Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter XVIII

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

Book IV

Chapter XVIII

IT was not without deep interest that he became acquainted with the history of Serlo’s career. Piecemeal he learned it; for it was not the fashion of that extraordinary man to be confidential, or to speak of anything connectively. He had been, one may say, born and suckled in the theatre. While yet literally an infant, he had been produced upon the stage to move spectators merely by his presence; for authors even then were acquainted with this natural and very guiltless mode of doing so. Thus his first “Father!” or “Mother!” in favourite pieces, procured him approbation, before he understood what was meant by that clapping of the hands. In the character of Cupid he more than once descended, with terror, in his flying-gear; as harlequin he used to issue from the egg; and as a little chimneysweep to play the sharpest tricks.

Unhappily, the plaudits of these glancing nights were too bitterly repaid by sufferings in the intervening seasons. His father was persuaded that the minds of children could be kept awake and steadfast by no other means than blows; hence, in the studying of any part, he used to thrash him at stated periods; not because the boy was awkward, but that he might become more certainly and constantly expert. It was thus that in former times, while putting down a landmark, people were accustomed to bestow a hearty drubbing on the children who had followed them; and these, it was supposed, would recollect the place exactly to the latest day of their lives. Serlo waxed in stature, and showed the finest capabilities of spirit and of body; in particular an admirable pliancy at once in his thoughts, looks, movements and gestures. His gift of imitation was beyond belief. When still a boy he could mimic persons, so that you would think you saw them; though in form, age and disposition, they might be entirely unlike him, and unlike each other. Nor, with all this, did he want the knack of suiting himself to his circumstances, and picking out his way in life. Accordingly, so soon as he had grown in some degree acquainted with his strength, he very naturally eloped from his father; who, as the boy’s understanding and dexterity increased, still thought it needful to forward their perfection by the harshest treatment.

Happy was the wild boy, now roaming free about the world, where his feats of waggery never failed to secure him a good reception. His lucky star first led him in the Christmas season to a cloister, where the friar, whose business it had been to arrange processions, and to entertain the Christian community by spiritual masquerades, having just died, Serlo was welcomed as a helping angel. On the instant he took up the part of Gabriel in the Annunciation; and did not by any means displease the pretty girl, who, acting the Virgin, very gracefully received his most obliging kiss, with external humility and inward pride. In their Mysteries he continued to perform the most important parts; and thought himself no slender personage, when at last, in the character of Martyr, he was mocked of the world, and beaten, and fixed upon the cross.

Some Pagan soldiers had, on this occasion, played their parts a little too naturally. To be avenged on these heathen in the proper style, he took care at the Day of Judgment to have them decked out in gaudy clothes as emperors and kings; and at the moment when they, exceedingly contented with their situation, were about to take precedence of the rest in heaven as they had done on earth, he on a sudden rushed upon them in the shape of the Devil; and, to the cordial edification of all the beggars and spectators, having thoroughly curried them with his oven-fork, he pushed them without mercy back into the Chasm, where, in the midst of waving flame, they met with the sorriest welcome.

He was acute enough, however, to perceive that these crowned heads might feel offended at such bold procedure; and perhaps forget the reverence due to his privileged office of Accuser and Turnkey. So in all silence, before the Millennium commenced, he withdrew, and betook him to a neighbouring town. Here a society of persons, denominated Children of Joy, received him with open arms. They were a set of clever, strong-headed, lively geniuses, who saw well enough that the sum of our existence, divided by reason, never gives an integer number, but that a surprising fraction is always left behind. At stated times, to get rid of this fraction, which impedes, and if it is diffused over all the mass of our conduct, endangers us, was the object of the Children of Joy. For one day a-week each of them in succession was a fool on purpose; and during this, he in his turn exhibited to ridicule, in allegorical representations, whatever folly he had noticed in himself or the rest, throughout the other six. This practice might be somewhat ruder than that constant training, in the course of which a man of ordinary morals is accustomed to observe, to warn, to punish himself daily; but it was also merrier and surer. For as no Child of Joy concealed his bosom-folly, so he and those about him held it for simply what it was: whereas, on the other plan, by the help of self-deception, this same bosom-folly often gains the head authority within, and binds down reason to a secret servitude, at the very time when reason fondly hopes that she has long since chased it out of doors. The mask of folly circulated round in this society; and each member was allowed, in his particular day, to decorate and characterise it with his own attributes or those of others. At the time of Carnival, they assumed the greatest freedom, vying with the clergy in attempts to instruct and entertain the multitude. Their solemn figurative processions of Virtues and Vices, Arts and Sciences, Quarters of the World, and Seasons of the Year, bodied forth a number of conceptions, and gave images of many distant objects to the people, and hence were not without their use; while, on the other hand, the mummeries of the priesthood tended but to strengthen a tasteless superstition, already strong enough.

Here again young Serlo was altogether in his element. Invention in its strictest sense, it is true, he had not; but, on the other hand, he had the most consummate skill in employing what he found before him; in ordering it; and shadowing it forth. His roguish turns; his gift of mimicry; his biting wit, which at least one day weekly he might use with entire freedom, even against his benefactors, made him precious, or rather indispensable, to the whole society.

Yet his restless mind soon drove him from this favourable scene to other quarters of his country, where other means of instruction awaited him. He came into the polished but also barren part of Germany, where, in worshipping the good and the beautiful, there is indeed no want of truth, but frequently a grievous want of spirit. His masks would here do nothing for him: he had now to aim at working on the heart and mind. For short periods he attached himself to small or to extensive companies of actors; and marked, on these occasions, what were the distinctive properties both of the pieces and the players. The monotony which then reigned on the German theatre, the mawkish sound and cadence of their Alexandrines, the flat and yet distorted dialogue, the shallowness and commonness of these undisguised preachers of morality, he was not long in comprehending; or in seizing, at the same time, what little there was that moved and pleased.

Not only single parts in the current pieces, but the pieces themselves remained easily and wholly in his memory; and along with them, the special tone of any player who had represented them with approbation. At length, in the course of his rambles, his money being altogether done, the project struck him of acting entire pieces by himself, especially in villages, and noblemen’s houses; and thus in all places making sure at least of entertainment and lodging. In any tavern, any room, or any garden, he would accordingly at once set up his theatre: with a roguish seriousness and a show of enthusiasm, he would contrive to gain the imaginations of his audience; to deceive their senses, and before their eyes to make an old press into a tower, or a fan into a dagger. His youthful warmth supplied the place of deep feeling; his vehemence seemed strength, and his flattery tenderness. Such of the spectators as already knew a theatre, he put in mind of all that they had seen and heard; in the rest he awakened a presentiment of something wonderful, and a wish to be more acquainted with it. What produced an effect in one place he did not fail to repeat in others; and his mind overflowed with a wicked pleasure when, by the same means, on the spur of the moment, he could make gulls of all the world.

His spirit was lively, brisk and unimpeded: by frequently repeating parts and pieces, he improved very fast. Ere long he could recite and play with more conformity to the sense, than the models whom he had at first imitated. Proceeding thus, he arrived by degrees at playing naturally, though he did not cease to feign. He seemed transported, yet he lay in wait for the effect; and his greatest pride was in moving, by successive touches, the passions of men. The mad trade he drove did itself soon force him to proceed with a certain moderation; and thus, partly by constraint, partly by instinct, he learned the art of which so few players seem to have a notion, the art of being frugal in the use of voice and gestures.

Thus did he contrive to tame, and to inspire with interest for him, even rude and unfriendly men. Being always contented with food and shelter; thankfully accepting presents of any kind as readily as money; which latter, when he reckoned that he had enough of it, he frequently declined,—he became a general favourite; was sent about from one to another with recommendatory letters; and thus he wandered many a day from castle to castle, exciting much festivity, enjoying much, and meeting in his travels with the most agreeable and curious adventures.

With such inward coldness of temper, he could not properly be said to love any one; with such clearness of vision, he could respect no one. In fact, he never looked beyond the external peculiarities of men; and he merely carried their characters in his mimical collection. Yet withal his selfishness was keenly wounded, if he did not please every one, and call forth universal applause. How this might be attained, he had studied in the course of time so accurately, and so sharpened his sense of the matter, that not only on the stage, but also in common life, he no longer could do otherwise than flatter and deceive. And thus did his disposition, his talent and his way of life, work reciprocally on each other, till by this means he had imperceptibly been formed into a perfect actor. Nay, by a mode of action and reaction, which is quite natural, though it seems paradoxical, his recitation, declamation and gesture, improved, by critical discernment and practice, to a high degree of truth, ease and frankness; while, in his life and intercourse with men, he seemed to grow continually more secret, artful, or even hypocritical and constrained.

Of his fortunes and adventures we perhaps shall speak in another place: it is enough to remark at present, that in later times, when he had become a man of circumstance, in possession of a distinct reputation, and of a very good though not entirely secure employment and rank, he was wont, in conversation, partly in the way of irony, partly of mockery, in a delicate style, to act the sophist, and thus to destroy almost all serious discussion. This kind of speech he seemed peculiarly fond of using towards Wilhelm, particularly when the latter took a fancy, as often happened, for introducing any of his general and theoretical disquisitions. Yet still they liked well to be together; with such different modes of thinking, the conversation could not fail to be lively. Wilhelm always wished to deduce everything from abstract ideas which he had arrived at; he wanted to have art viewed in all its connexions as a whole. He wanted to promulgate and fix down universal laws; to settle what was right, beautiful and good: in short, he treated all things in a serious manner. Serlo, on the other hand, took up the matter very lightly: never answering directly to any question, he would contrive by some anecdote or laughable turn, to give the finest and most satisfactory illustrations; and thus to instruct his audience while he made them merry.