Gerhart Hauptmann’s great strength as a writer is his talent for portraying reality and for creating lifelike characters. Throughout his works, Hauptmann displayed more interest in characters than in language or plot. He was more concerned with human beings than he was with ideas. In his “Dramaturgie” ( dramaturgy), he notes that the more complex the plot, the less important the characters. If the plot is simple, however, the characters can be richer. The protagonists of Hauptmann’s early plays are often passive sufferers who are acted on by events beyond their control. Suffering is a central theme in Hauptmann’s works, a suffering that is sometimes caused by social conditions but is often the result of simply being alive. Typical of all Hauptmann’s plays is his deep compassion for those who are poor, oppressed, and suffering.
The plays that Hauptmann wrote early in his career are mostly realistic, often with close affinities to naturalism. In them, Hauptmann gives a critical portrait of German society before World War I. Gradually, he began to incorporate dreams, myths, and symbols into his realistic plays in an attempt to illuminate the inner life of his protagonists. As he developed as a playwright, he moved even further from the realism of his early work, although, in his later years, he occasionally returned to his realistic style. He began to draw his material from diverse sources, from legend; fairy tales; folklore; the supernatural; classical, Norse, and Aztec myths; and history. Some of his plays are symbolic and neoromantic, some are historical, and others concern the artist’s conflict with society.
Throughout his life, Hauptmann was interested in William Shakespeare, Goethe, and Dante, and he often derived plots for his plays from these writers, as his Hamlet studies demonstrate. After his journey to Greece in 1907, Hauptmann wrote that when he was walking in the Greek countryside, he sensed the presence of the ancient gods. Fascinated more by the Dionysian than the Apollonian, he incorporated more classical allusions into his works. Greek mythology is prominent in several of his plays, including his last work, the Atriden-Tetralogie (the tetralogy of the Agamemnon legend), which is composed of Iphigenie in Aulis, Agamemnons Tod, Elektra, and Iphigenie in Delphi. Mysticism plays a frequent role in Hauptmann’s works, a mysticism that is rooted in his native Silesia (the home of such mystics as Angelus Silesius and Jakob Böhme). Hauptmann’s journey to Greece also gave him a new understanding of tragedy. He wrote that human sacrifice was the bloody root of tragedy. In Greece, he saw that tragedy consisted of “enmity, persecution, hatred and love, . . . fear, need, . . . villainy, murder, incest and slaughter.”
Although Hauptmann preferred his later, more poetic, dramas, his early plays, up to The Rats, are the ones that are best known and most frequently performed. These are the works that made Hauptmann internationally famous. Hauptmann had a gift for portraying reality faithfully, for creating living, convincing characters. When he wrote poetic or symbolic drama, he lost contact with his Silesian roots, which often resulted in a weakening of his creativity. The verse in his later plays is often insipid (Hauptmann was more interested in character than in language) and does not compare with the vigor of the dialect used in his realistic plays (he noted that he wanted to give dignity back to dialect). It was his realistic plays that established his reputation as a writer.
Hauptmann’s early plays were hailed as masterpieces of naturalism , the literary movement that developed in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. Naturalist authors tried to record reality faithfully. According to Arno Holz, one of the theorists of German naturalism, art had the tendency to become nature again. He formulated his theory thus: Art equals nature minus x, the x representing the ability of the author to represent reality. As this formula shows, Holz and the other naturalists tried to emulate scientific methodology in their writing. They strove for an objective portrayal of life and tried to avoid all subjectivity, which, they thought, falsified reality. Following Darwin, the naturalists perceived humankind to be determined by heredity and environment. In the drama, this belief resulted in passive heroes who succumbed helplessly to their predetermined fate. Because the naturalists believed that the environment was so important in shaping people, they tried to improve harsh social conditions. Their works were socially critical and focused on the problems of modern civilization, especially on the ugliness and poverty of life in the big cities. Most of the naturalists wrote literature that was politically committed, and many of them were socialists. In their works, the naturalists tried to avoid beauty because they thought that it did not truly reflect reality. (Hauptmann was, in fact, criticized for making the love scene between Helene and Loth in Before Dawn too beautiful. He defended himself by remarking that he could not help it if nature was also beautiful.)
The German naturalist movement produced much theory but few enduring creative works. Many of Hauptmann’s concerns in his early plays show his close connection to naturalist circles. His social criticism, his depiction of poverty, his discussion of hereditary and environmental factors, all show his affinity with naturalism. Yet his plays are not naturalistic in the strict sense. Naturalist playwrights tried to present a “slice of life.” They avoided conventional dramatic structure, monologue, and suspense because they thought these were unnatural; instead, they attempted to cut out a piece of “real” life to show on the stage. Hauptmann, however, was a craftsperson whose plays are carefully structured; his plays are far removed from the reportage favored by strict naturalists. Indeed, Hauptmann’s critical distance from naturalism is particularly evident in one of his most naturalistic plays, Before Dawn. In this play, the protagonist, Alfred Loth, is a proponent of naturalistic views, yet Hauptmann treats both Loth and his theories critically.
Before Dawn, which is a social drama, was the second play ( Henrik Ibsen’s Gengangere, pb. 1881; Ghosts, 1885, was the first) to be performed at the Freie Bühne, the influential naturalist theater in Berlin. The production immediately made Hauptmann famous. Hauptmann had originally intended to call the play “Der Säemann” (“The Sower”), an allusion to the ideas of freedom that Loth sows, but Arno Holz encouraged him to change the title. In a letter to Hauptmann, Holz praised the play, calling it the best ever written in the German language. The premiere, on October 20, 1889, aroused fierce debate. Some, like Holz, praised the play for its depiction of social problems, while others attacked it for what they saw as its immorality. Such controversy typically surrounded many of Hauptmann’s realistic plays.
As the play opens, Alfred Loth, who was modeled on Alfred Plötz, a social reformer and Utopian thinker who was a friend of Hauptmann, arrives in a Silesian mining village to investigate the terrible economic conditions of the coal miners. By chance, Loth’s old friend Hoffmann has married into the Krause family. Like the other peasants in the region, the Krause family has suddenly become very rich because of the coal found on their land. Hauptmann gives a vivid portrait of the members of this family. The sudden wealth that the family has acquired has corrupted them. Krause’s second wife commits adultery. Krause, a hopeless alcoholic, tries to seduce his daughter Helene when he is drunk. Helene’s sister Martha, who is married to Hoffmann, is also an alcoholic. Her alcoholism has led to the death of her three-year-old son, and in the course of the play, she gives birth to another baby who is stillborn, again the result of her addiction. Hoffmann, the son-in-law, is a ruthless businessperson who has taken advantage of the naïve peasants to gain control of their coal. As long as it is to his advantage, Hoffmann is pleasant, but this pleasantness masks a basic brutality in his nature. When Hoffmann learns that Loth is going to be studying mining conditions in the area, he tries to persuade Loth to leave by offering him money. He does not want the conditions for which he is responsible exposed. Hoffmann also tries to seduce his sister-in-law Helene.
Loth’s views on alcoholism and eugenics emerge during his first dinner at the Krause home. He talks about the devastating impact that alcohol has on modern life: He cites statistics from the United States about the deaths and suicides it causes and tells of the many wives and children who are forced into poorhouses because of alcoholism. Loth himself refuses to touch alcohol. The effects of alcohol, he says, are not limited to the present; they also undermine the health of future generations. Loth says that he has inherited healthy genes and is determined to pass these genes on to his future children. When he attacks alcohol so strongly, Loth has no inkling that the Krause family suffers from this very problem.
In a later conversation with Helene, Loth expresses his social beliefs. He attacks a system in which the workers who work long...
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