Otto Ludwig Essay - Critical Essays


The name of Otto Ludwig evokes rich and varied images of a man considered by many to be one of the first modern realists in Germany. He has been more properly described, however, as a realist-idealist. Belonging to a period of transition from romanticism to realism, he tried to find the harmonious ideal of human existence. Despite his growing disillusionment, his work was never completely detached from this foundation.

The Hereditary Forester

The Hereditary Forester made Otto Ludwig known and is by far his most frequently played drama. This domestic tragedy (bürgerliches Trauerspiel) was completed in 1850 with encouragement and suggestions from Eduard Devrient, manager of the Court Theatre in Dresden. It was produced the same year by Devrient, who played the title role. Although the play was at once proclaimed as a literary and theatrical event of great significance, only the first two acts were enthusiastically received; the audience seemed to be perplexed by the remainder of the drama. It was twice repeated before an empty house and not given in Dresden again until 1862. Some critics defended, more condemned, the tragedy. Laube produced it in Vienna in 1850, but in spite of a friendly reception, it was soon abandoned. It had considerable success in Weimar, and then various other stages. Ludwig intended the play to be “a declaration of war against unnaturalness and conventionalities of our latter-day stage literature.” With true-to-life characters, unpretentiousness in language and gesture, and a carefully drawn milieu, he sought to capture a segment of middle-class life in Thuringia.

The protagonist, Christian Ulrich, is the hereditary forester of a large estate. For generations, his family has served the landed aristocracy well. Like his father and grandfather before him, he, too, associates his work with deep-rooted emotional values. His labor is a duty imposed on him by tradition and entails obligations toward his heritage. His services have no mercantile value, for they are an extension of personality rather than a product that could be purchased with money.

After the estate has been purchased by his old friend Stein, Ulrich continues to exercise his “authority” as a “hereditary duty.” Oblivious to the changes in ownership and the changes in the social order that have accompanied the beginning of urbanization, he repeatedly refuses to obey the new owner’s directive to thin out the forest. Consequently, their long-standing...

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