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J.W. von Goethe (1749–1832). Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Book III

Chapter II

AFTER a few days, the Baron came; and it was not without fear that Melina received him. The Count had spoken of him as a critic; and it might be dreaded, he would speedily detect the weakness of the little party, and see that it formed no efficient troop, there being scarcely a play which they could act in a suitable manner. But the manager, as well as all the members, were soon delivered from their cares, on finding that the Baron was a man who viewed the German stage with a most patriotic enthusiasm, to whom every player, and every company of players, was welcome and agreeable. He saluted them all with great solemnity; was happy to come upon a German theatre so unexpectedly, to get connected with it, and to introduce their native Muses to the mansion of his relative. He then pulled out from his pocket a bundle of stitched papers, in which Melina hoped to find the terms of their contract specified; but it proved something very different. It was a drama, which the Baron himself had composed, and wished to have played by them: he requested their attention while he read it. Willingly they formed a circle round him; charmed at being able with so little trouble to secure the favour of a man so important; though judging by the thickness of the manuscript, it was clear that a very long rehearsal might be dreaded. Their apprehensions were not groundless; the piece was written in five acts, and that sort of acts which never have an end.

The hero was an excellent, virtuous, magnanimous and at the same time misunderstood and persecuted man; this worthy person, after many trials, gained the victory at last over all his enemies; on whom, in consequence, the most rigorous poetic justice would have been exercised, had he not pardoned them on the spot.

While this piece was rehearsing, each of the auditors had leisure enough to think of himself, and to mount up quite softly from the humble prostration of mind, to which, a little while ago, he had felt disposed, into a comfortable state of contentment with his own gifts and advantages; and from this elevation, to discover the most pleasing prospects in the future. Such of them as found in the play no parts adapted for their own acting, internally pronounced it bad, and viewed the Baron as a miserable author; while the others, every time they noticed any passage which they hoped might procure them a little clapping of the hands exalted it with the greatest praise, to the immeasurable satisfaction of the author.

The commercial part of their affair was soon completed. Melina made an advantageous bargain with the Baron, and contrived to keep it secret from the rest.

Of our friend, Melina took occasion to declare in passing, that he seemed to be successfully qualifying himself for becoming a dramatic poet, and even to have some capacities for being an actor. The Baron introduced himself to Wilhelm as a colleague; and the latter by and by produced some little pieces, which, with a few other relics, had escaped by chance, on the day when he threw the greater part of his works into the flames. The Baron lauded both his pieces and delivery; he spoke of it as a settled thing, that Wilhelm should come over to the Castle with the rest. For all, at his departure, he engaged to find the best reception, comfortable quarters, a good table, applauses and presents; and Melina farther gave the promise of a certain modicum of pocket-money to each.

It is easy to conceive how this visit raised the spirits of the party; instead of a low and harassing situation, they now at once saw honours and enjoyment before them. On the score of these great hopes they already made merry; and each thought it needless and stingy to retain a single groschen of money in his purse.

Meanwhile our friend was taking counsel with himself, about accompanying the troop to the Castle; and he found it, in more than one sense, advisable to do so. Melina was in hopes of paying off his debt, at least in part, by this engagement; and Wilhelm, who had come from home to study men, was unwilling to let slip this opportunity of examining the great world, where he expected to obtain much insight into life, into himself and the dramatic art.

With all this, he durst not confess how greatly he wished again to be near the beautiful Countess. He rather sought to persuade himself in general of the mighty advantages, which a more intimate acquaintance with the world of rank and wealth would procure for him. He pursued his reflections on the Count, the Countess, the Baron; on the security, the grace and propriety of their demeanour; he exclaimed with rapture when alone:

“Thrice happy are they to be esteemed, whom their birth of itself exalts above the lower stages of mankind; who do not need to traverse those perplexities, not even to skirt them, in which many worthy men so painfully consume the whole period of life. Far-extending and unerring must their vision be, on that higher station; easy each step of their progress in the world! From their very birth, they are placed as it were in a ship, which, in this voyage we have all to make, enables them to profit by the favourable winds, and to ride out the cross ones; while others, bare of help, must wear their strength away in swimming, can derive little profit from the favourable breeze, and in the storm must soon become exhausted and sink to the bottom. What convenience, what ease of movement does a fortune we are born to, confer upon us! How securely does a traffic flourish, which is founded on a solid capital, where the failure of one or of many enterprises does not of necessity reduce us to inaction! Who can better know the worth and worthlessness of earthly things, than he that has had within his choice the enjoyment of them from youth upwards; and who can earlier guide his mind to the useful, the necessary, the true, than he that may convince himself of so many errors in an age when his strength is yet fresh to begin a new career!”

Thus did our friend cry joy to all inhabitants of the upper regions; and not to them only, but to all that were permitted to approach their circle, and draw water from their wells. So he thanked his own happy stars, that seemed preparing to grant this mighty blessing to himself.

Melina, in the mean time, was torturing his brains to get the company arranged according to their several provinces, and each of them appointed to produce his own peculiar effect. In compliance with the Count’s injunctions and his own persuasions, he made many efforts: but at last, when it came to the point of execution, he was forced to be content, if, in so small a troop, he found his people willing to adjust themselves to this or that part, as they best were able. When matters would admit of it, Laertes played the lover; Philina the lady’s-maid; the two young girls took up between them the characters of the artless and tender loved-ones; the boisterous old gentleman of the piece was sure to be the best acted. Melina himself thought he might come forth as chevalier; Madame Melina, to her no small sorrow, was obliged to satisfy herself with personating young wives, or even affectionate mothers; and as in the newer plays a poet or pedant is rarely introduced, and still more rarely for the purpose of being laughed at, the well-known favourite of the Count was now usually transformed into president or minister; these being commonly set forth as knaves, and severely handed in the fifth act. Melina too, in the part of chamberlain or the like, introduced, with great satisfaction, the ineptitudes put into his hands by various honest Germans, according to use and wont, in many well-accepted plays: he delighted in these characters, because he had an opportunity of decking himself out in a fashionable style, and was called upon to assume the airs of a courtier, which he conceived himself to possess in great perfection.

It was not long till they were joined by several actors from different quarters; who being received without very strict examination, were also retained without very burdensome conditions.

Wilhelm had been more than once assailed with persuasions from Melina to undertake an amateur part. This he declined; yet he interested and occupied himself about the general cause with great alacrity, without our new manager’s acknowledging his labours in the smallest. On the contrary, it seemed to be Melina’s opinion, that with his office he had at the same time picked up all the necessary skill for carrying it on. In particular, the task of curtailment formed one of his most pleasing occupations; he would succeed in reducing any given piece down to the regular measure of time, without the slightest respect to proprieties or proportions, or anything whatever but his watch. He met with great encouragement; the public was very much delighted; the most knowing inhabitants of the burgh maintained that the Prince’s theatre itself was not so well conducted as theirs.