Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3859
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 hours are poor and hungry while those who are rich live in comfort without having to work. According to Loth, the values of the state are completely perverted. As an example, he cites the state’s attitude toward killing: In peacetime, it is a crime, while in war, it is a heroic deed. Loth wants to change society radically; he wants to abolish sickness and poverty and all other social ills. In his fight for better conditions, he is willing to make whatever sacrifices are needed in order to help those who are oppressed. In keeping with his progressive ideas, he is also strongly for the emancipation of women.
Helene, the only member of the Krause family who has escaped the corruption caused by sudden wealth, is captivated by Loth’s ideas, and she encourages him in his work. She sees Loth as her savior and declares her love for him. The audience knows, however, that this relationship is doomed. Once Loth discovers that Helene’s family suffers from alcoholism, he will not marry her because of his views on eugenics.
In the last act, Doctor Schimmelpfennig, who is also an old friend of Loth, tells Loth about the alcoholism in the family. Predictably, Loth flees from Helene, abandoning his work on the economic conditions of the miners. He is even too cowardly to explain his reasons for his flight in person—he leaves her a note instead. Loth’s sudden departure destroys all hope that Helene had of escaping from the sordid conditions that surround her, and in despair she kills herself. Although Loth intends to help people, his theories blind him, and when a concrete situation faces him, he fails as a human being. The title of the play is ironic. The new day that Loth’s theories of freedom could have brought into being does not dawn.
The Weavers, Hauptmann’s fourth play, made him famous throughout Europe. Although the play actually has no political bias (Hauptmann said that the play was social, not socialist), it was interpreted as revolutionary by the police and the conservative press, and the Berlin police banned public performances of the play for two years. When it was finally performed at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II canceled his box there in protest. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin also saw the play as a revolutionary statement. Most of the Socialists who saw the play, however, were disappointed because there was no mention of class struggle and Hauptmann did not offer political solutions to the problems that he depicted. Instead, it seemed to them as though Hauptmann merely wanted to arouse pity for the weavers’ plight. Hauptmann in fact said that he hoped to move the wealthy audience to pity the weavers.
The play concerns a revolutionary subject—the rising of the famished Silesian weavers in 1844 in protest against their economic conditions. The play was inspired in part by stories that Hauptmann heard from his father about his grandfather’s experiences as a weaver in his youth. Hauptmann also read Alfred Zimmermann’s Blüte und Verfall des Leinengewerbes in Schlesien (1885; growth and decline of the linen industry in Silesia), in which he found the revolutionary song “Das Blutgericht” that he used in the play. To make the play as authentic as possible, Hauptmann wanted to see for himself the region in which the weavers still lived. In the early part of 1891, he made two trips to the Eulengebirge in Silesia. He visited the homes of weavers, where he was moved by the workers’ extreme poverty. Yet Hauptmann thought that the weavers had dignity and nobility, despite their poverty. The first version of the play, De Waber, was written in Silesian dialect. Hauptmann then wrote a second version in which he made the dialect more comprehensible for non-Silesian audiences.
The protagonist of the play (which is the first mass drama in the German language) is a whole class—the weavers. The play shows how the weavers suffer from economic conditions that are beyond their control: The manufacturers exploit them, and the more efficient weaving methods in the new factories result in an oversupply of linen and therefore depress the weavers’ wages. This powerful social drama had an impact on many socially critical dramas in Germany in the twentieth century.
The play opens with a mass scene in which Hauptmann vividly depicts the weavers’ misery. They are delivering the cloth that they have woven at home to the manufacturer Dreissiger. Their work has physically broken them: Their bodies are bent from leaning over the loom, and their eyesight is ruined from long hours of work in dark houses. All are hungry and worn out by the worries of their daily lives; all are despairing and embittered, especially the mothers who have starving children to feed. The weavers plead for advances on their meager wages, complain about their lot, and one young boy falls unconscious from lack of food. One weaver, Bäcker, protests against the pittance that they earn for their long hours of work—he calls it shabby charity, not wages—but he is thrown out. At the end of the act, Dreissiger defends himself by declaring that he is not responsible for the weavers’ poverty, and he promises to employ more weavers, albeit at even lower wages.
The second act takes place in the hut of the cottager Ansorge. Here Hauptmann shows how the poverty and despair he depicts in the first act affect one family, which represents all the weavers’ families. The hut is dilapidated, there is no food, and the family members are emaciated and pale. Old mother Baumert wants to die. She cannot work because she is ill, and she believes herself to be a burden to her family. Moritz Jäger, who has just returned home from his military service, sees the conditions that the weavers are forced to endure, and he tries to persuade them to change their lot. He preaches rebellion, arguing that dogs in the cities live better than the weavers and that the manufacturers live a life of luxury from the profits that they make from the weavers. The revolutionary song that the weavers sing depicts life as torture. By singing the song, the weavers express their pent-up anger and despair. The song brings them together as a group and helps them to articulate emotions that they otherwise would not be able to express. It helps them to see the causes of their misery and convinces them that things must be changed.
The last three acts show how the rebellion develops. The third act depicts other classes who oppress the weavers, including the rich peasants and the foresters, and the fourth act shows the rebellion in progress. As the weavers gather angrily outside Dreissiger’s house, where his friends have gathered to play whist, Dreissiger becomes afraid and flees with his family through a back door. When Pastor Kittelhaus goes out to talk with the weavers, he is mistreated. Once the weavers discover that Dreissiger has fled, they begin a frenzy of destruction and plunder. The last act takes place in the home of the weaver, old Hilse. In this act, Hauptmann contrasts two different courses of action: those who try to help themselves by fighting against their fate and old Hilse, who refuses to join in the rebellion, preferring instead to put his faith in God. At the end of the play, old Hilse is killed by a stray bullet while he sits at his loom. Ironically, the only one who does not take part in the rebellion dies.
Hauptmann shows both positions, involvement and noninvolvement, positively and negatively. Hauptmann treats the weavers, on the whole, sympathetically, showing compassion for their suffering, a compassion that is particularly evident when Luise, Hilse’s daughter-in-law, justifies her reasons for supporting the rebellion. She is a mother who has been driven to fury by the poverty that has caused all of her children to die of hunger. Yet Hauptmann also criticizes the rebellion because it leads to excesses and plunder; he does not advocate rebellion as a course of action to effect social change. Despite the initial success of the rebellion, it is doomed. Rather than being an organized revolution, it is a spontaneous uprising that the soldiers will later crush.
Hauptmann also shows the negative and positive aspects of Hilse’s position of noninvolvement. Hilse is deeply religious and absolutely moral and honest (when his granddaughter finds a silver spoon, taken during the plundering of Dreissiger’s house, old Hilse makes her take it to the police, even though the family could sell it and buy much-needed food). He sets his hopes on the afterlife, believing that renunciation in this world will lead to rewards in Heaven. For him, as for mother Baumert, religion offers the consolation of a better life after death. Yet because Hilse is old and his life is basically finished, it is easier for him to accept suffering as his lot. Unlike his daughter-in-law Luise, who is concerned about the fate of her still unborn children, old Hilse does not look to the future. Hilse’s social resignation, caused by his religious beliefs, is easily manipulated by the capitalists. Indeed, religion is one of the pillars of the state: Pastor Kittelhaus preaches obedience and acceptance of one’s allotted place. In the hands of people such as Kittelhaus and Dreissiger, religion becomes perverted into an instrument of reaction.
The ending of the play is open. Hauptmann shows that Hilse and the weavers are both right and wrong, and he does not give any political solutions for their suffering (Hauptmann thought that drama was most effective when it was politically impartial). Instead, he gives a compassionate portrayal of poverty, of people driven by despair and bitterness to extremes. Although the play is not political, by depicting these events, Hauptmann indicts a society that tolerates the existence of such conditions.
Rose Bernd, like many of Hauptmann’s works, is based on an actual event. In April, 1903, Hauptmann served as a member of the jury at the trial of Hedwig Otte, a young agricultural laborer, who was accused of infanticide and perjury. Hauptmann was convinced that the woman committed these deeds in a period of confusion and despair and therefore was not responsible for her actions. During the jury’s deliberations, Hauptmann managed to convince others of his views, and the woman was acquitted. Originally, Hauptmann had intended to give a broad depiction of peasant life in the play, but then he decided to cut out anything that did not directly pertain to the play’s central theme. The theme of a woman driven by desperation to murder her illegitimate child is a common theme in German literature. In this play, Hauptmann sets the well-known Gretchen theme (from Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie, pb. 1808, pb. 1833; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823, 1828) in a Silesian peasant milieu. This play is one of the strongest that Hauptmann ever wrote. In it, he describes the suffering of a woman whose ruin is caused by love.
Rose Bernd, the protagonist of the play, is a hardworking, faithful, proud, and passionate human being. Like most of Hauptmann’s female characters, she follows her emotions rather than her mind. Since the death of her mother, Rose has been a mother to her younger sister. At the beginning of the play, Hauptmann stresses her joy, her sheer love of living. Like Rose, Flamm, a local landowner and magistrate with whom she is having an affair, is physical and sensual. She has no prospect of marrying Flamm because he has a wife who is an invalid. Rose tries to break off her affair with Flamm and marry the bookbinder August Keil, to whom she has been engaged for some time and whom her father wants her to marry. When she realizes that she is expecting Flamm’s child, a quick marriage to Keil seems to her the only solution to her situation. Flamm, however, tries to delay the marriage. Other complications also arise. The machinist Streckmann finds out about Rose’s affair with Flamm and blackmails her. When she goes to him to plead for mercy, he rapes her, and later claims in public that she offered herself to him. Keil and father Bernd overhear these remarks, and Keil fights with Streckmann, losing an eye in the fight. Bernd institutes legal proceedings against Streckmann. At the trial, Rose perjures herself, denying that she has slept with anyone because, as she tells Flamm’s wife, she is ashamed.
Hauptmann describes Rose’s growing isolation from everyone. Some try to help her. Mrs. Flamm guesses that Rose is pregnant and offers help, which Rose cannot accept because Flamm is the father of the child. Even when Mrs. Flamm discovers that her husband is the father, she is still willing to help. Keil also guesses the truth, but since he loves Rose, it does not matter to him; although he is ugly and physically weak, he has an inner beauty and humaneness. Others, however, refuse to help. Flamm deserts her in jealousy when he discovers that she has slept with Streckmann (he prefers to believe Streckmann’s version of what happened, rather than Rose’s). Father Bernd, who, like Keil, is deeply religious, thinks only of the shame that Rose has brought on her family—he has no sympathy for his distraught daughter but fears only that his own reputation in the community will suffer.
As the play progresses, Rose changes from a joyful person into one who is despairing and persecuted. She becomes entrapped in lies and deceit, which are utterly foreign to her otherwise open, honest nature. On her return from committing perjury in court, Rose goes into labor, delivers the child herself, and then, almost crazed with grief, kills the newborn baby, confesses, and is arrested. Throughout the play, Hauptmann compassionately and sensitively shows the conflicts and growing despair that destroy Rose’s inner harmony and lead her to commit perjury and infanticide.
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