the royal wedding procession. He reminds the peasants of their good fortune that their betters should allow them to smell the meals that they themselves cannot afford to eat.

Court Chaplain, Court Tutor, Court Master of Ceremonies, President of the Privy Council, District Administrator: A series of faceless, toadying officials of the Court of the Popo who bow instantly to the word of the King.

Notes


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