We might in this place attempt to gain thy favor, by declaring that we write about the theatre with no other view than that of the public good; but in this we would not be sincere; and people nowadays too wise to be deceived by pretences. The plain truth of the matter is, Dramaturgs are excessively poor, though well educated with M.F.A. and M.A. degrees in hand, and experienced from many internships at professional companies, we are often not rendered payment for our goodly services. Our families are excessively proud of our hard work toiling in the theatre, but cannot bear to sit while we do nothing but gaze at the stars; and have threatened more than once to burn all of our books if we do not make some profitable use of them for the good of our families and pay off our debts.
Wherein this Almanack is contained the Lunations, Eclipses, Spring Tides, Planets, Motions, the Sun and Moon’s Rising and Setting, Length of Days, Time of High Water, Fairs, Courts, and observable Days of the American Theatre Season.
The scourge and savior of 18th Century theatre, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wasn’t just the first dramaturg—he invented the word. Like most dramaturgs, Lessing wound his way into his craft through years of unrelated study and work, taking degrees in theology and medicine while working as a statesman, philosopher, and art critic.
Lessing paired with Goethe to implement a new theatre movement centered in Hamburg. In the kindergarten days of the German National Theatre project, he built himself an office whose stated goal was to be at odds with the creative process and yet intrinsic to it: he was an in-house critic, a formative voice but divorced from the director-actor continuum, independent yet firmly moored to his home theatre. He set the precedent for the dramaturg-as-standard-barer, being one of the first continental Europeans to spread Shakespear-o-mania while shaming Germany into leaving behind French theatric practical leftovers from Voltaire and Corneille.
His Hamburg Dramaturgy is a modern dramaturg’s bible, laying out his method of interrogating drama through culture at large and vice versa. Comprised of Lessing’s writings on the National Theatre’s productions, the Dramaturgy is a record of Lessing’s activity, and thereby a definition for dramaturgy that we still use today: he was a translator, a repository of cultural information (both domestic and foreign), a playwright, and theatre educator.
Lessing died suddenly at the age of 52, alone and poorer, but still one of the sharpest wits of his day. If dramaturgs are jacks of all trades (and masters, as well), we owe our generalized specificity to the clarified mania of Lessing’s work. We are a lot whose minds are split between fifty different topics at any one moment, but thanks to Lessing, we have a method for effectively anchoring ourselves to the creative dramatic process. (Composed by Mark Costello)
Special thanks to playwright Connie Congdon for laughing and saying “that’s great, do it!” when I told her the idea and playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger for her leadership in Philly LMDA.