This Day in Jewish History

1783: Its Author Safely Dead, ‘Nathan the Wise’ Premiers in Berlin

The German authorities forbade Gotthold Ephraim Lessing to write seriously about superstition and religious revelation. So he put it in a play.

Gleimhaus Halberstadt / Wikimedia Commons

On April 14, 1783, the play “Nathan the Wise,” Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s plea for religious pluralism and tolerance, premiered in Berlin, two years after the author’s death.

Lessing’s views were controversial; he had already been prohibited from expressing himself in nonfiction pamphlets. That’s what led him to turn to the dramatic form to get his message across, but even so, it wasn’t possible to stage the play in his lifetime.

Yet Lessing was probably the most important figure in the German theater of his day, and he remains influential today, as much for his work as a dramaturge and philosopher of theater as for his individual plays.

Born in 1729 in the town of Kamenz in Saxony, Lessing was the son of a Lutheran minister who expected his son to follow him into the clerical life. Gotthold had a religious education, but while a student at the University of Leipzig, where he received a degree in 1748, he began working with the German actress Karoline Neuber, translating plays and even writing his own.

At the time, German theater was greatly influenced by the French aesthetic, which was neoclassical and idealized. Lessing rejected the high form of French tragedy, preferring a naturalistic drama that would portray real people — the bourgeoisie — and their problems.

At the Hamburg National Theater from 1767 to 1770, Lessing developed the position of dramaturge — a combination of editor, critic and programmer — and became the first to fill it. His work at the theater served as the basis of his book “Hamburg Dramaturgy,” in which he laid out his principles of drama through a collection of reviews. The book’s success was also its downfall, as it was printed widely in pirated editions, with none of the revenues reverting to the author.

So desperate was Lessing financially that in 1770 he took a job as court librarian for the Duke of Brunswick at his estate Wolfenbüttel, a position he held until the end of his life in 1781.

Preaching against religious ‘revelation’

As early as 1754, Lessing had been introduced to, and become friends with, the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), and was very influenced by the Enlightenment values that Mendelssohn personified. He wrote a series of pamphlets arguing against the supernatural and revelation in religion, and found himself ordered to stop by the authorities after engaging in an extended polemic with a Christian theologian.

It was this censorship that led Lessing, as he wrote to a friend, to test whether “they would not let [me] preach undisturbed from [my] old pulpit, the stage.” 

In the play’s contrived plot, Nathan, a sagacious moneylender in Jerusalem during the Second Crusade at the end of the 12th century (a figure many believe was based on Mendelssohn), is called to the sultan’s palace to lend him money. While he plays chess with Saladin, the Muslim leader asks him which religion is the best.

Nathan answers him with a parable, about a father who has a ring — received from his own father —- that is supposed to make the wearer behave in a manner that finds favor with God. The father wants to bestow this ring on his three sons, whom he loves equally, and not knowing what else to do, has two exact copies made.

The sons argue between themselves, as each wants to inherit the authentic ring, until the father explains that it is not the ring that will make them good but their following the path he has shown them. The message is that the ring is like religious heritage, be it Christian, Muslim or Jewish. If it has been received from a parent, it is “true and genuine,” because “your father loved you all, and it was his ardent wish that all of you should love one another.”

It was only in 1783, two years after his Lessing’s death, that “Nathan the Wise” was produced, at the Döbbelinsches Theater in Berlin.