1902 Encyclopedia > Drama > German Drama

(Part 14)

German Drama

The history of the GERMAN drama differs widely from that of our own, though a close contact is observable between them at an early point, and again at relatively recent points, in their annals. The dramatic literature of Germany, though in its beginnings intimately connected with the great national movement of the Reformation, soon devoted its efforts to a sterile imitation of foreign models ; while the popular stage, persistently suiting itself to a robust but gross taste, likewise largely due to the influence of foreign examples, seemed destined to a hopeless decay. The literary and the acted drama were thus estranged from one another during a period of extraordinary length ; nor was it till the middle of the 18th century that with the opening of a more hopeful era for the life and literature of the nation, the reunion of dramatic literature and the stage began to accomplish itself. Before the end of the same century the progress of the German drama in its turn began to influence that of other nations, and by the widely comprehensive character of its literature as well as by the activity of its stage, to invite a steadily increasing interest. '

Towards the close of the Middle Ages, as has been seen, dramatic performances had in Germany as in England largely fallen into the hands of the civic guilds, and the composition of plays was more especially cultivated by the master-singers of Nuremberg and other towns. Thus while the scholars of the German Renaissance, who so largely became the agents of the Reformation, eagerly dramatized, both in the Latin and the native tongue, the narratives of the Bible, and sought to suit the scholastic drama to the demands of the times (P. Rebhun. 1 a protegee of Luther standing foremost among those religious dramatists), it was under the influence of the Reformation also, and of the impulse given by Luther and others to the use of High German as the popular literary tongue, that Hans Sachs, the immortal shoemaker of Nuremberg, seemed destined to become the father of the popular German drama. In his plays, "spiritual," secular," and Fastnachtsspiele alike, the interest indeed lies in the dialogue rather than in the action, nor do they display any attempt at development of character. In their subjects, whether derived from Scripture, or from popular legend and fiction, 2 there is no novelty, and in their treatment no originality. But the a healthy vigour and fresh humour of this marvellously fertile author, and his innate sympathy with the views and sentiments of the burgher class to which he belonged, were elements of genuine promise—a promise which the event was signally to disappoint. Though the manner of Hans Sachs found a few followers, and is recognizable in the German popular drama even of the beginning of the 17th century, the literature of the Reformation, of which his works may claim to form part, was soon absorbed in labours of a very different kind. The stage, after admitting novelties introduced from Italy or (under Jesuit supervision) from Spain, was subjected to another and enduring influence. Among the foreign actors of various nations who flitted through the innumerable courts of the empire, or found a temporary home there, special prominence was acquired, towards the close of the 16th and in the early years of the 17th century, by the "English comedians," who appeared at Cassel, Wolfenbüttel, Berlin, Dresden, Cologne, &c. Through these players a number of early English dramas found their way into Germany, where they were performed in more or less imperfect versions, and called forth imitations by native authors. Duke Henry Julius of Brunswick-Lüneburg 3 (1564-1613) and Jacob Ayrer (a citizen of Nuremberg, where he died, 1605) represent the endeavours of the early German drama to suit its still uncouth forms to themes suggested by English examples; and in their works, and in those of contemporary playwrights, reappears no small part of what we may conclude to have been the "English comedians’" rèpertoire. 4 (The converse influence of German themes brought home with them by the English actors, or set in motion by their strolling ubiquity, cannot have been equal in extent, though Shakespeare himself may have derived the idea of one of his plots 5 from such a source.) But though welcome to both princes and people, the exertion of these foreign comedians, and of the native imitators who soon arose in the earliest professional companies of actors known in Germany, instead of bringing about a union between the stage and literature, led to a directly opposite result. The popularity of these strollers was owing partly to the (very real) blood and other honors with which their performances were deluged, partly to the buffoonery with which they diversified them. The representatives of the English clowns had learnt much on their way from their brethren in the Netherlands, where in this period the art of grotesque acting greatly flourished. Nor were the aids of other arts neglected,—to this day in Germany professors of the "equestrian drama" are known by the popular appellation of "English riders." From these true descendants of the mimes, the, the professional actors in Germany inherited a variety of tricks and traditions; and soon the favourite figures of the popular comic stage became conventional, and were stereotyped by the use of masks. Among these, an acknowledged supremacy was acquired by the native Hans Wurst )Jack Pudding)—of whose name Luther disavowed the invention, and who is known already to Hans Sachs—the privileged buffoon, and for a long series of generations the real lord and master, of the German stage. If that stage, with its grossness and ribaldry, seemed likely to become permanently estranged from the tastes and sympathies of the educated classes, the fault was by no means entirely its own and that of its patron the populace. The times were evil times for a national effort of any kind; and poetic literature was in all its branches passing into the hands of scholars who were often pedants, and whose language was a jargon of learned affectations. Thus things continued, till the awful visitation of the Thirty Years’ War cast a general blight upon the nation, and the traditions of the popular theatre were left to the guardianship of the marionettes (Puppenspiele)!

When, in the midst of that war, German poets once more began to essay the dramatic form, the national drama was left outside their range of vision. M. Opitz (1597-1639), who holds an honoured place in the history of the German language and literature, in this branch of his labours contented himself with translations of classical dramas and of Italian pastorals—among the latter one of Rinuccini’s Daphne, with which the history of the opera in Germany begins. A. Gryphius (1616-1664), though as a comic dramatist lacking neither vigour nor variety, and acquainted with Shakespearian 6 as well as Latin and Italian examples, chiefly devoted himself to the imitations of Latin, earlier French, and Dutch tragedy, the rhetorical dialogue of which he effectively reproduced in the Alexandrine metre. Nether the turgid dramas of D. C. von Lohenstein (1665-1684), for whose Cleopatra the honour of having been the first German tragedy has been recently claimed, nor even the healthier comedies of Chr. Weise (1642-1708) were brought upon the stage; while the religious plays of J. Klay (1616-1656) are mere recitations connected with the Italian growth of the oratorio. The frigid allegories commemorative of contemporary events, with which the learned from time to time supplied the theatre, and the pastoral dramas with which the idyllic poets of Nuremberg—"the shepherds of the Pegnitz"—after the close of the war gratified the peaceful longings of their fellow-citizens, were alike mere scholastic efforts. These indeed continued in the universities and gymnasia to keep alive the love of both dramatic composition and dramatic representation, and to encourage the theatrical taste which led so many students into the professional companies. But neither these dramatic exercises nor the ludi Caesarei in which the Jesuits at Vienna revived the pomp and pageantry, and the mixture of classical and Christian symbolism, of the Italian Renaissance, had any influence upon the progress of the popular drama.

The history of the German stage remains to about the second decennium of the 18th century one of the most melancholy, as it is in its way one of the most instructive, chapters of theatrical history. Ignored by the world of letters, the actors in return deliberately sought to emancipate their art from all dependence upon literary material. Improvisation reigned supreme, not only in farce, where Hans Wurst, with the aid of Italian examples, never ceased to charm his public, but in the serious drama likewise (in which, however, he also played his part) in those Haupt- und Staatsactionen. (high-matter-of-state-dramas), the plots of which were taken from the old stores of the English comedians, from the religious drama and its sources, and from the profane history of all times. The hero of this period is "Magister" J. Velthen, who at the head of a company of players for a time entered the service of the Saxon court, and by producing comedies of Molière and other writers sought to restrain the licence which he had himself carried beyond all earlier precedent, but who had to fall back into the old ways and the old life. His career exhibits the climax of the efforts of the art of acting to stand alone; after his death (c. 1693) chaos ensues. The strolling companies, which now included actresses, continued to foster the popular love of the stage, and even under its most degraded form to uphold its national character against the rivalry of the opera, and that of the Italian commedia dell’arte. From the latter was borrowed Harlequin, with whom Hans Wurst was blended, and who became a standing figure in every kind of popular play. He established his rule more especially at Vienna, where from about 1712 the first permanent German theatre was maintained. But for the actors in general there was little permanence, and amidst miseries of all sorts, and under the growing ban of clerical intolerance, the popular stage seemed destined to hopeless decay.

The first endeavours to reform what had thus apparently passed beyond all reach of recovery were neither wholly d' nor generally successful; but this does not diminish the honour due to two names which should never be mentioned without respect in connection with the history of the drama. Friderica Caroline Neuber’s (1690-1760) biography is the story of a long-continued effort which, notwithstanding errors and weaknesses, and though, so far as her personal fortunes were concerned, it ended in failure, may almost be described as heroic. As directress of a company of actors which from 1727 had its headquarters at Leipsic (hence the new school of acting is called the Leipsic school), she resolved to put an end to the formlessness of the existing stage, to separate tragedy and comedy, and to extinguish Harlequin. In this endeavour she was supported by the Leipsic professor J. Chr. Gottsched (1672-1766), who induced her to establish French tragedy and comedy as the sole models of the regular drama. Literature and the stage thus for the first time joined hands, and no temporary mischance or personal misunderstanding can obscure the enduring significance of the union. Not only were the abuses of a century swept away from a representative theatre, but a large number of literary works, designed for the stage, were produced on it. It is true that they were but versions or imitations from the French (or in the case of Gottsched’s Dying Cato from the French and English),1 and that at the moment of the regeneration of the German drama new fetters were thus imposed upon it, and upon the art of acting at the same time. But the impulse had been given, and the beginning made. On the one hand men of letters began to subject their dramatic compositions to the test of performance; the tragedies and comedies of J. E. Schlegel (1718-1749), the artificial and sentimental comedies of Chr. F. Gellert (1715-1769) and others, together with the vigorous popular comedies of the Danish dramatist Holberg, were brought into competition with translations from the French. On the other hand, the Leipsic school exercised a continuous effect upon the progress of the art of acting, and before long the Garrick of Germany, C. Eckhof (1720- El 1778), began a career, outwardly far humbler than that of the great English actor, but which made his art a fit subject for the critical study of scholars, and his profession one for the equal esteem of honourable men.

Among the authors contributing to Mme. Neuber’s Leipsic enterprise had been a young student destined to complete, after a very different fashion and with very different aims, the work which she and Gottsched had begun. The critical genius of G. E. Lessing (1729-1781) is peerless in its comprehensiveness, as in its keenness and depth; but if there was any branch of literature and art which by study and practice he made pre-eminently his own, it was that of the drama. As bearing upon the progress of the German theatre, his services to its literature, both critical and creative, can only be described as inestimable. The Hamburgische Dramaturgic, a series of criticisms of plays and (in its earlier numbers) of actors, was undertaken in furtherance of the attempt to establish at Hamburg the first national German theatre (1767-9). This alone would invest these papers with a high significance; for though the theatrical enterprise proved abortive, yet it established the principle upon which the future of the theatre in all countries depends, that for the dramatic art the immediate theatrical public is no sufficient court of appeal. But the direct effect of the Dramaturgie was to complete the task Lessing had in previous writings begun, and to overthrow the dominion of the arbitrary French rules and the French models established by Gottsched. Lessing vindicated its real laws to the drama, made clear the difference between the Greeks and their would be representatives, and established the claims of Shakespeare as the modem master of both tragedy and comedy. His own dramatic productivity was cautious, tentative, progressive. His first step was, by his Miss Sara Sampson (1755), to oppose the realism of the English domestic drama to the artificiality of the accepted French models, in the forms of which Chr. F. Weisse (1726-1804) was seeking to treat the subjects of Shakespearian plays. 2 Then, in his Minna von Barnhelm (1767) he essayed a national comedy drawn from real life, and appealing to patriotic sentiments as well as to broad human sympathies, written in prose (like Miss Sara Sampson), but in form holding a judicious mean between French and English examples.

The note sounded by the criticisms of Lessing met with a ready response, and the productivity displayed by the nascent dramatic literature of Germany is astonishing both in the efforts inspired by his teachings and in those which continued to controvert, or which aspired to transcend them. On the stage, Harlequin and his surroundings proved by no means easy to suppress, more especially at Vienna, the chosen home of frivolous amusement; but even here a reform was gradually effected, and, under the intelligent rule of the emperor Joseph II, a national stage grew into being. The mantle of Eckhof fell upon the shoulders of his eager younger rival, F. L. Schröder (1743-1816), who was the first to domesticate Shakespeare upon the German stage. In dramatic literature few of Lessing’s earlier contemporaries produced any works of permanent value, unless the religious dramas of F. G. Klopstock (1724-1803)—a species in which he had been preceded by J. J. Bodmer (1698-1783)—and the patriotic Bardietten of the same author be excepted. S. Gessner (1730-1787), J. W. L. Gleim (1719-1803), and G. K. Pfeffel (1736-1809) composed pastoral plays. But a far more potent stimulus prompted the efforts of the younger generation. The translation of Shakespeare, begun in 1762 by C. M. Wieland (1733-1813), whose own plays possess no special significance, and completed in 1775 by Eschenburg, which furnished the text for many of Lessing’s criticisms, helps to mark an epoch in German literature. Under the influence of Shakespeare, or of their conceptions of his genius, arose a youthful group of writers who, while worshipping their idol as the representative of nature, displayed but slight anxiety to harmonize their imitations of him with the demands of art. The notorious Ugolino of H. W. von Gerstenberg (1737-1823) seemed a premonitory sign that the coming flood might make a circular motion back to the extravagances and horrors of the old popular stage ; and it was with a sense of this danger in prospect that Lessing in his third important drama, the prose tragedy Emilia Galotti (1772), set the example of a work of incomparable nicety in its adaptation of means to end. But successful as it proved, it could not stay the excesses of the Sturm und Drang period which now set in. Lessing’s last drama, Nathan the Wise (1779), was not measured to the standard of the contemporary stage, but it was to exercise its influence in the progress of time,—not only through causing a reaction in tragedy from prose to blank verse (first essayed in Brawe’s Brutus, 1770), but through ennobling and elevating by its moral and intellectual grandeur the branch of literature to which in form it belongs.

Meanwhile the young geniuses of the Sturm und Drang had gone forth, as worshippers rather than followers of Shakespeare, to conquer new worlds. The name of this group of writers, more remarkable for their collective significance than for their individual achievements, was derived from a drama by one of the most prolific of their number, M. F. von Klinger 1 (1752-1801); other members of the fraternity were J. A. Leisewitz 2 (1752-1806), M. R. Lenz 3 (1750-1792) and F. Müller 4 the "painter" (1750-1825). The youthful genius of the greatest of German poets was itself under the influences of this period, when it produced the first of its masterpieces. But Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen (1773), both by the choice and treatment of its national theme, and by the incomparable freshness and originality of its style, holds a position of its own in German dramatic literature.Though its defiant irregularity of form prevented its complete success upon the stage, yet its influence is far from being represented by the series of mostly feeble imitations to which it gave rise. The Ritterdramen (plays of chivalry) had their day like similar fashions in drama or romance; but the permanent effect of Götz was to have crushed with an iron hand the last remnants of theatrical conventionality (those of costume and scenery included), and to have extinguished with them the lingering respect for rules and traditions of dramatic composition which even Lessing had s treated with consideration. Its highest significance, however, lies in its having been the first great dramatic work of a great national post, and having definitively associated the national drama with the poetic glories of the national literature.

Thus in the classical period of that literature, of which Goethe and Schiller were the ruling stars, the drama had a full share of the loftiest of its achievements. Of these, the dramatic works of Goethe vary so widely in form and character, and connect themselves so intimately with the different phases of the development of his own self-determined poetic genius, that it was impossible for any of them to become the starting-points of any general growths in the history of the German drama. His way of composition was, moreover, so peculiar to himself—conception often preceding execution by many years, part being added to part under the influence of new sentiments and ideas and views of art, flexibly followed by changes of form—that the history of his dramas cannot be severed from his general poetic and personal biography. His Clavigo and Stella, which succeeded Götz, are domestic dramas in prose; but neither by these, nor by the series of charming pastorals and operas which he composed for the Weimar court, could any influence be exercised upon the progress of the national drama. In the first conception of his Faust, he had indeed sought the suggestion of his theme partly in popular legend, partly in a domestic motive familiar to the authors of the Sturm und Drang (the story of Gretchen); the later additions to the First Part, and the Second Part generally, are the results of metaphysical and critical studies and meditations belonging to wholly different spheres of thought and experience. The dramatic unity of the whole, is thus, at the most, external only; and the standard of judgment to be applied to this wondrous poem is not one of dramatic criticism. Egmont, originally designed as a companion to Götz, was not completed till many years later; there are few dramas more effective in parts, but the idea of a historic play is lost in the elaboration of the most graceful of love episodes. In Iphigenia and Tasso, Goethe exhibited the perfection of form of which his classical period had enabled him to acquire the mastery ; but the sphere of the action of the former (perfect though it is as a dramatic action), and the nature of that of the latter, are equally remote from the demands of the popular stage. Schiller’s genius, unlike Goethe’s, was naturally and consistently suited to the claims of the theatre His juvenile works, The Robbers, Fiesco, Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love), vibrating under the influence of an age of social revolution, mingled in their prose form the truthful expression of passion with no small element of extravagance. But with true insight into the demands of his art, and with unequalled single-mindedness and self-devotion to it, Schiller gradually emancipated himself from his earlier style; and with his earliest tragedy in verse, Don Carlos, the first period of his dramatic authorship ends, and the promise of the second announces itself. The works which belong to this—from the Wallenstein trilogy to Tell—are the acknowledged masterpieces of the German poetic drama, treating historic themes reconstructed by conscious dramatic workmanship, and clothing their dialogue in a noble vestment of rhetorical verse. In one of these. The Bride of Messina, Schiller attempted a new use of the chorus of Greek tragedy; but the endeavour was a splendid error, and destined to exercise no lasting effect.

Schiller’s later dramas gradually conquered the stage,
over which his juvenile works had triumphantly passed, but on which his Don Carlos had met with a cold welcome. For a long time, however, its favourites were authors of a very different order, who suited themselves to the demands of a public little concerned with the literary progress of the drama. After popular tastes had oscillated between the imitators of Götz and those of Emilia Galotti, they entered into a more settled phase as the establishment of standing theatres at the courts and in the large towns increased the demand for good " acting " plays. Famous actors, such as Schröder and A. W. Iffland (1759-1814), sought by translations or compositions of their own to meet the popular likings, which largely took the direction of that irrepressible favourite of theatrical audiences, the sentimental domestic drama. But the most successful purveyor of such wares was an author who, though not himself an actor, understood the theatre with professional instinct,—A. von Kotzebue (1761-1819). His productivity ranged from the domestic drama and comedy of all kinds to attempts to rival Schiller and Shakespeare in verse; and though his popularity (which ultimately proved his doom) brought upon him the bitterest attacks of the Romantic school and other literary authorities, his self-conceit is not astonishing, and it seems time to say that there is some exaggeration in the contempt which has been lavished upon him by posterity. Nor should it be forgotten that German literature had hitherto failed to furnish the comic stage with any successors to Minna von Barnhelm ; for Goethe's efforts to dramatize characteristic events or figures of the Revolutionary age must be dismissed as failures, not from a theatrical point of view only. The joint efforts of Goethe and Schiller for the Weimar stage, important in many respects for the history of the German drama, at the same time reveal the want of a national dramatic literature sufficient to supply the needs of a theatre endeavouring to satisfy the demands of art.

Meanwhile the so-called Romantic school of German literature was likewise beginning to extend its labours to original dramatic composition. From the universality of sympathies proclaimed by this school, to whose leaders Germany owed its classical translation of Shakespeare, and an introduction to the dramatic literatures of so many ages and nations, a variety of new dramatic impulses might be expected; while much might be hoped for the future of the national drama (especially in its mixed and comic species) from the alliance between poetry and real life which they preached, and which some of them sought personally to exemplify. But in practice universality pre-sented itself as peculiarity or even as eccentricity ; and in the end the divorce between poetry and real life was announced as authoritatively as their union had been. Outside this school, the youthful talent of Th. Körner (1791-1813), whose early promise as a dramatist might perhaps have ripened into a fulness enabling him not unworthily to occupy the seat left vacant by his father's friend Schiller, was extinguished by a patriotic death. The efforts of M. von Collin (1776-1823) in the direction of the historical drama remained isolated attempts. But of the leaders of the Romantic school. A. W. (1767-1845) and F. von Schlegel6 (1772-1829), contented themselves with frigid classicalities; and L. Tieck (1772-1855), in the strange alembic of his Phantasus, melted legend and fairy-tale, novel and drama,7 poetry and satire, into a compound, enjoyable indeed, but hardly so in its entirety, or in many of its parts, to any but the literary mind. F. de la Motte-Fouque (1777-1843) infused a spirit of poetry into the chivalry drama. Clemens Brentano (1777-1842) was a fantastic dramatist unsuited to the stage. Here a feeble outgrowth of the romanticists, the "destiny dramatists" Z. Werner (1768-1823), A. Milliner (1774-1829), and C E. v. Houwald (1778-1845), achieved a temporary furore ; and it was with an attempt in the same direction that the Austrian dramatist F. Grillparzer (1791-1871) began his long career. He is assuredly what he pronounced himself to be, the foremost of the later dramatic poets of Germany, unless that tribute be paid to the genius of H. von Kleist (1776-1811), who in his short life produced besides other works a romantic drama and a rustic comedy of genuine merit, and an historical tragedy of singular originality and power. Grillparzer's long series of plays includes poetic dramas on classical themes and historical subjects from Austrian history. The Romantic school, which through Tieck had satirized the drama of the bourgeoisie and its offshoots, was in its turn satirized by A. Count von Platen-Hallermiinde's (1796-1835) admirable imitations of Aristo-phanic comedy. Among the objects of his banter were the popularplay-wright E. Raupach,and K. Immermann(1796-1840), a true poet, who is, however, less generally remem-bered as a dramatist. F. Hebbel18 (1813-1863) is justly ranked high among the foremost later dramatic poets of his country, few of whom, equal him in intensity. Other names of literary mark are those of Chr. D. Grabbe (1801-1836), J. Mosen (1803-1867), 0. Ludwig (1813-1865), and " F. Halm" (1806-1871),and, among living writers, K. Gutzkow, G. Freytag, and H. Laube. The last of these names recalls in one of their most noteworthy examples the long-continued and systematic efforts which have raised the modern German stage to the position at present occupied by it among the theatres of Europe. These efforts have not been confined to fostering the art of acting in a succession of eminent re-presentatives, among whom the sons of L. Devrient in various ways acquired a reputation worthy of their name, and B. Dawison was accounted the equal of the most bril-liant of the brotherhood, or to maintaining as intimate a relation as possible between the stage and literature. Happily contrasting with other countries by the number and variety of its centres of intellectual life—rivals in artistic effort even where political or social rivalry is out of the question—Germany has not only cherished its own national drama, but with a catholicity of taste, aided by the powers of a language admirably adapted for trans-lation, has opened its theatre to the dramatic master-pieces of other nations also, and more especially of our own. The German theatre has its weak points, and has not maintained itself wholly free from vicious influences; but upon the whole its efforts are on a level with the demands of the national culture, and in harmony with the breadth and variety of the national intelligence. No other stage furnishes the same opportunities for the study of dramatic literature.


FOOTNOTES (page 440)

(1) Susanna (Geisliches Spiel) (1536), &c.

(2) Siegfried; Eulenspiegel, &c.

(3) Susanna; Vincentius Ladislaus, &c.

(4) Mahomet; Edward III., Hamlet; Romeo and Juliet, &c.

(5) The Tempest (Ayner, Comedia v. d. Schönen Sidea).

(6) Herr Peter Squens (Pyramus and Thisbe); Horribilicribrifax (Pistol?)

FOOTNOTES (page 441)

(1) Deschamps and Addison.

(2) Richard III.; Romeo and. Juliet.

FOOTNOTES (page 442)

(1) Die Zwillinge (The Twins); Die Soldaten, &c.

(2) Julius van Tarent.

(3) Der Hofmeister (The Governor), &c.

(4) Genoveva, &c.

FOOTNOTES (page 443)

Der Groosskophta (Cagliostro); Der Bürgergeneral.
A. W. Schlegel and Tieck's (1797-1833).
Der 24 Februar. 9 Die Schuld (Guilt).
i Zriny, &c. 5 Ion. 6 Alarcos.
7 Kaiser Octavianvs: Der Gestiefelte Kater (Puss in Boots), &c.
Der 24 Februar. 9 Die Schuld (Guilt).
10 Das Bild (The Picture). 11 Die Ahnfrau (The Ancestress).
12 Das Kathchen (Kate) von Heilbronn.
13 Der Zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Pitcher).
14 Prinz Friedrich von Bomburg. 15 Sappho, Medea, &c.
16 Konig Ottokar's Glilck und Ende (Fortune and Fall); Der Bru-
derzwist (Fraternal Feud) in Habsburg.
17 Die Zerbrochene Gabel (The Broken Fork); Der Romantisclie
18 Die Nibelungen; Judith, &c.

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