06 April 2006

Goethe on Radio 4

The topic of this morning's 'In Our Time' programme was Goethe. Three guests and the presenter sought to make accessible comment on Goethe’s life and literary work by means of a chronological sweep. Goethe was presented as a founder of German culture, casting off the dominance of French culture. His grounding in the Lutheran Bible was mentioned at the outset and picked up in identifying Götz von Berlichingen and later Faust as set in the time of Luther. The programme gave attention to Goethe as a young Sturm und Drang playwright in revolt against stuffy French classicism, as a novelist disappointed that readers of Werther misunderstood his critique of the cult of sensibility, and as a would-be reformist privy councillor corrupted by power. The discussion traced Goethe's course from birth in Frankfurt with a silver spoon in his mouth, to little Weimar with its Court, and then to Italy, prompted by a German yearning for the South. Goethe’s relationships with women were described, particularly that with Charlotte von Stein, which led to one contributor's wayward assertion that whether Goethe and Charlotte had a sexual relationship is “one of the great questions which German studies battles with”. I think not. Even within the confines of this programme, it was clear that Adelheid and Gretchen are of greater interest than Charlotte and Christiane. The discussion did, however, highlight the politics in his plays: anti-class in Werther, anti-war in Egmont, anti-male politics/rhetoric in Iphigenia, and the mutual appreciation between Goethe and Napoleon. That Goethe had the observing eye of both a scientist and a poet was stated in the introduction, but sadly this idea was not pursued.