In a German theater, the Manager, the Dramatic Poet, and the Player of Comic Roles are preparing a production of Faust. The Manager uneasily asks the other two how they think the German public will react to the drama. He is nervous because, although he thinks the Germans won’t expect anything first-rate, he knows they are nonetheless well-read.
The “Prelude” reminds us that dramatic art does not exist in a vacuum, but must always exist within some kind of larger context. Theaters, actors, and audience members all make up the whole of which the script is only part—so it is a part that must be responsive to the whole.
The Dramatic Poet wants nothing to do with the public, however, which he fears will vulgarize his art. He doesn’t want to make a poem that is glittering and ephemeral, but instead something worthy of posterity. The Player, in contrast, can only please his contemporaries, and therefore values amusing people here and now. He asks that the Dramatic Poet not hide his excellence, but stage the full extent of human experience, from Reason to Passion to Folly.
The Poet represents the aesthetic and visionary perspective on art, in contrast to the practical, people-pleasing Manager. The Player, a third contrast, is essentially an entertainer. Goethe suggests that an artist must be all three of these things to create a work of art that is of general cultural value.
The Manager reminds the Dramatic Poet that their audience will be expecting lots of action and variety. Only by including in a drama something for everyone will it be a success, he says. The Dramatic Poet retorts that to follow the Manager’s advice would be to produce lowly work unworthy of a genuine artist, and he accuses the Manager of deriving his dramatic principles from incompetent playwrights.
Goethe includes a great deal of action in Faust, as well as an infamous variety of settings and characters. Nonetheless, he is always a genuine artist, and so synthesizes the perspectives of the Manager and Poet, fusing low culture and high culture.
The Manager assures the Dramatic Poet that his feelings aren’t hurt by such accusations. Somebody who wants to be effective, he says, must work with the proper tools. He further reminds the Dramatic Poet that theatergoers tend to be people who are bored, or full after a heavy meal, or more used to reading magazines than listening to plays. In short, they are either indifferent to a poet’s dreams or else they are boors. Pleasing them is no easy task.
While the Poet has his eye on eternity, the Manager has his eye on people paying for tickets. Such people, he sensibly argues, are usually too numbed by bodily pleasures to be pleased by a poet’s dreams. The artist must remember, then, that he needs to communicate with people who are limited in their ability to appreciate his work.
The Dramatic Poet becomes indignant. He tells the Manager to hire someone else if he expects him to forfeit his fundamental human right to dream and create for the sake of mere entertainment. He explains that the poet’s power lies in his ability to harmonize what his heart sends out into the world with the world that returns to him by way of his senses. It is by this power that he breathes life and rhythm into nature, and also coordinates the different parts of the world into one general choir.
As sensible as the Manager is, the Poet himself gives an inspired vision of what he thinks of as the artist’s role: to harmonize the internal world of the spirit with the external world of nature. In his drama, Goethe plays this synthesizing role, while also aiming to please and entertain his readers.
The Player of Comic Roles tells the Dramatic Poet to manage his literary business like a poet, then. He compares what would happen in such a case to the way that a love affair is conducted. The poet would meet his admirer by chance, the two would get involved and feel boundless joy, only for misery to ensue: good material for a novel. The Manager even instructs the Dramatic Poet to make his play just like this, out of common life, because life is strange and therefore interesting to most people anyway. If he does this the Dramatic Poet will have a play full of lively scenes, confusion, and just a dash of truth, so that it attracts the common people and the elite alike. Those who are young and young at heart won’t fail to appreciate it.
The Player suggests that writing good poetry and having a good literary career don’t go hand in hand at all. Note that the metaphor of the Poet wooing his reader like a lover foreshadows Faust’s own love affairs with Gretchen and Helen, which likewise end in misery. Faust and the Poet are in fact very alike in their dreams and ambitions. Although Goethe entertains us in Faust, as the Manager says the Poet should, he does not add a dash of truth just for effect. For Goethe, rather, the complete work of art necessarily creates truth.
The Dramatic Poet wishes for the days of his youth to return to him so that he, also, can be young at heart, when he was constantly inspired to song and was full of untamed passions, the power to hate and the strength to love. The Player of Comic Roles suggests that the Dramatic Poet would need youth back only when embattled by enemies, tempted by charming girls, in sight of victory, or when partying the night away—the Dramatic Poet, however, will presumably not be in such situations again. The Player goes on to say that it’s up to old gentleman like the Dramatic Poet and the Manager to set their own goals and approach them at their own pace, and suggests that we never really outgrow childhood.
Though the Poet wishes, like Goethe in his “Dedication,” to go back in time, the Player assures him that the strength of youth is not required to create a lasting work of art. With age comes experience, and this experience will enable the Poet to achieve his creative goals. Besides, the Player says, we are always like children in a way, perhaps in the sense that we’re always curious, always learning and growing.
The Manager is growing restless: it’s time to get to work. He says that the company needs a good strong drink to serve to the public, that is, a good piece of entertainment, something satisfying and refreshing, and that they should get to brewing it. He observes that German theaters let people work on whatever projects they want to. Since this is the case, there’s no reason to stint on scenery or stage effects: suns, moons, fire, water, cliffs, birds, and beasts. He orders the company to act out on their modest stage all of creation, from heaven, through the world, to hell.
The metaphor of a good play as a good beverage emphasizes the idea that a play must satisfy not only the mind but also the body. It must create a visceral experience for its audience. The scenery and stage effects may seem merely spectacular, but in Goethe’s hands they become symbols for the human condition and, more broadly, for eternity itself, the worlds of heaven and hell.