Was the Sturm und Drang a Radical Movement?

New from Camden House is Selected Works by J. M. R. Lenz: Plays, Stories, Essays, and Poems—the first representative English collection of the Sturm und Drang writer J. M. R. Lenz (1751-1792), whose works were crucial in the reinvention of German literature through the reception of Shakespeare and contain a scathing critique of the ethical, political, and sexual regimes prevailing in Central and Eastern Europe during his time. Here editors Martin Wagner and Ellwood Wiggins offer a brief discussion of the youthful rebelliousness associated with Sturm und Drang literature.

Jakob Michael Lenz by Georg Friedrich Schmoll, 31 December 1776

There is only one era in the entire history of German literature that has managed to find its way into general dictionaries of the English language under its original German name: the Sturm und Drang. This movement comprised a few loosely connected young men who wrote plays, poems, essays, and the occasional piece of fiction in the early 1770s. Most commonly, the Sturm und Drang is associated with the image of radical youthful rebellion. But what did this rebelliousness actually consist in?

The works of J.M.R. Lenz (1751-1792), a leading proponent of this movement, suggest a rather curious answer to this question. Strikingly, Lenz—one of the ‘great underdogs’ of German literature (if this is a permissible oxymoron), who managed to be expelled from the intellectual idyll of Weimar in less than a year, who spent years of his life wandering from place to place without adequate income or employment, and who is today largely remembered for a strange comedy about a maltreated private tutor driven to self-castration—was politically moderate, even by the standards of his day. For all we might gather based on his writings, Lenz believed in revealed religion and not reason as the fundamental source of morality; he embraced a society in which one was born into a specific rank, and he had little to no interest in democracy—representative or otherwise. He thus departs in every single aspect of his politics from the group that the historian Jonathan Israel has analyzed in recent years under the rubric of ‘Radical Enlightenment.’ But while Lenz was politically moderate, he was formally radical, and this tension between political moderation and formal radicality still has not been fully appreciated in all its implications.

The 1980 edition of J. M. R. Lenz’s The Tutor and The Soldiers published by University of Chicago Press

Lenz’s radical formal subversiveness extends from his unruly syntax to his polemical rejection of the poetic instructions for the composition of drama dominant at the time. The difficult question, however, that one faces when assessing these formal transgressions is how to factor them into a political equation concerned with weighty questions of freedom and equality. Does the fact that Lenz did not honor, for instance, the neoclassical rule according to which a play should be set in only one place bring him any closer to the radical Enlightenment—does it turn him into a forerunner of modern democracy on par with Jonathan Israel’s political heroes Denis Diderot and Baron d’Holbach? Understandably, one might be tempted to answer this question in the negative. And, indeed, when Bertolt Brecht produced Lenz’s comedy The Tutor in 1950 in East Berlin, he made Lenz’s explicit politics more radical and the play’s form more conventional—as if to confirm that Lenz’s disorderly aesthetics were insubstantial aberrations, not helpful to advance a real push for change. And yet Lenz’s departure from the so-called unity of place in The Tutor and elsewhere was, at the time, enough to create an outrage and a debate over the authority of traditional precepts that a slightly more radical political message in his plays most likely would have failed to incite.

The question of the political significance of formal transgressions in J.M.R. Lenz is crucial not only for a full assessment of the place of the Sturm und Drang in the radical Enlightenment, but also because it introduces a problem that continued to haunt the entire history of avantgardes in the two and a half centuries since: how radical is it to say things differently (as opposed to saying different things)? Although Lenz and the Sturm und Drang were certainly not the first to provide some formal innovations to their arts, we are witnessing here for the first time a constellation in which such innovations come with an air of daring rebelliousness. The Sturm und Drang is thus one of the birthplaces of the debate over the politics of radical formal transgression.


This blog post was written by Martin Wagner and Ellwood Wiggins, editors of Selected Works by J. M. R. Lenz. Martin Wagner is Assistant Professor of German at the University of Calgary and Ellwood Wiggins is Assistant Professor of German at the University of Washington.

Selected Works by J. M. R. Lenz: Plays, Stories, Essays, and Poems
Edited by Martin Wagner, Ellwood Wiggins
Hardback / 9781571139931 / £48.75 or $63.75