Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 940
The Beaver Coat is one of Gerhart Hauptmann’s earliest comedies, written at a time when the young author was under the influence of such intellectual movements sweeping Europe as social determinism, which is epitomized in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and naturalism, a literary movement begun in France and codified by Émile Zola. Although most of the works produced by naturalist authors, including those of Hauptmann, tend toward tragedy, The Beaver Coat is exceptional in that the playwright here applies the principles of naturalism to a decidedly comic plot. Hauptmann abandons the strict demands of the well-made play, made popular in the nineteenth century by contemporary European writers and by the theories of Hauptmann’s countryman Gustav Freytag, and relies instead on sharp characterization and the repetition of stock events to create humor and to mask the more serious social satire that the play embodies. Hauptmann’s decision to cast his satire in the form of a comedy was fortuitous; despite a lackluster initial reception, The Beaver Coat came to be ranked with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm (1767) and Heinrich von Kleist’s The Broken Jug (1808) as one of the greatest comedies in German literature.
Central to the success of the drama is his depiction of the inventive and irrepressible Frau Wolff, whose attempts to outwit the officials of the Prussian government are the main source of comedy. She dominates both her family and her friends, and she enlists their aid in outwitting the pompous justice of the peace who threatens her schemes for increasing the family’s wealth. The other characters, often little more than types drawn from comic tradition as old as Aristophanes, allow playgoers to see the folly of a government so intent on rooting out political opposition that it permits criminal activity to occur right under the noses of the local magistrates.
Beneath its comic surface, The Beaver Coat offers a serious critique of nineteenth century Prussian society. Hauptmann achieves this by applying naturalism and realism to the play’s comic conventions. Modeling his work on the theories of the naturalist movement most forcefully expounded by Zola, Hauptmann emphasizes details of everyday life and meticulously chronicles the speech and action of characters from the lower social classes. Using realistic techniques pioneered in drama by Henrik Ibsen, whom he greatly admired, Hauptmann in The Beaver Coat introduces a cast of characters from the working and criminal classes, presenting them sympathetically and with appreciation for their situation. This is no drawing-room comedy; instead, it shares many characteristics of the proletariat literature that had begun to appear in Europe during the final decades of the nineteenth century, inspired by the theories of Marx and Engels. The men and women in Hauptmann’s comedy are engaged in a struggle that parallels the one described in the works of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer; their world clearly embodies the principle of “survival of the fittest.” The animal imagery that dominates the play, especially in the naming of characters, reinforces this image. It should be no surprise to readers that the “wolf” (Frau Wolff) bests the blustering, militaristic “hen” (Wehrhahn). What is ironic, of course, is that the tables are turned in this portrait of society, and that the criminals are able to better the authorities even within the confines of the law.
Not surprisingly, Hauptmann was criticized by some of his contemporaries and by later audiences and readers because the comic resolution of The Beaver Coat leaves justice—at least legal justice—unserved and suggests that the criminal behavior of Frau Wolff and her family may be pardoned. The authorities in his own day found Hauptmann’s treatment of government officials offensive; questions even arose regarding the way the playwright was able to get his play passed by the government censor, who judged the work to be so insignificant that it could not possibly have any adverse impact on audiences. In later years, when the aging Hauptmann became a darling of the Nazi regime, producers of The Beaver Coat found it necessary to sanitize the drama so that it would not lead German audiences to think ill of Hitler’s regime.
That the play seems to condone immorality may be explained by appealing to the tradition Hauptmann is following. As a naturalist work, The Beaver Coat depicts, but does not judge, a slice of life the author knows well and presents without commentary. Hauptmann is quite familiar with both the characters and the situations he dramatizes, and most of the men and women in The Beaver Coat are modeled on people he knew. Frau Wolff, for example, is a fictional portrait of his laundress, Marie Heinze; von Wehrhahn is drawn from Hauptmann’s memories of an encounter with Oscar von Busse, who had harassed the young writer when he was living in Erkner, the town outside Berlin that serves as the setting for The Beaver Coat. Hauptmann is suggesting in his play that sometimes criminals do escape; sometimes justice is represented by people who do not uphold the concepts of law and equity in totally admirable ways. He makes no attempt to condone Frau Wolff’s behavior or her cause, nor does he condemn it. Like all good practitioners of naturalism, Hauptmann is interested primarily in placing before his audience an accurate portrait of life among common people, whose struggle to get ahead in a society insensitive to their needs sometimes places them at odds with the law. Judgments are left to the audience, who may sympathize with the playwright’s spunky and industrious heroine or condemn her for her actions as they see fit.
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