Is it not possible to laugh and be very serious at the same time?
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
These words are spoken by Minna to her love interest, Major von Tellheim, as Lessing’s play, Minna von Barnhelm reaches its comedic climax. She goes on to add, “Dear Major, laughter keeps us more reasonable than frustration.” The play was a tremendous success, helped redefine German comedy and is still performed (and getting laughs) today. More about the play later, but first, it’s not surprising that Lessing would promote two apparently contradictory ideas as a balanced approach to life. A philosopher, writer, dramatist and art critic, Lessing was every inch a man of his times. He, along with other leaders of the Enlightenment believed that society could be reformed through the application of reason and knowledge derived from the scientific method. In his work, Lessing argued for freedom of thought, toleration of religions other than Christianity and against a literal interpretation of the Bible. He also called for the liberation of the common man from the social strictures imposed by aristocrats. This is nowhere more evident than in Minna von Barnhelm.
The play takes place at the end of the Seven Years War during which (among many other things) Prussia occupied Saxony. In the opening act, von Tellheim, a Prussian officer, is in Berlin awaiting trial for misappropriating funds and bribery. The charges are the result of a misunderstanding, but have temporarily left him penniless. Moreover, with the charges hanging over his head, he feels unable to marry his Saxon sweetheart, Minna. Issues of honor, love, loyalty, friendship, as well as a couple of shady characters, swirl through the comedy. The crux of the play, however, revolves around von Tellheim’s fierce commitment to a rigid code of honor and Minna’s equally strong commitment to the belief that happiness should triumph. It’s a classic head versus heart story in which the heart prevails. Besides the laughs and the happy ending, Lessing provides a couple of worthwhile points for modern audiences to consider. Lessing believed that truth was a process and must be approached from many different directions. Thus von Tellheim adheres to a code of honor that slowly turns him towards bitterness and misanthropy, but he does so out of an effort to do the right thing. It is this very virtue that attracted Minna to begin with and in its own way becomes an act of love. The story then becomes less about conscience and happiness and more about how different kinds of love can be reconciled. The play also offers a lesson in comedy. Lessing believed that laughter should be sympathetic as opposed to hurtful ridicule. Taken as a positive, laughter becomes a spiritual restorative that can prevent future mistakes. Minna’s use of laughter in this way becomes the means of reconciling their love and ensuring their happiness.
The injunction to laugh and simultaneously be serious is one that every leader should take to heart. Though Lessing didn’t have the science to back him up, today we know that laughter lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, increases memory, improves alertness and sparks creativity. What’s more, it’s a social activity that builds morale and fosters teamwork. With all these benefits, you’d think every business would have at least one comic on staff and a couple on standby. Yet the opposite is true. We tend to approach work with grim seriousness. The more serious we become, the fewer options we consider. When in crisis mode, we not only abandon any humor to speak of but race forward with a peculiar kind of tunnel vision. The lesson from Minna von Barnhelm is that no matter how serious the situation, it’s always worth exploring options and leavening the whole process with good humor. Try it and you’ll discover that work really is a laughing matter. —Ebert