A Glossary of German Literary Terms


AD SPECTATORES (also: Beiseitesprechen, das)

Theatrical device which originated in the comedies of Aristophanes (c/445-385 B.C.) and Plautus (c. 250-184 B.C.); a character makes a direct address to the audience, stepping out of his or her role briefly to do so. His/Her remarks are inaudible to the rest of the characters, and may hint at or indicate future events in the play. This is also a frequent comic device.

AKT, der (act)(also: Aufzug, der)

The major division of a drama.

ALLEGORIE, die (allegory)

A story or visual image with a second distinct meaning partially hidden behind its literal or visible meaning.

ANAGNORISIS, der (anagnorisis)(also: recognition)

The tragic hero's discovery or recognition of crucial facts and circumstances of which s/he was previously ignorant.

ANALYTISCHES DRAMA, das (analytical drama)

Drama in which the plot is not presented in chronological sequence, but begins at the point when events which took place before the drama started, have reached their climax. The reader/spectator becomes familiar with the earlier events as the play progresses.

AUFBAU, der (organization)

Organized structure of a work, the manner in which its elements are combined to form a coherent whole.

AUFFÜHRUNG, die (performance)

Presentation of a dramatic or musical work to an audience.

BÜHNE, die (stage)

Elevated platform on which dramatic performances take place (fig. theater, drama, arena).

BÜHNENANWEISUNG, die (stage direction)

Instruction in the text of a play which specifies the production requirements such as gestures, exits, entrances, sound effects, lighting etc.

BÜHNENBILD, das (set)

Décor of a play, scenery.

BÜRGERLICHES TRAUERSPIEL, das (bourgeois tragedy)

Genre of German drama that arose in the middle of the 18th century with Lessings Miß Sara Sampson.

CHARAKTERISIERUNG, die (characterization) (bourgeois tragedy)

The presentation and description of characters in a text so that the reader/spectator has an impression of their appearance and personality, and their thoughts, words and actions may be seen to be commensurate with the type of person they are portrayed as.

CHOR, der (chorus) (bourgeois tragedy)

The chorus is the origin and a basic element of ancient Greek tragedy. A group of people speaking with one voice and somehow related to the protagonists accompanied the action, taking part in, reflecting and interpreting it.

COUP DE THEATRE, der (coup de theatre)

An unexpected and sudden development in drama, which may radically change the outcome.

DARSTELLUNG, die (presentation)

Literary presentation of real or fictitious events, persons or experiences.

DENOUEMENT, das (denouement)

The clearing or "untying" of the complications of a plot in a play or story; usually a final scene or chapter in which mysteries, confusions, and doubtful destinies are clarified.

DEUS EX MACHINA, der (deus ex machina)

Theatrical device: the introduction of a highly unexpected and contrived element in order to effect a resolution of the plot.

DRAMATIK, die (drama)

Collective term to encompass all dramatic literature, one of the literary genres.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE, (PL) (dramatis personae)

The characters in a play; usually listed at the beginning of a text.

FALLENDE HANDLUNG, die (falling action)

The part of the dramatic plot in which the hero's fortunes decline, the part from the turning point to the end of the drama.

GEBÄRDE, die (gesture)

Spontaneous reation or movement of the body which is characteristic of a particular individual and may therefore reveal his true feelings and thoughts far more reliably than words. A Gebärde maz be accompanied by words and tus highlight, underline, or even contradict the spoken word.

GEGENSPIELER, der (antagonist)

In a drama or narrative the hero's principal opponent(s).

GESTE, die (gesture)

Set gesture studied by actors and public speakers for the purpose of communicating certain emotions; e.g.: horror: opening the eyes and mouth wide.

GUCKKASTENBÜHNE, die (proscenium stage)

Stage situated at one end of the auditorium spearated from the audience by a curtain and making use of changeable wings and backdrops.

HAMARTIA, das (hamartia)

The Greek word for error or failure to designate the false step the protagonist takes in a tragedy to his or her downfall. This can include a tragic flaw, a misjudgement, ignorance, or some other cause.

HANDLUNG, die (plot)

The pattern of events and situations in a narrative or dramatic work, as selected and arranged both to emphasize relationships - usually of cause and effect - between incidents and to elicit a particular reaction from the audience.

HÖHEPUNKT, der (climax)(also: Klimax, die)

The highest point in the rising action of a drama.

KOMÖDIE, die (comedy)

A play, written chiefly to amuse its audience. A comedy will normally be closer to the representation of everyday life than a tragedy and will explore common human failings rather that tragedy's disastrous crimes. Its ending is usually happy for the leading characters.

MONOLOG, der (soliloquy)

A dramatic speech uttered by one character speaking aloud while alone on the stage (or while under the impression of being alone).

PROLOG, der (prologue)

An introductory section of a play, speech or other literary work. The term is also sometimes applied to the performer who makes an introductory speech in a play.

STEIGENDE HANDLUNG, die (rising action)

The part of the dramatic plot in which the hero's fortunes rise, the part from the beginning of the action to the turning point.

TRAGIK, die (tragedy)

Tragik results from a conflict between two sets of values, one set being represented by supreme powers (e.g. the gods, fate, a universal law, eternal justice, etc.) or an institution (e.g. the state, the church, a dynasty etc.) which leads inevitably to the physical or mental destruction of a worthy human being who tries with all the means at his/her disposal to uphold another set of values, if only as an idea. The human being thus trapped is usually aware of the sacrificial nature of his/her stance but has no real choice if humaity as a whole is not to be betrayed. Tragik is thus constituted by the fact that the tragic human being is compelled toact as he/she does, but in doing so brings about his/her own downfall.

TRAGIKOMÖDIE, die (tragicomedy)

A play that combines elements of tragedy and comedy either by providing a happy ending to a potentially tragic story or by some more complex serious or light moods. In its broadest sense, the term may be applied to almost any kind of drama that does not conform strictly to comic or tragic conventions.

TRAGISCHE IRONIE, die (tragic irony)

Person's/character's action prove to have an effect or meaning contrary to what he/she intends. Tragic irony depends for its effect on the victim's unawareness of what he/she is saying or doing.

TRAGISCHER FEHLER, die (tragic flaw)

The defect of a character that brings about the protagonist's downfall in a tragedy: Othello's jealousy is a famous example. The idea of the tragic flaw involves a narrowing and personalizing of the broader concept of hamartia (error or failure).


The artistic presentation of Tragik in the form of a stage play.

VORGESCHICHTE, die (antecendent action)

The events of the plot that took place before the play started and which must be related to the audience to facilitate a proper understanding of the action.

WENDEPUNKT, der (turning-point)(also: peripeteia)

A sudden reversal of a character's circumstances and fortunes, usually involving the downfall of the protagonist in a tragedy, and often co-inciding with the recognition (anagnorisis). In a comedy, however, the peripetia abruptly restores the prosperity of the main character. See also: Coup de theatre.