Sachs, Hans

Sachs, Hans
   Playwright. Sachs is best known as a central character in Richard Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, but his significance in the German theater derives from his prodigious output as a playwright and adaptor of Shrovetide comedies. In 1508 he began his apprenticeship as a cobbler in his native Nuremberg; the following years as a journeyman brought him to Lübeck, Vienna, Frankfurt, and other prosperous locales that offered him opportunities to witness a wide variety of 16th-century performance. He returned to Nuremberg in 1517 to establish himself as a master cobbler, which he attained in 1520, about the same time he began intensive activity with the Meistersingers, a lay brotherhood descended (according to some authorities) from singers of ecclesiastical music in the Rhineland. Meistersingers were well-established citizens of the towns in which they performed, mostly guild craftsmen like Sachs. They did not sing in public, however, and the secretive nature of the organization's rules, admission policies, and practices gave rise to a predictable speculation about members' activities.
   Little such speculation, however, surrounded Sachs's religious advocacy and his work with apprentices and others, performing many of his plays written in Knittelverse, which has rhyming pairs of lines with irregular numbers of stressed and unstressed syllables. Sachs employed Knittelverse to demonstrate his mastery of rhyme, writing more than 200 plays during his lifetime, almost half of them Shrovetide plays performed in the days leading up to Shrove Tuesday. Sachs took a less frolicsome or convivial view toward Shrovetide than did many of his contemporaries; his wholehearted embrace of Martin Luther's Reformation in the 1520s had caused in him a pronounced distaste for Roman Catholicism and the excessive celebrations that often accompanied Shrovetide. Sachs saw in Shrovetide an opportunity to employ theater performance for a moral purpose. To that end, he wrote and adapted material familiar to his audience, usually structuring it in ways that were at once humorous and didactic. Many of his short farces are small masterpieces.
   Sachs fell into a period of neglect in the 17th century, as the Enlightenment found his plays intolerably preachy. Students of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement in the 18th century, however, rediscovered him. Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote a Shrovetide play in imitation of Sachs, and thereafter a growing appreciation of his work continued into the late 19th century. Many in the Wilhelmine period came to see him as the model of the Protestant middle-class ethic, whose energy and devotion to community was worthy of emulation. The Weimar period found little in him to admire, but the Nazis embraced Sachs as a genuine representative of the Volk community.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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