Sappho (play)

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Sappho (1818) is a tragedy by Austrian playwright Franz Grillparzer.


The plot is based on a tradition that Sappho, a poet of ancient Greece, threw herself from the high Lesbian cliffs into the sea when she found that her love for the youth Phaon was unrequited, and that he preferred her maid, named Melitta in the play, to her.


Following the success of his first great tragedy of fate, Die Ahnfrau (The Ancestress), which was written in 16 days, Franz Grillparzer wrote this second poetic drama, Sappho, also composed at white heat, and resembling Die Ahnfrau in the general character of its poetry although differing from it in form and spirit. In its conception, Sappho is half way between a tragedy of fate and a more modern tragedy of character; in its form, too, it is half way between the classical and the modern. An attempt is made to combine the passion and sentiment of modern life with the simplicity and grace of ancient masterpieces. Its classic spirit is much like that of Goethe's Torquato Tasso; Grillparzer unrolls the tragedy of poetic genius, the renunciation of earthly happiness imposed upon the poet by her higher mission.


Edith J. R. Isaacs evaluates the play in the 1920 edition of Encyclopedia Americana as follows:

Grillparzer has made a stirring drama, with an acting quality strong enough to carry it to success on the stage when well performed. At the same time, he has developed a poetic symbolism in the story, and the conflict between the spiritually gifted Sappho and the beautiful Melitta becomes, in Grillparzer's hands, the conflict between art and the pleasures of life. Although the verse has neither the dignity nor the sheer beauty of some of Grillparzer's later work, notably Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (Waves of the Sea and of Love), it has the cumulative quality which often accompanies verse written in long stretches at a single sitting, a quality which does not detract from its distinctly dramatic value. Through the dignity and the success of his early dramas Grillparzer forged the link that bound the drama of Austria definitely to the literature of Germany.