Walter Benjamin is widely acknowledged as amongst the greatest literary critics of this century, and The Origin of German Tragic Drama is his most sustained and original work. Indeed, Georg Lukacs - one of the most trenchant opponents of Benjamin's aesthetics - singled out this work as one of the main sources of literary modernism in the twentieth century. The Origin of German Tragic Drama begins with a general theoretical introduction on the nature of the baroque art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concentrating on the peculiar stage-form of the royal martyr dramas called Trauerspiel. Benjamin also comments on the engravings of Durer, and the theatre of Shakespeare and Calderon. Baroque tragedy, he argues, was distinguished from classical tragedy by its shift from myth into history. The characteristic atmosphere of the Trauerspiel was consequently 'melancholy'. The emblems of baroque allegory point to the extinct values of a classical world that they can never attain or repeat. Their suggestive power, however, remains to haunt subsequent cultures, down to this century.
Walter Benjamin was born in Germany in 1892 and died in Spain in 1940. he studied philosophy and literature in Berlin, Freiberg, Munich and Bern. After the First World War he worked as a freelance critic and translator, notably of Baudelaire and Proust. He moved to Paris to escape the Nazi take-over and committed suicide in September 1940 whilst attempting to escape from Occupied France to Spain. He was a friend of figures such as Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem. His other books include Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968), Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (1978), Moscow Diary (1986) and, published by Verso, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (1973), Understanding Brecht (1977) and One-Way Street (1979). For biographical details, see Walter Benjamin. A Biography by Momme Broderson (Verso 1996).