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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: April 2017

Jupiterists and Alkmenists: Amphitryon as an Example of How Kleist's Texts Read Interpreters

from Critical Approaches
    • By Jeffrey L. Sammons, Leavenworth professor emeritus in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Yale University
  • Edited by Bernd Fischer, Professor and Chair of German, Ohio State University.
  • Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
  • pp 21-42


Even by Kleists standards of misfortune, Amphitryon seems to have been born under an unlucky star. Published, as the first of his works to appear under his name, by his friends while he was in a French prison, it was sold, in his own opinion, well below its value, having been thrust on a publisher by Gottfried Körner with a claim that the imprisoned author was in need of support (Sembdner 1984, 133–34). Of Kleist's five preserved comments on the play, four deal with the financial aspect (Sembdner 1969, 33–34). Interpretation does not commonly stress the fact that Kleist was virtually destitute throughout his creative years, a dependent of his relatives to a degree that was damaging to his selfesteem. It has long seemed to me that despite his intermittent suicidal moods and the existential pathos of his last days, if some congenial nobleman had provided him with shelter, sustenance, and cultivated companionship on his estate, he might have managed much longer. The dearth of authorial guidance to our interpretive work is characteristic of Kleist generally; in the Heimeran series of authors’ commentaries on their own works, the Kleist volume just cited is the slenderest. It is impossible to follow his literary and cultural reading exactly, which sometimes leads to inflated claims for his erudition and memory for texts.

Amphitryon appeared with a commentary by Adam Müller, who, in the flush of his newfound Catholic faith, gave it a Christological interpretation, which, in turn, contributed to Goethe's distaste for it — he used a copy of it for wrapping paper (Sembdner 1984, 147; see Grathoff 322). This apprehension long endured (Wegener 32), even echoing into more recent times (see, for example, Milfull 11; Zimmermann 226–40). Thomas Mann was not mistaken to characterize it as “gräßlich und beleidigend” and to charge Goethe's recoil from the pathological Kleist with a petulance inconsistent with his own imaginative range (Müller-Seidel 1967, 52, 67–68). While the publication aroused some interest in the literary community, it came to be ignored, and its premiere did not occur for nearly a century, in 1899; thus, it has the shortest stage history of all of Kleist's dramas (see Reeve 53–77), and to my knowledge it has never been performed in the United States, though it has had some embarrassing musical-comedy successors. It was long thought to be unplayable (Wegener 42–45).