Wilhelm Adolf Carl Sternheim was born on April 1, 1878, in Leipzig, Germany. He spent his early childhood in Hannover. In 1884, his family moved to Berlin, where Sternheim attended high school (he was graduated in 1897). In 1897, he attended Munich University, where he took courses in literary history, history, and the theory of knowledge. He continued his studies at the University of Leipzig, and the University of Göttingen, where he studied law and literary history. In 1900, he married Eugenie Hauth and moved first to Weimar, then to Berlin. In order to strengthen his physical health, he voluntarily served for a year in a cavalry regiment in 1902. In 1903, he moved to Munich, and four years later, he married for the second time. The wealth of his second wife, Thea Bauer, enabled him to live the life of the upper-middle class. He collected paintings (among them, ten van Goghs) and had a castlelike mansion built for himself and his family on the outskirts of Munich (and later in the suburbs of Brussels). With the success of his play The Bloomers in 1911, he began to establish himself as one of the most prominent German playwrights of his time. His plays written after 1918, however, did not achieve the success of his plays written between 1911 and the end of World War I.
Repeatedly, Sternheim ran into trouble with the censors. His plays The Bloomers, The Snob, and 1913 were allowed to be staged only after certain lines were stricken and other textual revisions were made. The reasons given by the authorities were either moral (Sternheim’s plays were labeled obscene) or sociopolitical (the censors claimed that the plays would antagonize certain classes of German society and thereby jeopardize the peace.) Some of Sternheim’s plays indeed caused scandals when first performed (notably The Strongbox). The middle-class audience felt attacked and offended, much to the delight of the author.
After 1914, Sternheim temporarily took up the cause of the workers in Germany. He published articles in the leftist expressionist journal Die Aktion and became a member of an anarchistic splinter party called “The General Unity Organization of the Workers,” which called for a society free of any form of domination and for the destruction of all workers’ unions and all political parties. This “political” period in Sternheim’s life, though, was short-lived and was followed by a withdrawal into privacy. After living in various other European cities, Sternheim moved back to Brussels in 1930. In the same year, he was married for the third time, to the daughter of German playwright Frank Wedekind. Under National Socialism (1933-1945), Sternheim’s plays were banned from German and Austrian stages. On November 3, 1942, he died in Brussels of pneumonia.