Miniaturizing the Revolution: Political Fantasy, Theatricality, and Sovereignty in Goethe’s Comedies Der Groß-Cophta, Die Aufgeregten, and Bürgergeneral

Patrick Fortmann


Between 1791 and 1793, Goethe became increasingly concerned with the upheaval unfolding to the West of Weimar, responding to it with a series of plays, Der Groß-Cophta, Die Aufgeregten, and Der Bürgergeneral, which transpose the revolution to rural Germany and transform it into comedy. Contemporary audiences as well as modern critics have by-and-large shunned the plays. This article makes a case for a reassessment, arguing that the comedies may be provincial in setting, schematic in script, and minimalistic in cast but pointedly identify the imagination as the primary force pressing for political change. Goethes comedies of the revolution respond to this constellation threefold—by denouncing revolutionary fantasies as a scam created by demagogues to fool the gullible; by exposing the theatricality inherent in the revolutionary undertaking; and by branding the apostles of liberty as tyrants in waiting. As Goethe, in each play, pits the lord of the land against a contender, he not only catalogues the sources of sovereign authority but also establishes a disturbing parallel between the sovereign and the con-artist, thus pointing to the foundation of sovereignty in fiction. (PF)