The Mystery Dramas of Rudolf Steiner

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Seal designed by Rudolf Steiner for his four Mystery Dramas.

Rudolf Steiner's Mystery Dramas are an attempt to dramatically portray the initiatory path of individual, concrete people in artistic form. Rudolf Steiner completed four Mystery Dramas, a fifth, which according to Marie Steiner was to be a review of events at the Castalian Spring in Delphi, was already roughly outlined, but the outbreak of the World War I prevented further elaboration of the draft. Presumably, a total of seven dramas were to be written (some even speak of twelve), in which there would also have been repeated flashbacks to earlier incarnations of the characters, which would ultimately have resulted in a complete panorama of the spiritual development of humanity and at the same time a comprehensive picture of the entire path of spiritual training (Lit.: Hammacher 1995, p. 112; Judith von Halle 2016, p. 15ff)

The Mystery Dramas, as Steiner himself repeatedly emphasised, are nothing complete, they are a germinative beginning, a new beginning - a beginning in artistic-dramatic terms on the one hand, in which lies a powerful impulse for the revitalisation of the theatre world in general, on the other hand, they at the same time show a forward-looking way of bringing spiritual truths to people in a very lively, concrete form.

The four Mystery Dramas

Rudolf Steiner's four completed dramas are:

  1. The Portal of Initiation (1910) - first performed on 15 August 1910 at the Munich Schauspielhaus
  2. The Soul's Probation (1911) - first performed on 17 August 1911 at the Gärtnerplatz Theatre in Munich
  3. The Guardian of the Threshold (1912) - first performed on 24 August 1912 at the Gärtnerplatz Theatre in Munich
  4. The Soul's Awakening (1913) - first performed on 22 August 1913 at the Volkstheater in Munich

Goethe's Fairy Tale as the Basis of the Mystery Dramas

In 1907, at the Munich Congress, Rudolf Steiner had brought Eduard Schuré's reconstruction of the "Drama of Eleusis" to the stage, followed later by Schuré's "Children of Lucifer". But these were all recourses to the past, living entirely out of the spirit of the mind soul culture, apart from the fact that both works can hardly meet higher artistic standards. But something better, in which spiritual truths were revealed in an artistic way, did not exist at that time. So Steiner searched for a spiritual content and an artistic form that could do justice to the age of the consciousness soul, and in doing so initially came up with Goethe's "Fairy Tale of the Green Serpent and the Beautiful Lily", which he wanted to put on the stage in dramatised form, but the matter soon took on a life of its own. In the first transcription, the names of the characters were taken from Goethe's fairy tale, but as the fairy tale characters gradually grew into independent stage personalities of flesh and blood, other names had to be found to better emphasise their spiritual character. As the plot also began to metamorphose more and more, a completely independent drama finally emerged, in which, however, the reference to Goethe's fairy tale is always perceptible. Below are the names from the first transcript, some of which still refer directly to Goethe's fairy tale, and on the right the names from the finished drama:

Goethe's Fairy Tale Mystery Dramas
Lily Maria
Man Johannes Thomasius
1st will-o'-the-wisp Capesius
2nd will-o'-the-wisp Strader
King of the will Romanus (king of iron)
The man with the lamp Felix Balde
King of feeling Theodosius (silver king)
Snake The Other Maria
The wife of the man with the lamp Felicia Balde
1st maiden Philia
2nd maiden Astrid
3rd maiden Luna
Giant German (golden king)
Canary Child
Hierophant Benedictus
Macrocosm Spirit of the Elements
Man Estella
Woman Sophia
Retardus (mixed king)

Theodora, the seer, who is not mentioned in the first transcript, corresponds to the hawk from Goethe's fairy tale. Helena, whose archetype will later turn out to be Lucifer in the drama, has no model in Goethe's fairy tale and is a completely independent creation of Steiner.

Anthroposophy and artistic creation

What Rudolf Steiner gave in terms of spiritual insights through his writings and lectures lives in a completely different, independent way, and in a certain sense even, as he himself said, more vividly and concretely, in the artistic interpretation of the Mystery Dramas. They emerged directly from genuine artistic creation and are by no means a mere pictorially staged copy of anthroposophical teachings previously formulated in thought. Both, anthroposophical teachings and artistic work, draw from the same source in Rudolf Steiner, namely the direct, conscious experience of spiritual reality, but this experience is presented quite differently. What Rudolf Steiner has given as anthroposophical teaching is a work of thought-art, which, however, in accordance with the nature of thought, necessarily has a general, to a certain extent abstract character. What Rudolf Steiner has artistically put on the stage in his Mystery Dramas are vivid, spiritually realistic individual fates, which, however, for this very reason cannot lay claim to general validity. They are therefore in no way in contradiction to the general laws of spiritual training], but are the unique, unrepeatable individual formation of the same. In order to characterise the acting persons genuinely and convincingly, Rudolf Steiner was not allowed to take a diversion via the thought element, but they had to emerge directly from the creative will - in a form that even Steiner himself could never have foreseen and which surprised him again and again. This is a basic trait of genuine artistic creation; anything else would be completely unartistic, merely contrived abstract construction. Later, when the work is completed, one can of course grasp and describe its inner laws in thought. Rudolf Steiner pointed this out very emphatically:

„I explained when I was to interpret the poetry of "Faust" that the poet, when writing it down, did not necessarily know all things directly himself, felt them himself in words which were later found in it. I can assure you that I was not aware of any of the things that I will subsequently link to this mystery, and which I know are in it, when the individual pictures were created. The pictures grew out of themselves like the leaves of a plant. One cannot produce such a form beforehand by first having the idea and then transforming it into the outer form. It was always quite interesting to me when picture after picture came into being in this way, and friends who had become acquainted with the individual scenes said it was strange that it always turned out differently from what one had imagined.“ (Lit.:GA 125, p. 103)

The artistic process of creating the dramas

Inspiration and imagination as sources of artistic creation

The mind must remain silent in the artistic creative process. The words arise directly, without thinking interfering, from inspiration, from spiritual hearing, and the words then condense further into the image, the soul-viewed image, the imagination.

„I may speak of the experiences that I myself have had in the shaping of my drama. I may therefore say that no thought lives in it, but all that which you will now also hear recited and declaimed was heard in the same way, but heard spiritually, as it sounds directly here. - So it is not a question of grasping a thought which is then translated into words, but of looking at that which you will now hear presented, in order to look at it in precisely the same way, inwardly sounding and inwardly forming, as it is presented. One has nothing to do in such a representation but merely to copy outwardly that which thus appears inwardly in the looking.“ (Lit.:GA 281, p. 11)

„It was always something extraordinarily unpleasant to me when one or the other came and interpreted my mystery dramas in a symbolic or other intellectual way and brought in all kinds of things just from the intellect. For that which lives in these mystery dramas is experienced imaginatively down to the individual sound. The image stands there as an image and has always stood there as an image. And it would never have occurred to me to take anything intellectual as a basis and then transform it into an image.“ (Lit.:GA 281, p. 69)

The Speech of the Dramas

Mystery dramas require a special treatment of speech, which Rudolf Steiner later explained in detail in the courses on speech formation held jointly with Marie Steiner. An essential aspect of this is that everything that takes place on the physical plane requires a very plastic, strongly contoured consonantal language, whereas texts that relate to the moral-religious require a more musical-vocal way of speaking. But if one wants to take the plot up into the spiritual world, one must arrive at a synthesis of these two forms of speech:

„Thus the picture which takes place there as the seventh of my mystery drama "The Portal of Initiation" will certainly have to be regarded as the image of spiritual impulses which, however, work through the physical man. Now, if one does not give such representations of the supersensible symbolically or allegorically or in any other way out of some phantasies or nebulous mysticism, but if one gives them out of the real experiences of the supersensible world, then one is compelled to resort to quite different ideas from those which one otherwise has to use in physical life. In physical life those conceptions fall apart which relate to the moral-religious life. They have a more unshaped character, have a character of abstractness, of the unapparent. On the other hand, those other ideas that relate to nature have a vivid character that gives them sharp contours and so on. Whoever has a feeling for the way in which, in listening, the contoured word stands out from the formless word, from the word that is to be felt more musically, will notice everywhere the transitions from this inwardly plastic to the inwardly musical word. But if one is compelled to lead the action into the spiritual world, then one must, as it were, find a synthesis. One must find the possibility of dissolving the plasticity of the word to such an extent that it does not lose itself as plasticity, but one must nevertheless bring it to the point where it becomes immediately musical at the same time. A plastic-musical way of speaking must take hold, for we are not dealing with the separation of the moral-religious and the natural-physical, but with a synthetically coinciding series. And so you will hear in this scene, which is now to be recited, how, basically, it is portrayed out of a quite different inner life of imagination than the ordinary one of everyday life, or than that of ordinary drama. It is spoken and portrayed out of an imaginative life which contains in one that which is nature, elementary forces of nature, elementary forces of nature, and that which, through these elementary forces of nature, has at the same time moral and ethical significance. The physical becomes moral at the same time, the moral is brought down into physical imagery. One can no longer distinguish in this sphere between what takes place physically and what takes place ethically, for the ethical takes place in the form of the physical, the physical takes place in the realm of the ethical. This, however, requires a very special treatment of language, and this treatment of language cannot be otherwise than in such a way that in such a representation one does not in the least artistically proceed from the thought at all.“ (Lit.:GA 281, p. 10f)



Lectures on The Portal of Initiation

Lectures on The Soul's Probation

Lectures on The Guardian of the Threshold

Lectures on The Soul's Awakening

The seven mystery dramas

References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.