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...
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