Lover’s Vows, by August von Kotzebue, translated by Elizabeth Archibald
This play is, on its own, a rather obscure example of German romantic and melodramatic playwriting, but it is well known to English audiences mainly because of its inclusion in Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, making this play a subject of a metatextual discussion of Austen’s views of art and morality. Most people who read this play will likely have some view of its materials based on the havoc that it causes the Mansfield Park party, and how the play and its contents also serve as a textual joke on several levels. It is hard to then take the play on its own merits and see how it was translated in such a way that it manages to mix comedy and melodrama in uncomfortable levels, and how it is that the characterization tends to make it difficult to appreciate the play on its own merits. But for those who do not know Mansfield Park, this play is an example of German emotionalism from the late 18th century, and if romantic melodrama is your thing there is romantic melodrama to be found here aplenty. As a reader I found this play easier to read than to enjoy, and since this play is in translation it is hard to know how accurate it is to the original, not having read the German play. The English play, though, is interesting enough on its own merits.
This play is a melodrama with highly comic elements. So it is that in this play Frederick, a young soldier, seeks to return to meet his mother Agatha and finds her disgraced and distraught because of her having an illegitimate child with Baron Wildenheim, who ended up marrying someone more suitable to himself. Meanwhile, he has a teenage daughter Amelia who wants to marry for love and is in love with the lowly Anhalt rather than the noble Count that her father would prefer. On top of this Frederick shows himself to be reckless and hostile, threatening the Baron even before realizing that the Baron is his father and revealing himself as Agatha’s half-brother, giving her encouragement on relationships and love. Beyond this there is a comic role in a Butler who has a lot of lines that are hard to remember for dullards. The play ends happily enough, even if the threat of disaster is present for both Agatha and Frederick for most of the play, and it is easy to see how Amelia’s desire to love might come to seem as a bit precious in light of the more serious problems that the play reveals about sexual double standards with the fate of Agatha compared with the Baron, able to have an illegitimate son without endangering his ability to marry better later.
Where this play takes on additional layers of meaning to readers is the fact that the play is used within Mansfield Park as a demonstration of the lack of morality of the Bertram family and their friends and associates. While Jane Austen was herself fond of home theatricals, Lover’s Vows as a play is itself highly problematic on its moral grounds. Sir Thomas Bertram would have been highly offended to see the way that the Baron’s moral authority to seek good marriages for his children was undercut by his own illegitimate moral conduct. Fanny would have been offended by the non-motherly affection that went on between Agatha and Frederick, and by the frank and not particularly highly moral approach of the play. This is a play that mimics much of the most unpleasant aspects of Mansfield Park, and that gives some foreshadowing that an alert and aware reader could sense the trouble that this play meant. It is interesting that people tend to think of this play as being easy to accept as legitimate for a moral British aristocratic family when it is not