Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Wilhelm Meister's "Theatrical Mission":: Liminality and Moral Education in Goethe's "Bildungstheorie"

Gerald Peters.

The first five books of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship were originally published in 1786 under the title Wilhelm Meister's Theatrical Mission. Friederich Schiller is genuinely puzzled as to why Goethe places such an emphasis on the theater if it is not intended to be the major focus of the Bildungsroman, giving "the false appearance of a particular design". Using Victor Turner's theory of cultural performance based on Arnold van Gennep's work on initiation rituals, I argue that Goethe did have a "design" or "mission" in mind in the sense that he saw the theater as a template for modern Bildung. Turner sees performance as fundamentally tied to the process of self-development. In traditional societies this performance was linked to an institutionalized liminal experience which created a ritual passage from "social invisibility to social visibility." In modern large-scale, complex societies, this transition is also achieved through a secondary liminality or "liminoid", a period of cultural subjunctivity or creative play through which the individual finds his or her place in the social order. This paper examines how, in the absence of a guiding master narrative, the individual assimilates and synthesizes a welter of sometimes conflicting cultural narratives and, ultimately, creates out of them a satisfying personal identity productively engaged in the social whole. The essential feature of this "self" initiatory activity achieved through art, popular cultural, or various "virtual realities" is that it links the socio/cultural world to the experience of a physical reality, driven by what Slavoc Zsisek describes as a "passion of the real". For Goethe, the theatrical model of Bildung becomes the essential mechanism by which to transform an originally theocratic and aristocratic social order into a modern secular meritocracy, emphasizing the central role of Weltliteratur in the formation of a world citizen.


Gerald Peters  (United States)
Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature; Chair, Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures

University of Southern Maine

Professor Gerald Peters has published several books in the area of autobiography and is presently working on a study of the Bildungsroman entitled "Rereading Goethe, Rethinking Culture."

  • Liminality
  • Performance
  • Bildung
  • Theater
Person as Subject
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

(Virtual Presentation, English)