Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903
Gerhart Hauptmann (HOWPT-mahn), probably Germany’s greatest modern playwright, was born the son of an innkeeper in the Silesian village of Obersalzbrunn. As a child, he grew up under the influence of his parents’ Moravian religion in a home that was remarkable for its air of piety and mysticism. As a young man, Hauptmann failed to prepare himself adequately for a career at one of the German universities and as a result studied agriculture for a time. He left the soil, however, to study art at the Royal College of Art at Breslau in 1880-1881. He went to Rome to study sculpture in 1883. Between these two periods of study, he traveled throughout western Europe. Leisure for him to begin a career of writing was afforded by a marriage to Marie Thienemann, a wealthy young German woman, in 1885. He and his wife divorced ten years later. The marriage left its scars upon Hauptmann, who later referred to it as a time of torture.
As early as 1885, Hauptmann became interested in politics, especially in the liberal social-democrat movement. He joined a liberal literary society called “Through” and soon became associated with Otto Brahm’s Freie Buhne (Free Stage) in Berlin. His Before Dawn was produced in the theater’s first season. The play, a study of degeneracy among newly rich Silesian peasants, was a sensation at the time because of its naturalism. Hauptmann described the degeneracy with frankness, and he used the appropriate German dialects for each character. The play indicates the influence of Émile Zola’s naturalistic fiction on Hauptmann’s dramatic theory and practice. During the next three years, Hauptmann wrote plays such as The Reconciliation and Lonely Lives, stories of middle-class and domestic misery which remind the modern reader of Henrik Ibsen’s drama. The Weavers, produced in 1892, brought Hauptmann world fame. In this drama about starving workers in eighteenth century Germany, Hauptmann made use of a collective hero, a device often utilized by later collectivist authors in every genre. As might be expected, liberal groups throughout Europe hailed The Weavers as a rallying point for socialism and labor. Before imparting to the play purely political motives, however, one should recall that a grandfather of the dramatist had been one of the weavers whose abortive revolt was stifled in Silesia.
Hauptmann wrote continuously after his success with The Weavers, which was followed by such varied works as The Beaver Coat, The Assumption of Hannele, The Sunken Bell, and Henry of Auë. Many honors were bestowed upon him. During his lifetime, he received honorary degrees from the universities at Prague, Oxford, and Leipzig and from Columbia University in New York. In 1912, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His reputation suffered, however, from a fault which revealed itself in his personal life and his work. Hauptmann was a changeable man, seldom constant in anything. From his social-democrat position in the 1890’s, he moved so far to the right as to become a functionary of the Nazi regime after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. In his work, he moved from one kind of drama to another, with the result that many critics have come to feel that he was once overrated and that his work from 1920 to his death in 1946 is unimportant. He seems to have been one of those unfortunate literary persons who points the way but does not travel very far on the road himself.
Some idea of the different kinds of plays written by Hauptmann can be seen in the following examples. And Pippa Dances! is a poetic romance about the search for beauty in a world of force and brutality. The White Savior is a play about the conquest of the Aztec civilization in Mexico by Hernán Cortés. A journey to Greece in 1907 prompted Hauptmann to reinterpret part of the Homeric epics in The Bow of Odysseus. In Veland, he wrote a play involving terror and the supernatural, somewhat reminiscent of Medea, for the main character flies away on artificial wings after deeds of violent revenge. Iphigenia in Delphi and Iphigenia in Aulis indicate Hauptmann’s interest in Greek culture and history, especially its drama. In the long poem Till Eulenspiegel, he tried to give epic proportions to his picture of life in postwar Germany. Despite these varied efforts, The Weavers and The Beaver Coat remain his best-remembered plays. Most memorable will always remain the frequently expressed concern for the poor and downtrodden, his successful portrait of strong female characters, and the association with the atmosphere, landscape, and dialect of Hauptmann’s native province, Silesia.
Although primarily known for his naturalistic and symbolist plays, Hauptmann also wrote outstanding fiction. The masterful naturalistic 1888 short story “Flagman Thiel” is included in every major anthology of masterpieces of German short fiction. His novel The Fool in Christ: Emanuel Quint, a work strongly influenced by Leo Tolstoy, has been called one of the great religious novels of the twentieth century. Other novels include Atlantis, a symbolic portrayal of prewar bourgeois society, which is doomed to fail; The Heretic of Soana, the story of a priest torn between the rules of his church and society and the love for a girl who brings him closer to nature; and The Island of the Great Mother, a utopian novel about a matriarchy on a South Sea island. Hauptmann died in Agnetendorf, Silesia, on June 6, 1946, and was buried on the Baltic island of Hiddensee.
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