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Joost van den Vondel

1654, drama
Vondel Lucifer Cover Lucifer

Religion was a sensitive subject in seventeenth-century theatre. In 1654, Joost van den Vondel sent shockwaves through Amsterdam by locating a play in heaven. It was a daring venture, but Vondel strived for the highest level of playwriting.

He wanted to write tragedies in Dutch that could measure up to the ancient Greek tragedies. It was characteristic of these plays that the protagonists had to command a high position so that their downfall would be all the more tragic. In Lucifer, Vondel located his drama in the highest place of all: heaven, with a rebellion of the angels against God. But as so often in such plays, the story that played out in another world also had a message for mortals in our own world.

Lucifer, God’s governor and the most important angel in heaven, leads a rebellion against God under the pretext that he wants to defend his rights. Now that man is created, a being that can multiply, he may in time become a threat to the inhabitants of heaven. The angel Apollion, sent to spy on man, is deeply impressed by this new being, especially the female version. His report only increases the jealousy of a number of angels (led by Belial and Beelzebub). They feel usurped. They talk to Lucifer, who, excited, cries out without thinking: “I will change that, is that not my power?” Lucifer wants to remain the first after God, so he places himself at the head of the rebellious angels. Although he claims that the uprising is not against God, he commits the ultimate sin of pride.

The loyal and the rebel angels have heated debates about the issue. The intervention of Gabriel and Michael fails to change their minds. The rebels see in Lucifer the only one who can save them. They rally behind him and treat him like a god.

At the penultimate moment, the angel Rafael offers Lucifer God’s mercy if he abandons his plan. Rafael punctures Lucifer’s fallacies, and Lucifer starts to doubt the outcome of his undertaking, but he has gone too far in engaging his followers and there is no turning back. This makes him a tragic figure. Even though he knows he is waging a losing battle, he will take on the army of loyal angels, led by Michael, with the courage born of despair. Rafael is forced to watch helplessly as Lucifer rushes towards his own downfall.

The angel Uriel describes the battle as a real air fight in which the rebellious angels suffer a crushing defeat and fall down into hell as hideous monsters. The joy of victory is rapidly tempered when Gabriel arrives to tell of how Lucifer has wrought revenge by tempting man in paradise.

Lucifer is not just a rebel. As God’s governor, he has committed the cardinal sin of pride, but politically speaking, he is also power mad. At the same time, he is a tragic hero who has allowed himself to be intoxicated by his followers. At the moment when he realises that his cause is hopeless, it is already too late to turn back.

Vondel has his characters speak in stately alexandrines, but between the acts, the angels sing lyric texts. The play was banned after two performances. This was good business for the printers, who published no less than six editions of Lucifer in the same year it first appeared.