Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter VI

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

Book I

Chapter VI

“THE LIEUTENANT now set up his theatre, and managed all the rest. During the week, I readily observed that he often came into the house at unusual hours, and I soon guessed the cause. My eagerness increased immensely; for I well understood, that till Sunday evening I could have no share in what was going on. At last the wished-for day arrived. At five in the evening, my conductor came and took me up with him. Quivering with joy, I entered, and descried, on both sides of the frame-work, the puppets all hanging in order as they were to advance to view. I considered them narrowly, and mounted on the steps, which raised them above the scene, and allowed me to hover aloft over all that little world. Not without reverence did I look down between the pieces of board, and recollect what a glorious effect the whole would produce, and feel into what mighty secrets I was now admitted. We made a trial, which succeeded well.

“Next day, a party of children were invited: we performed rarely; except that once, in the fire of action, I let poor Jonathan fall, and was obliged to reach down with my hand and pick him up again; an accident which sadly marred the illusion, produced a peal of laughter, and vexed me unspeakably. My father, however, seemed to relish this misfortune not a little. Prudently shrouding up the contentment he felt at the expertness of his little boy, after the piece was finished, he dwelt on the mistakes we had committed, saying it would all have been very pretty, had not this or that gone wrong with us.

“I was vexed to the heart at these things, and sad for all the evening. By next morning, however, I had quite slept off my sorrow; and was blessed in the persuasion that, but for this one fault, I had played delightfully. The spectators also flattered me with their unanimous approval; they all maintained, that though the lieutenant, in regard to the coarse and the fine voices, had done great things, yet his declamation was in general too stiff and affected; whereas the new aspirant spoke his Jonathan and David with exquisite grace. My mother in particular commended the gallant tone in which I had challenged Goliath, and acted the modest victor before the king.

“From this time, to my extreme delight, the theatre continued open; and as the spring advanced, so that fires could be dispensed with, I passed all my hours of recreation lying in the garret, and making the puppets caper and play together. Often I invited up my comrades, or my brothers and sisters; but when they would not come, I stayed by myself not the less. My imagination brooded over that tiny world, which soon afterwards acquired another form.

“Scarcely had I once or twice exhibited the first piece, for which my scenery and actors had been formed and decorated, till it ceased to give me any pleasure. On the other hand, among some books of my grandfather’s I had happened to fall in with the German Theatre, and a few translations of Italian operas; in which works I soon got very deeply immersed, on each occasion first reckoning up the characters, and then, without farther ceremony, proceeding to exhibit the piece. King Saul with his black velvet cloak, was therefore now obliged to personate Darius or Cato, or some other pagan hero; in which cases, it may be observed, the plays were never wholly represented; for most part, only the fifth act, where the cutting and stabbing lay.

“It was natural that the operas, with their manifold adventures and vicissitudes, should attract me more than anything beside. In these compositions I found stormy seas, gods descending in chariots of cloud, and, what most of all delighted me, abundance of thunder and lightning. I did my best with pasteboard, paint, and paper; I could make night very prettily; my lightning was fearful to behold; only my thunder did not always prosper, which, however, was of less importance. In operas, moreover, I found frequent opportunities of introducing my David and Goliath, persons whom the regular drama would hardly admit. Daily I felt more attachment for the hampered spot where I enjoyed so many pleasures; and, I must confess, the fragrance which the puppets had acquired from the storeroom added not a little to my satisfaction.

“The decorations of my theatre were now in a tolerable state of completeness. I had always had the knack of drawing with compasses, and clipping pasteboard, and colouring figures; and here it served me in good stead. But the more sorry was I, on the other hand, when, as frequently happened, my stock of actors would not suffice for representing great affairs.

“My sisters dressing and undressing their dolls awoke in me the project of furnishing my heroes by and by with garments which might also be put off and on. Accordingly, I slit the scraps of cloth from off their bodies; tacked the fragments together as well as possible; saved a particle of money to buy new ribbons and lace; begged many a rag of taffeta; and so formed, by degrees, a full theatrical wardrobe, in which hoop-petticoats for the ladies were especially remembered.

“My troupe was now fairly provided with dresses for the most important piece, and you might have expected that henceforth one exhibition would follow close upon the heels of another; but it happened with me, as it often happens with children; they embrace wide plans, make mighty preparations, then a few trials, and the whole undertaking is abandoned. I was guilty of this fault. My greatest pleasure lay in the inventive part, and the employment of my fancy. This or that piece inspired me with interest for a few scenes of it, and immediately I set about providing new apparel suitable for the occasion. In such fluctuating operations, many parts of the primary dresses of my heroes had fallen into disorder, or totally gone out of sight; so that now the first great piece could no longer be exhibited I surrendered myself to my imagination; I rehearsed and prepared forever; built a thousand castles in the air, and saw not that I was at the same time undermining the foundations of these little edifices.”

During this recital, Mariana had called up and put in action all her courtesy for Wilhelm, that she might conceal her sleepiness. Diverting as the matter seemed on one side, it was too simple for her taste, and her lover’s view of it too serious. She softly pressed her foot on his, however, and gave him all visible signs of attention and approval. She drank out of his glass: Wilhelm was convinced that no word of his history had fallen to the ground. After a short pause, he said: “It is now your turn, Mariana, to tell me what were your first childish joys. Till now, we have always been too busy with the present to trouble ourselves, on either side, about our previous way of life. Let me hear, Mariana, under what circumstances you were reared; what are the first lively impressions which you still remember?”

These questions would have very much embarrassed Mariana, had not Barbara made haste to help her. “Think you,” said the cunning old woman, “we have been so mindful of what happened to us long ago, that we have merry things like these to talk about; and though we had, that we could give them such an air in talking of them?”

“As if they needed it!” cried Wilhelm. “I love this soft, fond, amiable creature so much, that I regret every instant of my life which has not been spent beside her. Allow me, at least in fancy, to have a share in thy bygone life: tell me everything; I will tell everything to thee! If possible, we will deceive ourselves, and win back those days that have been lost to love.”

“If you require it so eagerly,” replied the old dame, “we can easily content you. Only, in the first place, let us hear how your taste for the theatre gradually reached a head; how you practised, how you improved so happily, that now you can pass for a superior actor. No doubt, you must have met with droll adventures in your progress. It is not worth while to go to bed now: I have still one flask in reserve; and who knows whether we shall soon all sit together so quiet and cheery again?”

Mariana cast a mournful look upon her, which Wilhelm not observing, proceeded with his narrative.