Leonce and Lena
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Leonce and Lena (German: Leonce und Lena) is a play by Georg Büchner (1813–1837) which is considered a comedy, but is actually a satire veiled in humor. It was written in the spring of 1836 for a competition sponsored by the book publishing house of J.G. Cotta. However, Büchner missed the submission deadline and the play was returned to him unread. It was premiered almost 60 years later, on May 31, 1895, in an outdoor performance by the Munich Company Intimes Theater, directed by Ernst von Wolzogen and with the involvement of Max Halbe and Oskar Panizza, illustrating the fact that Büchner only gained prominence as a writer in the 20th century.
Erich Kästner considered Leonce and Lena to be one of the six most important classic comedies of the German language.
The melancholic and dreamy Prince Leonce of the Kingdom of Popo has it brought to his attention that his marriage to Princess Lena of the Kingdom of Pipi has been arranged. (The two imaginary kingdoms of the play are, in their narrow-mindedness and territorial tininess, a lampooning of the German city-states of Büchner's time. In German, Popo and Pipi are part of the language of children - Popo means "buttocks" and Pipi means "urine". The deliberately ludicrous names given to the two kingdoms are an obvious satirisation of the numerous and - as Büchner saw it - ridiculously petty subdivisions of the German Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century.) Not willing to tie the knot, he flees to Italy with his lazy bon vivant Valerio.
Meanwhile, the seemingly enlightened, but simultaneously completely vacuous absolutist King Peter calls for a privy council meeting to announce his decision to marry his son.
On their way to Italy, Leonce and Valerio encounter two women. They are Lena and her governess, but Leonce and Valerio do not recognize them. Leonce immediately falls in love with the girl, while Valerio and the governess lead a heated exchange. Leonce confesses his love to the girl, but she does not reciprocate. Leonce wants to commit suicide, but is stopped by Valerio, who tauntingly asks him to stop the "lieutenant romantics", and turns the tragedy of death into a farce. Later on Lena falls in love with Leonce after all, and the two decide to grow old together.
Meanwhile the government officials are practicing the festivities of the expected wedding. This scene is an unsparing portrayal of the biting sadism of the schoolmaster and the miserable suffering of the farmers.
A narrative gap follows, opening up the play to a multitude of interpretations. The scene shifts to Castle Popo again, a vantage point from which the entire breadth of the kingdom can be seen. The king and his followers are in mourning owing to the disappearance of the prince and thus the cancellation of the wedding festivities. Suddenly, four figures appear in the distance, who are later revealed to be the governess, Lena, Leonce and Valerio. Leonce and Lena have disguised themselves to the point where they cannot be recognised and are referred to by Valerio only as two "world-famous automatons", capable of performing all human functions perfectly. In order to fulfill his "kingly promise" of providing his guests with a wedding to be celebrated, King Peter decides to hold the marriage "in effigy," with the automatons playing the roles of the bride and groom. Once the ceremony has taken place, both automatons take their masks off, and are revealed to be Leonce and Lena themselves. Princess Lena, having fled the Kingdom of Pipi for the same reason as Leonce - fear and disgust at the idea of being married to a stranger - now recognises the man whom she has just married to be Prince Leonce of Popo.
Before they had become aware of each other's true identity, Leonce and Lena had been prepared to deceive their fathers in order to be married. However, they now realise that their union was the product of a fate which neither of them was capable of circumventing. Leonce is fascinated by this idea of destiny and, with a desperately comical irony, accepts his lot to be that of a King whose kingdom consists only of dully obedient subjects. There is debate regarding Lena's reaction to her fate at the end of this scene: it can be interpreted either as one of dejected submission or blissful speechlessness. Valerio, on the other hand, has been appointed by Leonce as the State Minister, in return for his part in arranging the marriage. He announces his intention to allow the existing system of order in the State to dissolve into chaos, so as to alleviate the widespread poverty and destitution that is rife within the kingdom.
The characters of the play:
King Peter: Ruler of the Kingdom of Popo. King Peter is a small-minded bureaucrat who frequently becomes tangled up in his own muddled philosophy and who must tie a knot in his handkerchief to remind him to spare a thought for his people.
Prince Leonce: Crown Prince of Popo. The character of Leonce can be seen as an amalgamation of characterisations from plays by different authors. Like Fantasio, the eponymous hero of the French play by Alfred de Musset, Leonce is much older than his years and jaded by melancholy; he cannot abide the insincerity and shallowness of courtly life and political responsibilities. He is averse to the idea of an arranged marriage, and though aware of his duty to his father wishes, flees the realm. There are also a number of strong links between the character of Leonce and, for example, Valeria, in Brentano's Ponce de Leon and Hamlet, the protagonist of William Shakespeare's tragedy.
Princess Lena: Crown Princess of the Kingdom of Pipi. Lena is similarly fearful of the idea of an arranged marriage and is unable to grasp why the state must "drive a nail through two hands which never sought each other out". She, too, flees with her governess to avoid the threat of an imposed fate.
Valerio: Companion to Prince Leonce. He might be described as hedonistic in his preoccupation with food, drink and a comfortable living, and this coarsely materialistic aspect of his character is in stark contrast with the dreamy, contemplative melancholy of Leonce.
The Governess: Princess Lena's governess and companion. She takes pity on the mournful Lena in the first act of the play and facilitates her fleeing the realm.
Rosetta: Concubine of Prince Leonce. Rosetta loves Leonce but is treated cruelly by him in return. In Leonce's own words, he is "bored with loving her", and makes every effort throughout their encounter in the first act to stifle any remaining sentiment he entertains for her.
Schoolmaster: Seen in the third act, directing the masses of downtrodden peasants as to how they should behave as they line the streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of the royal wedding procession. He reminds the peasants of their good fortune in having their betters allow them to smell the meals that they themselves cannot afford to eat.
Court Chaplain, Court Tutor, Court Master of Ceremonies, President of the Privy Council, District Administrator: A series of faceless, toadying officials of the Court of Popo who bow instantly to the word of the King.
- M. B. Benn: Introduction, "Leonce und Lena and Lenz", pp xii - xxii. Harrap 1972