Printer Friendly

Vondel's Brothers and the power of imagination.

On April 18, 1641, Joost van den Vondel's Brothers (Gebroeders) premiered in the new Amsterdam playhouse. It immediately enjoyed great success, being performed more than annually for decades. (1) Inspired by the second book of Samuel, it starts with Israel suffering from famine. God reveals that justice has to be done. Years before, David's predecessor and father-in-law Saul had massacred the Gibeonites. David needs to avenge them, but runs into a moral conflict. He has to choose between his family-in-law and divine justice. After a long period of doubt, David accepts God's will. Seven male descendants of Saul are delivered to the Gibeonites, who hang them. Because David's doubts stand at the center of attention, Vondel calls his drama a tragedy (treurspel). Thus he indicates that he will follow the antique dramatic format, which also focuses on the protagonist's doubt.

Notes by the hand of Vondel giving stage directions for the first series of performances of Brothers have been preserved. (2) So Vondel was not only the dramatist, he was also closely involved in the staging of his tragedy. In the seventeenth century this involvement was not rare, but it is rare to have notes survive. Together with the dramatic text, Vondel's notes give us precious insight into the specific staging. Moreover, the notes show how the tragedy marks a shift in the oeuvre of Vondel, making clear that he did not straightforwardly stage the executions of the descendants of Saul.

The audience was deprived of blunt cruelties, crucial to his previous dramas as well as those of many other theater-makers of his time, such as Vondel's popular colleague Jan Vos. Brothers introduced another way of using the overwhelming forces of dramatic performance. By concentrating on the conclusion of the Biblical tragedy, I will show how Vondel experimented with visual and verbal images (e.g., in tableau vivant and vivid description) to urge the theatergoers to imagine themselves in the same difficult situation as David in order to come to a direct and emotional understanding of the Biblical story.

I will relate these findings to the poetical ideas Gerardus Vossius was developing during the same period that Vondel was writing and staging his Biblical tragedy. (3) In this period, Vondel maintained very close links with this Amsterdam professor. (4) Vossius articulated one of the first modern theories on the effect of dramatic performances. He exceeded the poetical discussions of Aristotle and Horace by combining them with insights from other ancient treatises, such as On the Sublime, most probably written in the first century AD by an anonymous author we traditionally call Longinus. (5) This combination brought Vossius to advise against staging abhorrence so as to maximally exploit the theatergoers' imaginations, urging them to create powerful and long-lasting mental images or phantasiai.

I will first look at the preface to Brothers, where Vondel uses examples from painting to illustrate that the imagination of both the artist/dramatist and the audience is crucial for the emotional effect of an artwork or drama. Second, I discuss the early modern use of phantasia, which includes the creative imagination of the writer. Then I look at Vossius's use of imagination in relation to his ideas on the effect of theater performance and the resulting restrictions on staging explicit cruelties. Fourth, I focus on Brothers to clarify how Vondel's theater practice draws on similar principles to maximally encourage the audiences imagination. I will close this essay with the counterarguments of Jan Vos about realizing strong impressions with the explicit performance of cruelties.

The Imagination of Aeneas and Rubens

In the preface to Brothers, Vondel clarifies his ideas on involving his audience emotionally in the Biblical story of Saul's descendants by pointing at the imaginations of both the artist and the audience. The dramatist quotes Virgil's Aeneid (1.462): "Hier beschreit men's werelds zaecken, / Die den mensch aen't harte raecken" (77-78; Here one weeps for worldly things / That touch man in the heart). Thus he refers to Aeneas looking at a mural painting depicting a battle from the Trojan War. The hero is moved to tears, as the painting brings his dead comrades back in his mind. With this reference to Virgil, Vondel demonstrates that a visual image can instigate a process of imagination by which the onlooker gets strongly involved with the subject represented.

Directly afterward Vondel shifts the attention from the onlooker to the painter by referring to the imagination of Peter Paul Rubens. According to Vondel it is the masters brisk spirit (wackeregeest) that accomplishes the strong emotional force of his paintings. To clarify this point of view, the dramatist brings in an extraordinary device. Vondel surprises the audience by giving an elaborate ekphrasis in which he describes a nonexistent painting he attributes to Rubens. The fictitious painting depicts David avenging the Gibeonites.

Vondel's verbal creation of a Rubenesque work of art begins as follows: "Hier wordt ik belust, om door Rubens, de glory der penseelen onzer eeuwe, een heerlijck en koningklijck tafereel, ais een treurtooneel, te stofeeren. Hy valt aen het teecken, ordineeren, en schilderen, nocht zijn wackere geest rust eer het werkstuck voltoit zy" (79-82; Now I am willing to furnish a glorious and royal scene into a tragedy by following Rubens, the triumph of the pencils of our century. Rubens starts drawing, ordering and painting. His brisk spirit mind does not rest until his piece of work is finished). Here Vondel makes the mental process of imagination central to the creation of a painting. This process is gradually visualized, first in drawing and sketching, then in painting. Starting from the ut pictura poesis dictum, Vondel not only honors Rubens with this emphasis on mental creativity, but he also relates painting to the creation of his own Biblical tragedy. In order to move the theatergoers maximally, Vondel himself needs to have a "brisk spirit" as well. Thus the international aura of the Antwerp master is appropriated. (6) Thanks to Vondels own verbal creation of a nonexistent painting by Rubens, he can present himself as an artist who uses his creative mind to have a strong emotional impact on his audience in just the same way Rubens does.

Phantasia by Aristotle and Longinus

To contextualize Vondel's thought on the imagination of both the artist and the onlooker, we can look at how, from the late sixteenth century onward, humanists increasingly relied on the Longinian use of phantasia. Before that, the dominant use was Aristotle's, which can be located within epistemological thought. (7) In De anima Aristotle explains how phantasia--in this context often translated as the faculty of imagination--plays a crucial role in all thought processes. Sensory perception results in images in our mind, which can be judged by the faculty of imagination. Mental images are processed, which first leads to supposition and ultimately to knowledge. (8)

In the Aristotelian context, imagination did not equal creativity, but Longinus did make this connection. (9) He did not link phantasia exclusively to a decisive step in the process of deriving incontrovertible knowledge from sensory perceptions; phantasia is also seen as a vital means in the creative process of the writer and the orator. In this context, phantasia names not the faculty that enables men to think, but the mental image itself. More specifically, the term phantasia is used to name the image that is directly related to the makers creativity and to public persuasion.

Longinus dealt with literature and rhetorical speech that leads readers or listeners to ecstasy (ekstasis), since the text or speech lets them think they directly witnessed overwhelming events, which are actually represented. This ecstatic experience is called sublime. In order to give their audiences this overwhelming experience, writers and orators first have to see these events in their minds themselves with the help of the creation of phantasiai. These mental images transform writers and orators into eyewitnesses. To illustrate the author's ecstasy, Longinus quotes Euripides's Orestes (255-57), in which the title character has a madman's vision of his mother Clytemnestra sending the Furies against him. Longinus asserts that Euripides needed to see the Furies in order to be able to write Orestes's lines that urged the readers or listeners to witness the Furies too. He writes, "the poet himself [Euripides] saw Furies and compelled the audience almost to see what he had visualized" (15.2). (10)

Thus the playwright and his audience find themselves in a complex emotional position somewhere between the character and an eyewitness. Both parties are closely involved in the event thanks to mental images. Also, Orestes himself is confronted with mental images. However, in contrast to Orestes, the playwright and his audience are not confronted with a total delusion. They are not in Orestes's state of total despair. The theater-maker is still able to write down Orestes's lines. His audience can still react to the madman's vision within the limits of audience responses.

Relying on Longinus, humanists progressively formulated additions to the epistemological use of phantasia. In his Discorso del furor poetico of 1587 the Italian literary critic Lorenzo Giacomini was one of the first to use the definition of phantasia from On the Sublime. (11) At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Daniel Heinsius, professor at Leiden University, introduced the Longinian use of phantasia north of the Alps in a series of poetical treatises. (12) Longinus's treatise also pointed Heinsius's colleague, Gerardus Vossius, to the fact that the vivid imagination of the dramatist forms the essential starting point of an overwhelming drama.

Vossius on Dramatic Performance

In De artispoeticae natura ac constitutione (1647), a general introduction to poetics, Vossius explicitly quotes On the Sublime to state that the dramatist needs to be in a mental state of total ecstasy to produce an overwhelming drama; it is "mania sive ekstasis, qua fit ut homo extra se rapiatur suique immemor alium hominem induat eiusque cogitationes ac sermones aliis repraesentet" (11.3; rage or ecstasy, by which a man is enraptured outside himself and forgetting himself becomes another man and presents to others that other man's thoughts and words). (13) Thanks to his imagination, the dramatist gets ecstatic; strong mental images transport him into the characters he creates. (14) Thus he can give his characters such a presence that the audience think themselves confronted with real men instead of representations.

In his voluminous Poeticae institutiones, published together with De artis poeticae, Vossius explains how the ecstatic state in which the author produces the drama can be transported to the audience. It is possible just to read a play, but Vossius explicitly posits that drama can reach a far greater intensity and emotional force if it is put on stage: "Neque inficior drama, utcunque solum scribatur, repraesentare actionem humanam, sed aio id facere occultius et levius, manifestius vero et vehementius id dramaticam praestare actionem, quae turn pronunciatione idonea turn gestibus et habitu morum magnam in movendo vim habet" (2.4.2; Nor do I deny that drama only inasmuch as it is written represents human actions, but I maintain that it does so in a rather hidden and superficial way, whereas dramatic action does it in a more open and intense way, both efficient delivery and gestures and fashionable dress having a great emotional force).

Because of the "openness and intensity" of the dramatic performance, Vossius advises against the explicit staging of atrocity and horror. He writes that "atrocia atque horrenda, velut coedes aliaque, quae si adspicerentur vel animum nimium concitarent, vel non serio sed simulate agi constaret, non ob oculos in scena poni debent" (2.13.25; frightful and horrendous [things], such as murder, etc., which if seen would either excite the mind too much, or would evidently not be performed in reality but simulated... should not be represented on the stage).

Also, because many atrocities are impossible to perform with credibility, they cannot be staged without failing in terms of what a few decades later will be canonized in France as the rule of the vraisemblance. (15) Quoting Horaces Ars poetica (182-88), Vossius adds that the staging of atrocities needs to be avoided to answer the rule of (what will later be called) the biensceance. Staging cruelties must be prevented, since this is evaluated as improper and uncivilized. The Amsterdam scholar also discusses a third reason to avoid straight atrocities in the dramatic performance: it ruins the effect of the plot. To illustrate this, he presents Senecas Medea as a clear example of the ancient Roman dramatists failure to construct an efficient plot. (16) According to Vossius, it is due to all the excitement in the middle of the drama caused by the description of the gruesome deaths of Creusa and Creon that Seneca is forced to explicitly stage how Medea slays both her sons. (17) Instances of mere momentary excitement corrupt the process by which the audience has to gain full understanding of the difficult moral situation in which the main character finds herself.

Ecstasy and Catharsis

Here, then, the mental state of the theatergoer is the center of attention. Although Vossius evaluates ecstasy as positive and even essential, since it involves theatergoers maximally with the actions staged, he does not allow mere stupefaction by staging direct cruelties. This technique creates only a temporarily dumbfounding effect that ruins profound imagination. Although Vossius does not mention Longinus in this context, the humanist seems to follow On the Sublime once again, as Longinus prescribes that the true sublime needs to "outlast the moment of utterance. For what is truly great bears repeated consideration; it is difficult, even impossible, to resist its effect; and the memory of it is stubborn and indelible" (7.3).

Starting from the difference between mere stupefaction and sublime ecstasy, Vossius gives more theoretical substance to the ultimate effect of tragedy. He uses Aristotle's poetics to state that the audiences feeling of pity and fear leads to catharsis, or the purification of these emotions. Aristotle does not further explain the meaning of catharsis, but Vossius interprets the concept by adding that the tragedy needs to shock the theatergoers. Thanks to the theatergoers' belief that they are sharing time and place with the characters on stage, they experience an overwhelming empathy with these characters, who are transformed for them into actual persons.

According to the Amsterdam professor, only by being able to keep the overwhelming emotions that were experienced during the performance in memory can the theatergoers be purified from these emotions. Vossius's catharsis is defined by habituation. Purification means a permanent lesson in the correct handling of strong emotions. To clarify his point of view, he compares the theatergoer with a veteran soldier and a physician: "Nam ut miles veteranus aut medicus crebro videndo miseros consequitur ut non ultra moveatur quam oportet, ita etiam in tragoedia spectandis istiusmodi animus discit affectus suos in ordinem redigere" (2.13.20; Just as a veteran soldier or a physician manages to be not more moved than is due by frequently seeing unhappy people, thus in tragedy, too, the mind, by watching such events, learns to put its emotions in order). Dramatic performances that lead the theatergoers into ecstasy teach them to control their emotions. Experienced theatergoers do not panic when they are confronted with real moral dilemmas. They recall the dilemmas they experienced from nearby in the playhouse and are able to take well-considered actions in real life.

Imagination in Brothers

I will analyze the dramatic text and the notes on the first performances of Vondel's Brothers with Vossius's concepts of phantasia, ekstasis, and catharsis closely in mind. In doing so, I do not want to state that Vondel directly used Vossius's concepts while writing and staging his Biblical tragedy. Nor do I claim to discuss actual responses in the seventeenth-century Amsterdam playhouse. However, around 1640 an internationally respected humanist and the most famous dramatist of the Dutch Golden Age were both exploring the possibilities of mental images for the theater; in the same period that Vossius went further than Longinus by theorizing the emotional intensity and the limits of the performance of drama, Vondel radically rethought the staging of cruelties in his theater practice.

To analyze Vondel's radical rethinking of how to perform drama, I will concentrate on the conclusion of Brothers, in which the execution of Saul's descendants is the most essential event, yet is not explicitly staged. When the execution is coming near, Vondel puts the full attention on Rispe. The old woman holds her sons firmly in her arms in an attempt to prevent their deaths. Her sons know that this is senseless and ask their mother to kiss them for the last time and then to reconcile with their cruel fate. This brings the widow to total despair. She is confronted with a delusive mental image. She no longer realizes that she holds her sons, but thinks she has her two late men in her arms. (After Saul, Abner was her partner.) Rispe exclaims out of misplaced joy:
   Waer waertghe toch zoo lang gebleven?
   Hoe lietghe my zoo lang alleen?
   Ick zat en treurde op dezen steen,
   En schiep niet langer lust in't leven.
   Och blijft my nu getrouwer by,
   In deze dicke duisternissen.
   Ick magh de zon maer u niet missen.
   Of is dit spoock, of raezerny? (w. 1483-90)

   (Where were you for so long? / Why did you leave me alone for so
   long? / I sat and mourned on this stone, /1 could no longer enjoy
   life. / Oh stay with me faithfully, / In this gloomy darkness. /1
   may miss the sun, but not you. / Or are you a phantom, or a rage?)


The delusive mental images, which form the center of attention in this scene, correspond closely with the ancient theory of phantasia. Stoic philosophers, such as Zeno of Citium and Sphaerus, used the Aristotelian concept of phantasia in their epistemological discourses. (18) They pointed out that only clear sensory input coming directly from an existing object could lead to incontrovertible knowledge. Moreover, in the human mind phantasiai need to be balanced against each other to be absolutely sure that they are not delusive. If these conditions are not strictly fulfilled, no mental impressions whatsoever are able to give us adequate insight into our surroundings.

The Stoic epistemological theories became very influential in early modern Europe, thanks to Diogenes Laertius's Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, among other Roman writings. (19) We can also find these theories in this scene. Vondel shows that the old woman is so overwhelmed by emotions that she can create only delusive mental images. Finally she faints. Here Vondel warns the theatergoers that if emotions rise too high, mental images can lead a life of their own distinct from reality.

The Gallows in Tableau Vivant

Directly after the total despair of Rispe, the action on the stage was stopped to reveal a tableau vivant. Frozen and silent actors (or mannequins) were staged hanging at the gallows. Vondel left it to the theatergoers to decide how to interpret this dumb scene. They came to an understanding that the story was all of a sudden brought an important step further. The most crucial event of the story was skipped, since the execution of the sons and grandsons of Saul was already completed. Speediness and speedlessness were paradoxically combined to overwhelm the audience emotionally; Vondel made a big leap and then froze the dramatic action to show a most powerful image. The performance of straight cruelties was omitted. However, the terrifying result of these cruelties was emphasized all the more.

A monologue, recited when the tableau vivant was still visible, urged the theatergoers to respond emotionally. As we find this monologue only in Vondel's notes, the dramatist must have added it during the preparations or rehearsals of the first series of performances. It is not rendered in the printed dramatic text that predates the premiere of the play, so those theatergoers who had read the drama in advance would have been surprised to hear the new monologue. Thus its effect must have been all the stronger. The monologue is spoken by one of the ladies-in-waiting of old Rispe. She addresses the spectators directly as follows:
   Hef op, hef op, met naar geschreeuw,
   Aanschouwers treurt met Sauwels weeuw,
   Die hier al't koninglijk geslacht
   Soo deerlijk siet om hals gebracht,
   Maar denkt hoe't moederlijke hart
   Ontstelt sij midden in dees smart
   Die sij om hare vruchten lijt
   Geen mes noch vlim dat scharper snijt,
   Als dit dat haar gemoet doorvlimt,
   De son daalt neer, den avond klimt,
   En valt met drup'len en met douw.
   Maer niet een traan ontsijgt dees vrouw,
   De moeder lijd de grootste straf.
   Nu mach' er niet een traantjen af.

  (Raise, raise, with bleak screaming. / Beholders mourn for Saul's
   widow, / Who sees here all the royal family, / Most dreadfully
   executed. / Imagine how the heart of a mother, / Is staggered in
   the midst of all distress / That she suffers for her offspring. /
   No knife, no sting cuts sharper / Than this that pierces her heart.
   / The sun sets, night is falling. / It falls with drips and dew. /
   But this woman cannot shed a tear. / The mother suffers the hardest
   punishment. / Well, can you not give her your tears?)


The monologue underlines and enforces the strong emotional effect of the tableau vivant. The lady-in-waiting uses it as a starting point to involve the theatergoers even more deeply with the widow's bad fortune. In correspondence with what Longinus and Vossius prescribe for the dramatist, here the theatergoers are urged to transport themselves into a character. Thus they can bring themselves into a state of ecstasy.

So in the conclusion of his Biblical tragedy Vondel refrains from staging the execution of Saul's descendants explicitly. This is not driven by a desire to diminish the emotional impact of the performance. The opposite is at stake. Vondel tries to emotionally overwhelm the audience. Doing so does not hinder the cathartic effect of the plot, because the straight address that accompanies the tableau urges the onlookers not to become totally staggered, as Rispe does in the previous scene. The theatergoers are urged to react appropriately by weeping, since a lady-in-waiting of the widow explains that the old woman is no longer able to deplore her sons and grandsons herself.

Saul's Cruelties Song

Directly after the tableau vivant, Vondel took the audience back in time. A choir of priests came on stage and brought into memory the cruelties that Saul had committed against the Gibeonites. To give just a few passages: The priests sing that the victims were lying "In eene zee van bloed ging daelen, / Van bloed, 't welck uit hun boezems liep, / En, verwende het sneeuwit linnen" (w. 1502-4; in a sea of blood that ran from their bosom and spoiled their snow white linen) and that Saul kept on murdering, as he wanted "Tot denklen toe in bloed gaen waeden" (v. 1516; to wade up to his ankles in the blood). This image is directly followed by a penetrating enumeration of the victims killed:
   Daer werd noch arm, noch rijck gespaert,
   Noch man noch vrouw, noch zuigelingen,
   Noch maeghden; toen dat droncken zwaerd
   Gevolght van zoo veel bloote klingen
   Het al vernielde, oock't stomme vee. (w. 1517-21)

   (There, nor poor, nor rich were saved, / Nor man, nor woman, nor
   infants, / Nor virgins; when that drunken sword / Followed by so
   many naked blades / Destroyed it all, even the ignorant cattle.)


With the priests' song, Vondel drastically urges the audience to stop empathizing with Saul's widow. Now Saul's crimes have to be taken into account. By using vivid descriptions, Vondel tries to imprint strong images of Saul's cruel acts in the minds of the audience. Thus he follows the ancient tradition of using vividness (enargeia or evidentia) to persuade the audience maximally. (21) This is a most famous rhetorical device, as it was generally believed to move the audience deeply. Longinus explicitly discusses this rhetorical device in paragraph 15, as does Vossius in his handbooks of rhetoric and his poetics. (22) Moreover, Vondel adds an extra dimension to the device, since a choir sang the vivid text. Like the tableau vivant that preceded it, the choirs song did not bring the action any further. Vondel uses the choir, a common theatrical device, to give moral insight into the plot as well as to arouse strong emotions. (23)

Thus the vivid song forms a crucial part of a carefully constructed accumulation of empathy. At the conclusion of Brothers, the theatergoers need to understand the Biblical event from divergent points of view. They have to learn how the executions not only bring the male members to death, but also bring the female relatives of the late Saul to ruin. However, Vondel also urges the theatergoers to come to an understanding of the Gibeonites' desire for vengeance; hence the vivid description of Saul's crimes against them by the choir of priests.

Elevated by David

The conflicting empathy the theatergoers feel with Saul's widow and directly afterwards with Saul's victims is no end in itself. Ultimately it is meant to lead to a transportation evoked by a strong emotional connection with David. Vondel eventually encourages a profound understanding of the difficult but rightful decision the king had to make. Just as David did, the theatergoers have to experience extreme emotions by empathizing with both Saul's descendants and his victims. David kept them in mind while making his judgment. The ultimate goal, then, of bringing the audience into a whirlwind of conflicting emotions is to make them feel the same heartrending dilemma David once felt.

This goal is developed directly after the choir of priests, when messengers vividly describe to David how the executions of Saul's descendants have taken place. Their description stands in line with the messenger report many Greek tragedies use to avoid the explicit staging of bloodshed. (24) Once again, this refraining from staging explicit cruelties is no endeavor to diminish the emotional effect of the performance. Now, the audience is all the more thoroughly confronted with the feelings of David.

Thanks to the format of the dialogue, the theatergoers not only learned what happened during the executions, at the same time they also learned what David felt about it. In the dialogue the king indicates explicitly that he is totally overwhelmed by empathy. First, David hears how the Gibeonites had behaved brutally. Therefore, David mourns the fortunes of Saul's descendants even more strongly--the fortunes of Armoni in particular. David says, "Mijn geest bezwijckt. Ick ben beladen met zijn smart" (v. 1612; My mind collapses. I am afflicted by his [Armoni s] sorrow). His emotions transport him to the position of one of the executed.

Together with David, the theatergoers learn directly afterward from the messengers that Armoni made a furious speech against the king. Here, Vondel uses the dialogue between David and the messengers to create a brusque distance from Armoni. Armoni portrayed David as an extremely cold person who, having betrayed his benefactor Saul, luxuriates in his power. However, the Amsterdam theatergoers knew that David is not cold at all, as just before they had witnessed David being strongly afflicted by sorrow, precisely for Armoni. Moreover, the Jews witnessing the executions also disagreed with Armoni. The messengers say that they did not go along with his tirade. The bystanders unanimously expressed their understanding of David's tragic decision.

It is striking that the messengers explicitly compare the bystanders at the executions to theatergoers. They say that the bystanders were "gepropt, een' schouwburgh was gelijck" (v. 1588; as crammed together as in a playhouse). Here, Vondel urges the Amsterdam theatergoers to take the place of the people of Israel. Just as the bystanders at the executions had to consider and eventually approve their king's decision, the Amsterdam audience had to evaluate the tragic situation in which David found himself and to support his judgment in full. Therefore, parallels with Longinus's and Vossius's prescripts for the inspired dramatist can once again be detected.

This urging for the citizens of Amsterdam to identify with the people of Israel and with one of its most famous leaders was popular in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (25) Thanks to increasing success in international trade, politics, science, and the arts, the people of Amsterdam became more and more convinced they were God's chosen people. Vondel used this popular topos creatively, trying to bring his audience closer to the Bible.

Vondel wanted the citizens of Amsterdam not only to come rationally to an understanding of the Bible, but also, thanks to emotional identification with David, to become deeply emotionally involved in God's Word. (26) David had to figure as an ideal example showing that even for one of the most noble characters from the Old Testament it was very hard, if not impossible, to come to a full understanding of God's almightiness. In the end everyone needed to learn to cope with this struggle and humbly submit to Him.

Thus Vondel's experiment has striking correspondences with Vossius's conceptualization of phantasia, ekstasis, and catharsis. Where the Amsterdam professor discussed the central aim of the performance of drama, the audiences long-lasting memory of extreme emotions that taught them to cope with these emotions in real life, the Amsterdam dramatist urged the audience to go along with Davids doubt to follow Gods will. Thanks to the preface to Brothers, where Vondel refers to Aeneas and Rubens and thus to the important role of the imagination in the process of creation and perception, we can assume that the correspondences between Vossius's theory and Vondel's practice were not just a coincidence. Like Vossius, Vondel was well aware of the power of mental images. (27)

Vos at His Crudest

To what extent did other theater-makers from Amsterdam go along with Vondel's experiment with refraining from staging explicit violence to maximally activate the audience's imagination? To answer this question, we can look at Jan Vos's Aran and Titus, which premiered a few months after Brothers. It is one of the crudest dramas in Dutch literary history, showing the gruesome murders committed by Aran, the defeated commander-in-chief of the Goths who could still plot against the Roman general Titus. Titus reacts with equally gruesome murders, among others, serving Thamera--queen of the Goths and Aran's most malicious accomplice--her own sons as roast meat.

Vos's drama was extremely popular, being the most performed play in the Dutch Golden Age. (28) Laudations linked its enormous success to the explicit staging of violence. Herein Vos was believed to have emulated Seneca's Thy estes. A close colleague of Vossius, Caspar Barlaeus, received the drama enthusiastically. Barlaeus praises Vos by stating that he has overcome the antique dramaturges, who created Orestes, Medea, and the children of Pelops, Atreus, and Thyestes, for Vos succeeded in giving his characters the utmost malice and atrocity.

Barlaeus concludes that the performance of Aran and Titus brought him to total ecstasy, as never before was cruelty shown so intensely. He writes: "Ik stae gelijk bedwelmt en overstolpt van geest. / De schouburg wort verzet, en schoeyt op hooger leest" (I am stupefied. My mind is overwhelmed. / The Playhouse is transported, and takes on higher form). (29) So here, the transportation of the theatergoer is described as so all-embracing that the playhouse itself is entirely moved to the time and place of Aran and Titus. A negative evaluation of mere stupefaction, as we saw in Vossius's poetics, is totally absent.

In a letter to a close friend, Barlaeus goes further in his praise by stating that he went to see the drama more than seven times. He adds that Vondel also went to see it. According to Barlaeus's letter, even Vondel exclaimed that Vos was a person of astounding intellect. (30) This praise raises the question of how far the difference between the reprehensible dumbfounding effect of staging cruelties and the beneficial sublime experience of maximal emotional involvement is actually contrasted in mid-seventeenth-century Amsterdam.

Remarkably, it is Jan Vos himself who gives us insight into this matter. His preface to Aran and Titus is a reaction to Vondel's preface to Brothers. (31) Vos lauds his colleague. By doing so, he places his own firstling in close connection with Vondel's dramas, which already enjoyed great acclaim. Just as Barlaeus praises Vos by comparing him to the famous antique dramaturges, Vos writes of Vondel the poet,
   Die als een Sophokles t'Atheen, (32)
   Gehooft met hooghgekurkte laarzen,
   Op't Duitsche Treurtooneel komt treen;
   Daar d'Echo van zijn goude vaarzen
   Het hardste hart zoo murruw maakt
   Dat't oogh een beek van tranen braakt. (33)

   (Who as a Sophocles in Athens, / Shod with high-corked boots, /
   Treads on the German tragedy stage; / Where the Echo of his golden
   verses / Can mollify the hardest of hearts / That the eye spews out
   a creek of tears.)


Vos emphasizes that Vondel's tragedies move the audience strongly. However, it is striking that Vos does not deny that he himself used opposite means to reach the same goal. In his preface to Brothers, Vondel presented his chief character David as the ruler "die, gelijck een zon, onder de verlichte koningen gebloncken heeft" (1. 17; who has shone like a sun under enlightened kings) and "wiens gedachtenis noch heden, over den ganschen aerdbodem, ja in den hemel blinckt" (11. 18-19; whose remembrance till today shines and always will shine over the entire earth, yes even in heaven). In his preface to Aran and Titus Vos contrasts Vondels description with the description of Aran, whom he presents as the absolute opposite of perfection. Aran is the incorporation of darkness. However, Vos gives both plays their own legitimacy. "De zon blinkt nooit klaarder dan in de omhelzinge der wolken: diesgelijk is de volmaakthied nooit volmaakter dan in de verzellinge der mismaakte" (The sun never shines more clearly than in embracement with the clouds: in the same way perfection is never so more perfect than in the company of the deformed). (34)

So Vos is fully aware of the fact that Vondel uses a different method to bring the theatergoers to ecstasy. Vos compares Vondels techniques to a powerful light, contrasting them with his own experiments, which develop ways to overwhelm the theatergoers with obscurity. Moreover, Vos places his own efforts in a fruitful symbiosis with those of Vondel. The two endeavors are complementary, as the audience needs to see obscurity to be able to see the full light completely. (35) To express it less metaphorically: according to Vos, the theater audience needs to see his own drama Aran and Titus, which staged explicit and extreme violence, since the experience of outrageous horror makes the drama of Vondel more fully accessible. The more Vos succeeds in bringing the theatergoers to terrible depths, the more Vondel can elevate them.

Conclusion

We saw Vossius following Longinus by arguing that thanks to strong imagination the audience could have direct contact with theatrical characters. The strongest impact is achieved when these characters are actually performed. However, merely dumbfounding the audience needs to be avoided by refraining from staging straight cruelties. Similarly, in Brothers Vondel took the importance of mental images to heart. At the conclusion of his Biblical tragedy he did not stage the executions of Saul's descendants directly. He presented, one immediately after the other, an extremely emotional event, a tableau vivant, a straight address to the audience, and two vivid descriptions, one song and one spoken. Thus, the theatergoers are time and again confronted with strong visual and textual images and urged to identify with divergent characters and are thus driven in a whirlwind of emotions of pity and fear. By doing so, Vondel increased the contact between the audience and the characters to such a degree that the audience could finally come to a full understanding of the tragic decision David had taken.

As Aristotle prescribed, the strong emotions of pity and fear that the theatergoers had to experience in a tragedy were meant to lead to a purification of these emotions. In accordance with this idea, the Amsterdam theatergoers were urged to learn to cope with the fierce pains to accept God's Almightiness. The transportation in David elevates the theatergoers to surrender completely to His will, as the virtuous king is shown to have done. However, Vondel never suggested that this surrender is easy. He showed David going through a heartrending experience and emphasized the king's human doubt. It would have strengthened the audience in dealing with their own moral dilemmas. Although Vos did not see this as the only way to make theater, nor was it his own way, he acknowledged the powerful effect of this elevation. He even used it to glorify his famous colleague.

Stijn Bussels

Leiden University

Notes

(1) Vondel's Brothers is discussed in G. Kazemier, "De paradox van Vondels drama Gebroeders," Nieuw LetterkundigMagazijn 4 (1986): 2-4; Jan Konst, Woedende wraakghierigheidt en vruchtelooze weeklachten (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1993), 138-43; Frans-Willem Korsten, Sovereignty as Inviolability: Vondels Theatrical Explorations in the Dutch Republic (Hilversum: Verloren, 2009), 90-109; Rare Langvik-Johannessen, Zwischen Himmel undErde: EineStudie uberjoost Van den Vondels biblische Tragodie in Gattungsgeschitlicher Perspektive (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1963), 114-32; Karel Porteman, "18 April 1641. In de Amsterdamse Schouwburg gaat Vondels Gebroeders in premiere. Concept en opvoering van een ambitieus treurspel," in Een theatergeschiedenis der Nederlanden: Tien eeuwen drama en theater in Nederland en Vlaanderen, ed. Rob Erenstein (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996), 218-33; W. A. P. Smit, Van Pascha tot Noah: Een verkenning van Vondels drama's naar continuiteit en ontwikkeling in hun grondmotief en structuur, 3 vols. (Zwolle: Tjeenk Willink, 1956-1962), 1:265-302. For an extensive bibliography on Brothers, see Jan Bloemendal, "Bibliography of Vondels Dramas (1850-2010)," in Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679): Dutch Playwright in the Golden Age, ed. Jan Bloemendal and Frans-Willem Korsten (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 545-46.

(2) Ad Leerintveld, "Een bijzonder exemplaar van Vondels Gebroeders," in Kort tijt-verdrijf: Opstellen over Nederlands toneel (vanaf ca. 1550) aangeboden aan Mieke B.Smits- Veldt, ed. Wouter Abrahamse and Anneke Fleurkens (Amsterdam: AD&L Uitgevers, 1996), 157-64; and Mieke B, Smits-Veldt, "De aantekeningen bij Vondels 'Gebroeders' (1644)," Literatuur 8 (1991): 372-73.

(3) Jan Bloemendal, "Introductory Essay," in Gerardus Joannes Vossius, Poeticarum institutionum libri tres/lnstitutes of Poetics in Three Books, ed. and trans. Jan Bloemendal (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2010), 40-42. Quotations and translations from Vossius's poetical handbooks come from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text.

(4) The preface to Brothers is dedicated to Vossius. There Vondel clarifies that he discussed with this internationally respected scholar the dos and don'ts of staging stories from the Bible. For his part, Vossius answers the dedication by praising the dramatist with "scribis aeternitate" or "you write for eternity." Later on, in his influential Poeticae institutiones (Amsterdam, 1647) Vossius explicitly mentions that the discussions with the dramatist on the rules of Biblical drama had influenced his ideas on the theater (1.4.33). The preface to Brothers is included in Joost van den Vondel, Gebroeders, in Treurspel, ed. Kare Langvik-Johannessen (Antwerpen-Amsterdam: Standaard wetenschappelijke uitgeverij, 1975). Quotations are from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text. All translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

(5) For a more general exploration of the early use of On the Sublime, see Translations of the Sublime: The Early Modern Reception and Dissemination of Longinus' Peri Hupsous in Rhetoric, the Visual Arts, Architecture and the Theatre, ed. Caroline van Eck, Stijn Bussels, Maarten Delbeke, and Jurgen Pieters (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

(6) Rubens's paintings were very popular in the Dutch Republic. This popularity was excited precisely because his paintings could bring the onlooker to strong emotions. For example, Constantijn Huygens lauded Rubens's depiction of Medusas head as one of the most overwhelming paintings he ever saw. However, Vondels reference brings Rubens's mastery as painter of altarpieces to mind. Thus Vondel mentions the emotional power of religious art and refers to the Counter-Reformation. This may not surprise us, since in the period of the writing and staging of Brothers Vondel had become Roman Catholic. The dramatist brings counter-reformatory visual persuasion into the lion's den of Calvinist Amsterdam. See Jurgen Pieters, "De blik van Medusa," in Tranen van de herinnering: Het gesprek met de doden (Groningen: Historische uitgeverij, 2005), 132-64; and Hans Vlieghe, "Constantijn Huygens en de Vlaamse schilderkunst van zijn tijd," De zeventiende eeuw 3 (1987): 190-207.

(7) Michelle Karnes, Imagination, Meditation and Cognition in the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), esp. chapter 1.

(8) "For imagination [fantasia] is different from both perception and thought; imagination always implies perception and is itself implied by judgment"; Aristotle, On the Soul, trans. W. S. Hett, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 427b15-17.

(9) Quintilian's Institutio oratoria (6.2.29) was also one of the early examples of this broadening of the concept of phantasia. He too was influential in early modern poetic thought. See Stijn Bussels, The Animated Image: Roman Theory on Naturalism, Vividness and Divine Power (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2012), 59-60.

(10) Longinus, On the Sublime, trans. W. H. Fyfe, rev. Donald A. Russell, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

(11) Eugenio Refini, "Longinus and Poetic Imagination in Late Renaissance Literary Theory," in van Eck et al., Translations of the Sublime, 33-53.

(12) See J. H. Meter, The Literary Theories of Daniel Heinsius: A Study of the Development and Background of His Views on Literary Theory and Criticism During the Period from 1602 to 1612 (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1984).

(13) All translations of Vossius's poetical handbooks come from Bloemendal, ed., Poeticarum institutionum; quotations are cited parenthetically in the text.

(14) Plato defined the concept of mania most famously as follows: "madness [mania] comes from the Muses. This takes hold upon a gentle and pure soul, arouses it and inspires it to songs and other poetry, and thus by adorning countless deeds of the ancients educates later generations. But he who without the divine madness comes to the doors of the Muses, confident that he will be a good poet by art, meets with no success, and the poetry of the sane man vanishes into nothingness before that of the inspired man"; Plato, Phaedrus, trans. H. N. Fowler, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914), 245A. Whereas Plato relates the inspiration of an author uniquely to the Muses, Longinus also takes the author's own talents into consideration (Bussels, The Animated Image, 92-93). Vossius opts for the latter.

(15) A crucial reference on the rise of the rule of vraisemblance is Rene Bray, La Formation de la doctrine classique en France (Paris: Hachette, 1927). For a recent discussion and bibliography, see the first chapter of Nathalie Kremer, Vraisemblance et representation au XVlIle siecle (Paris: Honore Champion, 2011).

(16) In doing so, Vossius also reacts against Julius Caesar Scaliger's influential Poetices (Lyon, 1561 and Leiden, 1581) that favors the Senecan model and the many dramas of his own time taking Senecas tragedies as their prime example.

(17) The tension in the middle of Senecas Medea "in tantum assurgit, ut catastrophe ulterius assurgere non possit, nisi alliquid atrox oculis subiiciatur" (2.13.27; rises so high that it cannot go any higher in the catastrophe, unless something frightsome is shown).

(18) James Allen, "Academic Probabilism and Stoic Epistemology," Classical Quarterly 44 (1994): 85-113; Bussels, The Animated Image, 66-71; and Michael Frede, "Stoic Epistemology," in The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, ed. Keimpe Algra, Jonathan Barnes, Jaap Mansfeld, and Malcolm Schofield (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 295-351.

(19) Diogenes Laertius's writings on the Stoics had already been translated in 1433. For a recent discussion of the influence of Diogenes Laertius and for further bibliography, see John L. Lepage, The Revival of Antique Philosophy in the Renaissance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), passim, esp. 27.

(20) The monologue is published in Joost van de Vondel, De werken van Vondel: Volledige en geillustreerde tekstuitgave, ed. J. F. M. Sterck et al., 10 vols. (Amsterdam: Maatschappij voor goede en goedkope lectuur, 1929), 3:902.

(21) Bussels, The Animated Image, chapter 2, and Manieri, Vimmagine poetica, passim.

(22) Heinrich F. Plett, Enargeia in Classical Antiquity and the Early Modern Age: The Aesthetics of Evidence (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 23.

(23) Lia van Gemert, Tussen de bedrijven door? Defunctie van de rei in Nederlandstalig toneel 1556-1625 (Deventer: Sub Rosa, 1990), 232-37.

(24) Margaret Dickin, A Vehicle for Performance: Acting the Messenger in Greek Tragedy (Lanhani, MD: University Press of America, 2009), esp. the fifth and final chapters.

(25) E.g., in 1581 the famous engraver Hendrik Golzius makes a portrait of William of Orange that is framed with scenes from the book of Exodus. Thus a typological connection is suggested between the Prince and Moses and between the people of the Low Countries and the people of Israel. See Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477-1806 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), chapter 10, and Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (London: Collins, 1987), 109-13. Moreover, the famous Dutch anthem, the "Wilhelmus van Nassouwe," identifies the prince with King David suffering from Saul's misbehavior, but eventually overcoming him: "Als David moeste vluchten / voor Saul den tiran, / zo heb ik moeten zuchten / als menig edelman. / Maar God heeft hem verheven, / verlost uit alder nood, / een koninkrijk gegeven / in Israel zeer groot" (strophe 8; As David had to flee / Before Saul the tyrant / So must I sigh / With Many a gentleman / But God has elevated him, / delivered from all distress, / and has given him a kingdom / very large in Israel). See Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, 103. For a recent discussion of the typology between the people of Israel and Amsterdam/Dutch Republic in artistic discourse, see Larry Silver and Shelley Karen Perlove, Rembrandt's Faith: Church and Temple in the Dutch Golden Age (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University, 2009), 123.

(26) Vondel's typology between the people of Israel and Amsterdam served internal politics too. Just as the people of Israel came to a full understanding of David's tragic decision, the Amsterdam burghers needed to support the policy of their municipality. They had to be aware that the municipality made well-considered decisions for the welfare of all citizens. Vondel gave this message extra force when prominent members of the Amsterdam municipality attended one of the performances of Brothers. After the performance, the dramatist offered the city's rulers a poem that praised the rulers of the city as being wise to support the theater. By preserving this art, Vondel suggested that Athens could be emulated. See Joost van den Vondel, Volledige dichtwerken en oorspronkelijk proza, ed. Albert Verwey (1937; repr., Amsterdam: Becht, 1986), 953.

(27) The power of imagination was not only discussed and used in the field of drama in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, but also in the theory and practice of meditation. Just as in Vondel's Brothers, the person meditating can begin a mental exercise by getting emotionally involved in a particular story from the Bible in order to get a fuller understanding of the relation between hint/ herself and God. However, in this religious context the aspect of artistic creativity comes far less to the fore. For a recent discussion on meditation in the Dutch Golden Age and its complex relation with Calvinism, see Feike Dietz, "Dark Images, Clear Words: Pieter Paets's Illustrated Devotional Literature From the Missio Hollandica',' in Meditatio--Refashioning the Self: Theory and Practice in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Intellectual Culture, ed. Karel Enenkel and Walter Melion (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 291-322; and Lise Gosseye and Jurgen Pieters, "Reading Blindly: Huygens in the Wake of Augustine," in Speaking To the Eye: Sight and Insight Through Text and Image, ed. Veerle Fraeters, Maria Eugenia Gongora, and Therese de Hemptinne (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), 287-305.

(28) The most elaborate introduction to the drama is still W. J. C. Buitendijk, "Inleiding," in Jan Vos, Toneelwerken, ed. W. J. C. Buitendijk (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1975), 47-97.

(29) The praise is published as Caspar Barlaeus, "Op het hooghdravend Treurspel van Jan de Vos, Glazemaker," in Jan Vos, Alie degedichten, ed. Jacob Lescaille (Amsterdam: Jacob Lescaille, 1662), A4V.

(30) "Vondel heft het gehoort, en zeide, 't is een man van wonderbaer verstandt" (Vondel has heard it and said that he is a man of a wonderful intellect); Caspar Barlaeus, "Oordeel van wijlen den Professor Caspar Barlaeus, over't dichten van Jan Vos, getrokken uit sijne Latijnsche Brieven: Uit een Brief aen den Heere van Zuilichem," in Vos, Alie de gedichten, A4r.

(31) Marijke Meijer Drees, "Toneelopvattingen in beweging: Rivaliteit tussen Vos en Vondel in 1641," De Nieuwe Taalgids 79 (1986): 453-60.

(32) The comparison with Sophocles is rather obvious. Vondel translated Sophocles's Electra in 1639 and took its structure as a model for his Biblical tragedies, of which Brothers was the first.

(33) Jan Vos, "Opdraght aan d'Erentfeste en hooghgeleerde Heer Raspar van Baarle," in Vos, Alie de gedichten, A3V.

(34) Vos, "Opdraght," A4V.

(35) It is difficult, if not impossible, to prove that there is a direct connection, but it is nevertheless striking that Longinus makes a similar claim in On the Sublime. When discussing the effect of painting, he writes that the light parts of the painting can jump forward and have the full attention of the onlooker: "We see something of the same kind in painting. Though the highlights and shadows lie side by side in the same place, yet the highlights spring to the eye and seem not only to stand out but to be actually much nearer" (17).
COPYRIGHT 2015 Comparative Drama
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Joost van den Vondel
Author:Bussels, Stijn
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2015
Words:8214
Previous Article:The tragicomic moment: republicanism in Beaumont and Fletcher's Philaster.
Next Article:Brothers and "gentles" in the life of King Henry the fifth.
Topics:

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters