Carl Sternheim’s major plays describe German society during the period from the late nineteenth century to the end of World War I. This was the so-called “Wilhelminian era” (after Emperor William II), a time of rapid industrialization in Germany. This period also saw the founding of the Social Democratic Party, which, under Chancellor Bismarck, was soon repressed and whose loyalty to the Reich was questioned because of its ties with international communism. The German government, authoritarian and dominated by the aristocracy, attempted to contain the growing pressure from the rising middle class and from the militant workers’ movement by means of an increasingly aggressive foreign policy (which ultimately led to World War I).
During the 1890’s and during the first years of the new century, social legislation (no work on Sundays, protection of children against abuses in child labor, accident and health insurance) was designed to appease the workers, whose political strength was partially paralyzed by the growing conflict between the revolutionary communists and the reformist Social Democrats. Germany was ruled by a coalition of the old aristocracy and the new bourgeois plutocracy (the former still being the dominant factor). Among this elite there developed a strong sense of nationalistic expansionism fostered by a number of well-funded and organized interest groups and sometimes coupled with outbreaks of anti-Semitism. Thus, a precarious balance between inner social unrest and an aggressive expansionist foreign policy constituted the political and social climate in which Sternheim’s plays were conceived.
Although Sternheim did not consider himself an expressionist (in fact, he uses the terms “expressionism” and “expressionist” in some of his plays to characterize an overly agitated, conspicuous, and spectacular mode of behavior on the part of particular characters), he shares some common ground with expressionism in terms of both style and content. Most of Sternheim’s characters are types representing their respective social classes. Because they are not psychologically differentiated individuals, the German spoken by them is an extremely artificial and abstract idiom. Although Sternheim’s aristocrats speak in somewhat more stilted fashion and use a different vocabulary from that of the other characters, language does not function as an instrument of social or psychological differentiation in his plays. The elimination of the definite article, the frequent use of past participles, the end position of the subject, and other stylistic devices run counter to “normal” German usage. Their function is not to help describe life in a realistic true-to-life fashion. Sternheim, like his expressionist contemporaries, does not attempt to copy or reproduce reality. Rather, he proceeds from essential truths underlying social interaction, which are then “expressed” in the way his characters speak and act, regardless of any mimetic norms.
Sternheim’s comedies often present a protagonist who is powerful, successful, and victorious from the outset and who, withstanding all challenges, inevitably triumphs in the happy ending typical of traditional comedy. Whereas traditional comedies often expose the discrepancy between a character’s actions and the norms, values, and ideals that society represents, Sternheim’s comedies seem to celebrate the triumph of the material norms of the German middle and upper classes from the first to the last scene. The glory of bourgeois and aristocratic existence, however, always contains an element of caricature. Sternheim’s satiric mode of presentation (although it is never totally critical or skeptical in terms of social change and leaves room for positive evaluation) confronts the flaws of social reality (in all classes) with an ideal that is never quite explicit in his texts. The author does not openly call for a “new man” or a utopian social order, as many of the expressionists did at that time. The implicit ideal must be deduced by the reader or audience from the negativity of the world presented in Sternheim’s plays. Glimpses of this ideal can be seen in the theoretical statements made by Sternheim’s “revolutionary” characters, such as The Bloomers’ Mandelstam, 1913’s Krey, and The Fossil’s von Bohna. Yet these characters remain helpless theorists. Their ideas have no impact on social reality, and some of them—such as Krey and von Bohna—even adapt to the status quo by betraying their cause.
Sternheim’s biting criticism of the German bourgeois pervades his first successful play, The Bloomers. Its plot is simple: Luise, the wife of a civil servant, Theobald Maske, loses her bloomers during a Sunday afternoon walk on a crowded street. The embarrassing incident is noticed by a few bystanders. Maske acts as though a major disaster has happened, which might threaten his position. The only consequence of the event, though, is the appearance of two men at Maske’s home. They both witnessed the incident and have come to rent a room. Both Scarron, whose social status remains mysterious (he appears to be wealthy; he is a writer, an educated intellectual, a follower of Friedrich Nietzsche, and a passionate Don Juan all in one) and Mandelstam, a sickly barber’s apprentice, have come to Maske’s place because they have been attracted by Maske’s beautiful but naïve wife. Their only function in the play, though, is to serve as contrasting characters vis-à-vis the boisterous and smug protagonist Maske. After some amorous overtures to Luise, which meet with little resistance on her part, Scarron abandons her and his room for a whore, whereas the unlucky lover Mandelstam stays on.
This is the framework within which Theobald Maske makes his buoyant appearance. Sternheim’s satiric portrait of the German bourgeois around the turn of the century reveals the following features: He is a loyal subject of his superiors, especially the king; hating daydreaming and disorder, his mind is focused entirely and exclusively on the daily practical matters at hand; and nothing matters more to him than his secure position. He would never dream of striving toward a higher office. If everything stays the same until the day of his retirement, he will be totally satisfied. Maske exhibits anti-Semitic leanings (although he does not admit it). He talks like a staunch nationalist, but he has no interest in politics. To him, happiness is a good meal, good health, and physical strength. He regards women as inferior to men, beats his wife, and indulges in an occasional adulterous adventure. Although he is not a religious man, he feels it is “all right” to go to church because it is the proper thing to do for people of his kind. He likes to think of himself as one of the “little people” and makes every effort to live as inconspicuously as possible. By the same token, he turns out to be a greedy profiteer when it comes to squeezing money out of Scarron and Mandelstam. Whereas he knows nothing about literature, music, or art, he does have a vague sense of “culture” as something that is supposed to give his drab existence some luster and status. Yet his attitude toward cultural activities is truly philistine.
The Bloomers was the first play of a tetralogy published in both Aus dem bürgerlichen Heldenleben and Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Classes. The second play of this tetralogy, The Snob, focuses on the tendency among members of the German middle and upper-middle classes to emulate the lifestyle of the aristocracy. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the German aristocracy witnessed the decline of its wealth while it was still able to hold on to political power. A new financial elite had arisen. Wealthy capitalists from the upper-middle class had acquired high social status, yet they continued to look up to the members of the aristocracy as their role models for social behavior.
Christian Maske, Theobald Maske’s son, is a case in point. Through hard work and shrewd business deals, he has acquired a fortune and is about to be appointed president of a mining company. Count Palen is a member of the board of directors of that company. Christian wishes to marry the count’s daughter Marianne. To him, that marriage means the ultimate authentication of the fact that he has arrived at the top of his society. Count Palen views this marriage with mixed feelings. On one hand, he welcomes the influx of the money of the nouveau riche into his impoverished family. On the other hand, Christian is a parvenu, an upstart who does not really “belong” in aristocratic circles.
The character of Christian is—as is so often the case with Sternheim’s protagonists—portrayed satirically, but not without a certain degree of sympathy and even admiration on the part of the author. The adjective “heroic” in the title of the English translation that includes the entire tetralogy must be understood exactly in this twofold (and only seemingly self-contradictory) sense: The Maskes are not truly heroes, yet their vitality, energy, and success are admirable. The satire exposes Christian’s lack of compassion, love, and gratitude. Once he has amassed his wealth, he literally pays back those who helped him achieve his goal, especially his parents, whom he then shoves off to...
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