The Wallenstein Trilogy by Friedrich Schiller centers on the later career of Duke Wallenstein of Bohemia, one of the greatest wartime leaders of the Thirty Years’ War. When the plays open, Wallenstein’s career is balanced on the knife-edge. Jealous generals and nobles are whispering in the ear of the Holy Roman Emperor that Wallenstein is becoming too powerful and is starting to represent a threat to the authority of the Emperor himself. Wallenstein’s character is maligned and his peace overtures to the Protestants represented as something dangerously close to treason. It is no secret that the Emperor is on the cusp of relieving Wallenstein of his post again (he had done this once already, but been forced to call him back).
The first part of the trilogy, Wallenstein’s Camp is awful. It’s told in rhyme, which probably makes it even worse in English translation.
The middle play, The Piccolomini, begins right away building the tension as to what the future holds for Wallenstein. This tension provides the main dramatic force of the last two parts of the trilogy. Veteran Octavio accepts that Wallenstein’s star is descending, but Octavio’s son Maximilian, who is also a soldier, considers Wallenstein one of the great heroes of history and refuses to entertain the notion that the great man might be relieved of his duties.
Citing Wallenstein’s alleged treacheries, Maximilian’s father warns of the justice slowly moving toward Wallenstein… “as soft and silent as he crept his wicked ways, so soft and cunning vengeance creeps upon his trail.” Maximilian has his own warning for those perched on the ladder below Wallenstein and ready to spring, “I will shed my blood for him, for Wallenstein, yes, drop by drop, until my heart is drained, before I see you triumph at his fall!”
This provides secondary tensions for the story– the tension between father and son (which in wartime and with stakes so high might very well turn bloody for someone), and also the suspense as to whether son Maximilian will become disillusioned with his hero or if, instead, father Octavio may relent and join his son’s side before things go too far.
The parties for and against Wallenstein split mostly between those with ties to the Imperial Court (who are against him) and those who serve under him (who are intensely loyal to him). Butler speaks for many of Wallenstein’s men when he states his opinion that it was not the Emperor who made Wallenstein, “but Wallenstein who made the Emperor.” And in fact, such opinions are part of what make Wallenstein such a threat to the Emperor. Butler is also the one who gets to deliver the great line in the concluding play, Wallenstein’s Death… “You sowed seeds of blood and now you stand amazed that blood has come to fruit.”
Some of Wallenstein’s soldiers, besides respecting their leader, may also fear that they will lose the respect they have gained during years of war if he is taken from them. A new leader could not know the heroic exploits undertaken by the individual men, and as Wallenstein remarks himself, “under a new command new men will rise, and earlier merit fade and be forgotten.”
And some soldiers, such as Isolani, resent that the Emperor has cast the soldiers “to the ravening beasts” so that “he may keep his precious sheep at peace.”
Maximilian extols Wallenstein’s leadership qualities, remarking that “it is a joy to see how he inspires and stirs, and all about him wakes to life– how each man’s strength speaks out, how each man feels his gifts more keenly in his presence!” He predicts that the removal of Wallenstein will result in disaster, “for when he is laid low, this king of men, a world will topple with him in his fall.”
Maximilian complains of armchair generals who second-guess battle-decisions from the safety of Court, contending that they are not always fit to judge actions taken in the field. A leader in the field, he says, must follow the “pulse of nature” and must “hear the oracle that speaks within him.” He can’t “wait to ask of dusty papers, books and mouldering ordinance what he should do.”
Wallenstein, too, is bitter at his Emperor’s seeming lack of knowledge or concern as to the plight of the army in the field… “Does the Emperor not know his troops are men?,” he asks. “Does he not know we are subject too to cold and wet and every mortal need?”
Wallenstein winds-up playing right into the Emperor’s worst fears by demanding that his men swear allegiance– not to the Empire or even the army, but to Wallenstein, himself, declaring that, “if I am held to answer with my head and honor for the outcome, then I must be master absolute.”
Meanwhile, even Wallenstein’s most loyal soldiers are beginning to weary of the years of warfare. Maximilan, who is young and has only known war, admits that of “smiling” life, he has only known its “deserted coasts.” “Tell me,” he says, “what is the goal and prize of toil, the sweat and misery that stole my youth, a desert left my heart, my spirit starved of nourishment?”
To quote some of the few quotable lines from Wallenstein’s Camp, the soldiers therein are quite aware of the precarious nature of the soldier’s life. That is precisely why some choose to party when they are not fighting, declaring, “let us today drink our fill of time’s precious drops while we may.”
But they also know that, slave as he is to blood and battle, the brave soldier is, in another way, among the free-est of men. “The soldier alone, of the whole human race, / is free, for he can look death in the face.”
While his soldiers entertain themselves in camp, Wallenstein, in spite of the rumors of his imminent demise– and despite the proddings of his friends to act quickly and boldly– leans back on his heels, awaiting events and searching the astrological zoo above for signs. In fact, Wallenstein is one of the most unusual characters in modern theater in this way– he is a passive hero. Normally, such a protagonist would almost guarantee ruin to the performance he is in, and indeed, perhaps Wallenstein would not make for a good play today without major changes. On the other hand, his situation is a bit like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar– Wallenstein is already at the center of the storm; he needn’t worry about missing the action, it is all assuredly coming to him.
frustrated as are several around Wallenstein at their boss’s foot-dragging, Illo takes on the role of a chorus, urging the protagonist to think twice about his actions– or in this case, lack of action. “Will you at last in earnest try your fortune with bold, unflinching deeds?” he asks Wallenstein, and when the answer is clear declares, “Oh! You will sit and wait upon the stars!” He tries to convince the Duke that the answers are not in the heavens but within himself… “The stars of destiny are in your heart,” he says. “Faith in yourself, and firm resolve– these are your Venus, and the one unlucky star that harms you is your own irresolution.” At one point, Illo all but kicks Wallenstein into gear, declaring, “The lines of fate, the opportunities, which, gathered tightly in one point of life and bound together, form the fruitful knot. See how decisively, how fatefully all draws about you now!”
But alas, when Wallenstein yet fails to take decisive action to answer the plot closing in on him, Illo can only lament how men, “know only how to patch and mend their lives, and bear a brute necessity they loathe more willingly than face a bitter choice.”
We begin to see that Wallenstein, deeply believing in the prophecies to be read from the Zodiac, is at heart a fatalist– albeit an active, even ambitious one– perhaps somewhat like Abraham Lincoln in his final years, a man attempting to do his best while simultaneously resigned to let God’s will be done. There is, after all, a freedom in necessity, for one is not forced to make a decision. Says Wallenstein, “when we have to pick the lesser of two certain evils, when our heart cannot survive unscathed amidst the clash of duties, then it is a blessing to have no free choice, and necessity itself appears a favor.”
Wallenstein feels that men, like events, also possess a certain inevitability. We are fated to make the choices we make– blessed with our successes, doomed to our failures. Once Wallenstein has grasped the essence of a man’s character, he feels he can predict his actions from thence forward since, he contends, men “grow inevitable, like fruit upon the tree” and “when I have probed a man and found his root, I know his will and actions at a glance.”
By the time of the events of Wallenstein’s Death, Gordon has joined the chorus, stressing for the audience how important each ticking moment is even as Wallenstein hesitates. “In one brief hour, run so many thousand grains of sand,” says Gordon, “and swift as they the thoughts within men’s minds may turn,” adding later, in case no one got his hint, “upon this moment’s thread the world is hanging.”
Wallenstein, for his part, believes his circumspection is wisdom. “He who would reap must seek to learn the times,” he explains. Only the foolish and the impetuous and those greedy to make their names will rush in and fight the wrong battle at the wrong time. “Many a bloody fight is fought for nothing, because young generals need their victories.”
During this time, young Maximilian’s heroic illusions are beginning to crack. “Deceit is everywhere,” he bemoans, “and treachery, poison and death, treason and perjury.” He clings to the notion that the old times were better and the men nobler. But sadly, he realizes that “they are no more, the ancient race of fable, the beauteous ones, our lands they have deserted.” Maximilian wants men’s motives to be pure, their paths straight and clear, not crooked and through shadow.
Maximilian’s father, Octavio, is long past viewing the world in the heroic, black-or-white terms of his son. “The road that man in life must tread, on which prosperity awaits, this road will run along the rivers, crooked like the valleys,” he says. Stubbornly clinging to the straight and narrow path is the surest way to destruction. “Straight goes the lightning, straight goes the cannon-shot in fearful flight, speeds headlong forward by the shortest path, and crushes all aside to crush again.”
When Wallenstein does finally decide to act (“we must act, and quickly now, before the signs of fortune’s favor take their flight again, for ever-changing is the face of heaven.”), it is too late. Even his hallowed stars cannot save him.