A Note from Nathan the Wise Translator Edward Kemp


Lessing and The Truth.

Lessing famously wrote that if G-d offered him the choice between the truth and the quest for the truth he would choose the latter.  The truth is out there, says Lessing, he’s just not entirely sure it’s healthy for us to know it.  Why?  Because when we believe we have the truth we tend to do terrible things to other humans.




or ‘independent thinking for oneself’

was always paramount to Lessing, he relished it in himself and sought to provoke it in others:  “I am not duty-bound to resolve the difficulties I create.  May my ideas always be somewhat disjunct, or even appear to contradict one another, if only they are ideas in which readers will find material that stirs them to think for themselves.”



Like Nothing Else in the German Theatrical Canon.

This willfulness of Lessing may go someway to explain the extraordinary confection that is NATHAN THE WISE and which makes it quite unlike anything Lessing wrote or anything else in the German theatrical canon.  In part this uniqueness must have resulted from the play’s need to use subterfuge to hide its unorthodox religious views.  A dramatic fable set in a historical and oriental setting would not be subject to the same censorship as a polemical pamphlet.  Lessing broke with his own and contemporary convention by calling it neither a tragedy nor a comedy, but a ‘dramatic poem’ and wrote it, unlike any of his other completed plays, in verse.  But the iambic pentameter is so shot through with interruptions and run-on lines, exclamations and elisions that the pulse of the verse is often hard to perceive.  Nor does its poetry consist much in lyrical outbursts but ore in the symmetry of its construction, which adds considerably to the sense of Providence at work a pattern of redemption whose closest kin at times seems to be the late plays of Shakespeare.



Champion of Shakespeare

It’s well known that Lessing was one of the first great German champions of Shakespeare.  While theatrical orthodoxy held in esteem the pale imitations of French classicism, it was Lessing who pointed out that for all their flouting of Aristotelian conventions ROMEO AND JULIET, HAMELT and OTHELLO are greater plays than the tragedies of Voltaire, and encouraged his compatriots to study Shakespeare.  But unlike his followers it was not the mixing of comedy and tragedy that appealed to Lessing, indeed he argued against it, an though there’s certainly a Shakespearean mix in NATHN, the play as a whole tends towards Aristotelian unity of time, if not quite action and place.  What Lessing valued in Shakespeare was the power of psychological penetration. It was the human and the personal that attracted this most polemical of writers.



From page to Stage.

Lessing never saw NATHAN THE WISE on stage.  The text was published by private subscription in 1779, two years before his death, and it is quite possible that he never intended it for performance.  The first German production in 1783 was not a success and the play at full stretch would certainly tax the patience of most contemporary audiences, lasting at least four and half hours (at a conservative estimate).  It was not until 1801 when the play was revised in a version by Schiller that Goethe acclaimed it as a masterpiece and so sealed its place in the German literary canon.



Dramatic Compression

Schiller’s version consists largely of some substantial pruning of the longer philosophical and theological exchanges, reducing Lessing’s original by about a sixth and reins it somewhere within the four hour mark.  In our quest to bring this immense text to theatrical life Schiller proved an extremely useful guide.  But beyond Schiller’s trims and a few additional ones of our own the entire script has undergone a process of ‘compression.’  The guiding principle here has been to make Lessing’s arguments immediate and accessible to the audience on one hearing.

The overall effect has been to enable us to make the play’s dialectic more theatrically alive and more actively inhabited by the characters – and to make it a manageable evening in the theatre.



From a Verse-like-Prose to a Prose-like-Verse.

The decision to put this version into prose rather than verse was taken early on in the process of translation.  Lessing’s verse is an unsettled and unsettling creature and the attempt to follow it seems to have undone many of my predecessors: what can seem questing and fraught in the German rapidly becoming circumlocutory, or just plain incomprehensible in English.  In addition it it’s the case, as has been argued, that Lessing used verse to put a ‘fable-like’ aura around the action, to distance it in some way behind a poetic scrim (perhaps to further hoodwink the censor) then this was the exact opposite of what we wanted to achieve, which was to expose and revivify the story in the light of contemporary events.  However the play is a kind of fable (there is something very Arabian Nights not only about the setting and characters but also about the obsessive story-telling which infects almost every scene) and this required some kind of discreet heightening of form and language.  The solution I came to was a simple reversal of the components in Lessing’s own mix.  Whereas he had written the play in verse that reads more like prose, I have translated it into prose that is to a large extent more like verse.  Large stretches of my version are in the form of ‘buried’ iambi, that is they have the pulse of iambic meter, but of an entirely irregular length.  I suggest that there is no need whatsoever for the actors s to draw attention to this in performance – it is simply a kind of invisible glue which binds the text together.


Edward Kemp