Heinrich Leopold Wagner's play Die Kindermörderin [The Child Murderess, 1776] is one of the more important examples of bürgerliches Trauerspiel (domestic tragedy), especially because of its controversial reception history that sheds light on the German literary scene in the 1770s. Printed anonymously in the same year that two other Sturm und Drang tragedies were published – J. M. R. Lenz' Die Soldaten [The Soldiers] and F. M. Klinger's Die Zwillinge [The Twins] – Die Kindermörderin gave rise to half a dozen reprints and a substantially revised version for the Berlin stage, before Wagner put his name to the title page (1777). Until this point, rumor had it that Lenz was the play's author since he had treated the very same theme – the seduction of a middle-class girl by an officer of noble birth – in Die Soldaten. Goethe, however, was sure that Wagner had plagiarized his Urfaust (ms. 1773-75, publ. 1887). When he stated that Wagner “hielt treulich an mir” (was my loyal friend) during their law studies in Strasbourg and then again in Frankfurt, Goethe seemed to imply that he was perhaps too close to him. He ended their friendship and even forty years later still held a grudge against him for the adoption of his Gretchen-motifs: seduced innocence, sleeping potion for the mother, and infanticide (Dichtung und Wahrheit [Poetry and Truth] III, chap. 14). Goethe's accusation of “Gedankenraub” (stealing of ideas or plagiarism) damaged Wagner's reputation in German literary history for a long time, adding a further damper to the already thorny problem for producers of how to present a rape in an inn of ill repute (act I) to a conventional audience. One solution was to leave out the first act, another Wagner's own transformation of his tragedy into a sentimental tragicomedy with a happy ending and a new title: Evchen Humbrecht oder Ihr Mütter merkts Euch [Evchen Humbrecht, or You Mothers, Heed This, 1779]. Important questions for today's scholarship are whether Goethe's harsh judgment ignored other literary sources for Wagner's text, as well as the significance of the play in its own right.
Die Kindermörderin is set in the lower middle-class of Strasbourg with a plot stretching over nine months and six acts, thereby abandoning the conventional aristocratic milieu (setting), the dramatic unities, and the required five acts of neo-classicist theater. Officer von Gröningseck, who is renting a room from butcher Humbrecht, has persuaded Mrs. Humbrecht and her daughter Evchen to attend a masked ball and to have an early breakfast in a house of ill repute. In a crass scene, he drugs the mother and rapes the girl, whose rage compels him into a promise of marriage, although soldiers were not allowed to marry. Their return home leads into the world of Martin Humbrecht with his petty class convictions about bourgeois rectitude and the violent temper of a patriarch. The parallel case of a single mother with a baby serves him to threaten his daughter to remain virtuous, otherwise he would kick her out. After a lapse of five months, Gröningseck has apparently changed from a rapist into an honorable man who is ready to ask for Eve's hand. But his comrade, officer von Hasenpoth, a devilish schemer, intervenes with a forged letter to Evchen in order to undo the projected mésalliance. When Evchen believes herself abandoned, she escapes to a laundry woman and gives birth. In a moment of mad frenzy she murders her baby. Unable to convince her to marry him, Gröningseck sets off to Versailles to prevent her from being executed for infanticide. Eve admits that she was driven to despair out of fear of her father and now wants to die in order to atone for her baby's and her mother's early death.
The initial rape sets the stage for the subsequent revelations and complications: how long Eve will be able to conceal her pregnancy, how long it will take her mother to find out where she got drugged, and her father what happened at the ball. Will Gröningseck return on time before the birth? It is not only her conscience that determines the tragic outcome, but what turns her into the victim of social pressures is her mother's desire to connect with people above her class, her father's destructive behavior that does not leave her any choice, and Gröningseck's moral wavering under the influence of his evil companion. Master Humbrecht represents a tyrannical father figure with sentimental features who dominates his family's life – perhaps as an outlet for the powerlessness of the bourgeois in society. Hasenpoth the instigator follows the mold of Iago (Shakespeare, Othello), but also of worm-like figures in German plays such as Marinelli (Lessing, Emilia Galotti, 1772), Grimaldi (Klinger, Die Zwillinge, 1776), and even Goethe's Mephisto (Urfaust).
To be sure, Wagner's plot resembles Faust's conquest of Gretchen and his abandoning her after the seduction, which compells her to commit infanticide and dooms her to being executed. Yet Goethe treats the same motifs from a very different angle and with different intent. The outcome of the “Gretchentragödie” is determined by the fateful progress of love and suffering presented in poetic, often symbolic language (Knittelvers=doggerel). In contrast, Wagner offers a quasi-naturalistic approach to capture crass scenes of rape in a whorehouse, in order to depict the stifling atmosphere of a butcher's home, and the amoral world of officers. Actually, he presents several social classes each with its own jargon, and makes the case that it is the clash between nobility and bourgeoisie that brings about the catastrophe, rather than love. The milieu determines the outcome. Moreover, other literary influences and social issues of the period need to be considered. After Shakespeare and Edward Young, Samuel Richardson was the most popular British author in Germany, well known to Goethe since his youth and apparently also to Wagner. His Gröningseck appears to be modeled less on Faust than on Lovelace, the dashing rake in Clarissa (1748-49), who establishes her in a brothel, which she mistakes as a respectable inn. He interferes with her letters, drugs and rapes her, so that eventually she finds herself trapped and rapidly declines while he suffers from remorse.
Viewing the female delinquent as the victim of social circumstances and shifting the blame to her seducer and her rigid father, Wagner puts his play at the forefront of the hotly debated question of the late Enlightenment: what to do with child murderers (see Otto Ulbricht, Kindsmord und Aufklärung in Deutschland, 1990). In a famous letter to Voltaire, even Frederick the Great admits that he tried “to rid them of that unnatural prejudice which makes them kill their children”, providing maternity homes for them and the children and asking why single mothers should not find husbands too (letter of 11 October 1777).
The former Strasbourg friends Goethe, Lenz and Wagner approached the motifs of “seduced innocence” (see Hellmuth Petriconi, Die verführte Unschuld, 1953) and infanticide in very different ways, with the latter two focusing on the social drama instead of Goethe's lyrical-poetic expression of a love tragedy. Yet even after the decline of the Storm and Stress movement, the mésalliance of lovers from upper and lower classes was to remain the preferred plotline for illustrating social deficiencies in both the theater and the novel until the twentieth century. The motif of infanticide also remained vibrant for a long time afterwards (see Gerhart Hauptmann, Rose Bernd, 1903). A protagonist such as Gröningseck, “a devil in angel-shape” (act I), trying to beat a critical deadline, re-emerges as Count F. in H. von Kleist's novella “Die Marquise von O…” [“The Countess of O...”, 1807]. But it was Wagner's narrow-minded father figure Humbrecht who provided the paradigm for Friedrich Schiller's musician Miller (Kabale und Liebe [Love and Intrigue], 1784) and for Friedrich Hebbel's master Anton, Klara's father in Maria Magdalene (1844). Finally, the GDR playwright Peter Hacks (1928-2003) adapted Die Kindermörderin (1957/63) to the Marxist concept of class struggle. In his epic drama, Eva is the victim of the capitalist system.
Hoffmeister, Gerhart. "Die Kindermörderin". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 30 April 2007
[https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=21644, accessed 18 October 2018.]