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 him. Rather than bring shame on the family by having an illegitimate child, she commits suicide. The real tragedy, though, lies in the narrow bourgeois mentality that permits no exception to its notion of correctness.
Clara has reached an age where it is no longer acceptable for her to be single. The pressure on her to marry is made evident at the beginning of the drama in her mother’s conversation and costume. In a masterful dramatic touch, Hebbel has the mother ask Clara pointedly about Leonard while wearing her own wedding dress. The theme of marriage is presented with strong visual reinforcement.
Significantly, Clara’s thoughts are not so much of marriage as of self-sacrifice. Her ideal church scene, described in her closing monologue of act 1, scene 3, was enacted by a little Roman Catholic girl who had been given the first cherries of the year. Rather than eating them, she carried them to the altar as an offering. This vivid image of the cherries that are not eaten foreshadows the drastic fate of Clara and her...
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