Friedrich Hebbel 1813-1863
(Full name Christian Friedrich Hebbel) German playwright and poet.
The following entry presents criticism on Hebbel's life and works from 1927 through 1987.
Hebbel is considered an important transitional figure in European drama. Scholars maintain that his works reflect both the Romantic idealism of Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller and the psychological realism of Carl Hauptmann and Henrik Ibsen. Hebbel viewed the dramatic process as a conflict between the individual searching for identity and meaning and the seemingly intransigent world-historical Idea propounded by philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who believed that an omnipresent, unstoppable moral force determines the course of history.
Hebbel was born in the small town of Wesselburen in the Holstein district of what is now Germany. His father was an impoverished mason who died when Hebbel was fourteen, leaving him and his brother to be raised by their mother, who was employed as a domestic. In order to continue his education, Hebbel worked as an errand boy and clerk for the local magistrate, studying during his free time. In 1932 he sent some poetry and short stories to the popular novelist Amalie Schoppe, who published several of the pieces in two Hamburg periodicals she edited. Schoppe invited Hebbel to Hamburg to prepare for admission to the university; however, he failed to pass the necessary entrance examinations. He left Hamburg in 1836 to attend jurisprudence lectures at the University of Heidelberg, and eventually traveled to Munich where he worked as a reporter. Unable to support himself, however, Hebbel returned to Hamburg early in 1839, accepting a position as a correspondent for the Telegraph für Deutschland. Later that year he began writing his first drama, Judith: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten (Judith: A Tragedy in Five Acts) which was completed in January 1840 and first produced in 1841. A stipend from the king of Denmark allowed Hebbel to complete his second drama, Genoveva: Tragödie in fünf Acten (1843). In 1863 Hebbel won the first Schiller Prize in German literature for his trilogy, Die Nibelungen: Ein deutsches Trauerspiel in drei Abtheilungen (1862; The Nibelungs: A Tragedy in Three Acts). He died after contracting pneumonia that same year.
Nearly all of Hebbel's plays are tragedies, the notable exceptions being the comedies Der Diamant: Eine Komödie in fünf Acten (1847) and Der Rubin: Ein Märchen-Lustspiel in drei Acten (1851), which critics have described as black comedies. His best-known works are distinguished by the presence of a remarkable individual who struggles against the world-historical Idea. To heighten the drama of this struggle and highlight the problems that have historically fostered such encounters, Hebbel set his plays during turning points of world history. For example, Judith relates the attempted extermination of Jews by the Assyrians; Herodes und Mariamne: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten (1850; Herod and Mariamne), events immediately preceding the birth of Jesus; Agnes Bernauer: Ein deutsches Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen (1852; Agnes Bernauer: A German Tragedy in Five Acts), the beginnings of the breakdown of fifteenth-century feudalism; and The Nibelungs, the twilight of German paganism. In another drama, Maria Magdalen: Ein bürgerliches Trauerspiel in drei Acten, nebst einem Vorwort (1844; Maria Magdalena), Hebbel emphasizes more personal aspects of tragedy, using non-historical characters to depict the universality of an individual's plight. Critics have also noted the important role that women play in Hebbel's work. With the exception of his autobiographical drama Michel Angelo: Ein Drama in zwei Akten (1851) and his unfinished Demetrius: Eine Tragödie (1864), women are central to the dramatic conflict in each of his tragedies.
Although reception of his work was initially lukewarm, Hebbel eventually became recognized as a leading dramatist in his time. His plays were staged throughout Europe, and he was invited to conduct performances at the courts of both Weimar and Munich. Critical interest in Hebbel dissipated shortly after his death; however, a state-sponsored Hebbel resurgence was initiated during the German National Socialist movement. While such attention restored the dramatist to the forefront of German literature, the misguided “Nazification” of Hebbel's work stigmatized him in the post-war world. However, new interpretations of his dramas have emerged and newer productions have been staged. Judith, Maria Magdalena, and Gyges und sein Ring: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten (1856; Gyges and His Ring) have remained fixtures in the repertoire of many German theatres.