Maria Magdalena was the first bourgeois tragedy in German literature in which all the characters belonged to the lower middle class. Previous bourgeois tragedies had derived their momentum from conflict between the upper and lower classes. For example, a lower-class girl might be seduced and then abandoned by an upper-class lover. Friedrich Hebbel, however, has shown that “one need only be human to have a fate and in certain circumstances a terrible fate.”
Written in prose instead of verse, Maria Magdalena is the germinal point in the emergence of modern realist drama. As Hebbel points out in his preface, previous authors made mistakes in writing the dialogue of the common people, either giving them beautiful speeches that made them appear as “bewitched princes and princesses” or making them appear so woodenly stupid that it was surprising they could manage to say anything. Hebbel avoids both extremes and lets his characters speak naturally and convincingly.
While introducing the realist style, Hebbel still observed the three unities required by classical drama: the unities of time, place, and action. Maria Magdalena takes place within a few days, the encounters are mainly in Anthony’s house, and the action centers on Clara’s dilemma.
Clara is the main tragic figure in the play. Under duress, she submits to the sexual demands of Leonard, a member of her own class, but is subsequently jilted by...
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