Gerhart Hauptmann 1862–-1946
(Full name Gerhart Johann Robert Hauptmann) German dramatist, novelist, poet, short story writer, and autobiographer.
Principally regarded for his plays of the late nineteenth century, Hauptmann is primarily recognized for initiating the naturalistic movement in German theater with his first drama, Vor Sonnenaufgang (1889; Before Dawn). Influenced by the work of Ibsen and Zola, Hauptmann become his country's most prominent exponent of dramatic techniques that sought to portray human existence with extreme verisimilitude, particularly focusing on the social problems of the lower classes. Hauptmann did not limit himself to drama, however, and produced a vast assortment of works in various genres throughout his long career. Likewise, his work ranges over a variety of styles from naturalism to romanticism to symbolic fantasy. Among his works of short fiction, Hauptmann composed a number of short stories and several novellas, including one that is widely considered his early prose masterpiece, Bahnwärter Thiel (1888; Flagman Thiel).
Hauptmann was born in Silesia in 1862. He received his early education in Breslau (now Wroclaw). After a varied academic career, during which he studied agriculture, sculpture, and history—and briefly attended the University of Jena and the Royal Academy of Dresden—he eventually settled in Berlin and married in 1885. An active member of the Berlin literary community, Hauptmann began his career writing novellas with Fasching (which first appeared in the periodical Siegfried in 1887 but was little noticed until its publication in book form in 1923) and Bahnwärter Thiel. Hauptmann produced his play Vor Sonnenaufgang in 1889, and the work was immediately successful. The previous year he had traveled to Zurich and there made the acquaintance of a man who would provide inspiration for his next-published novella Der Apostel (1890). During the 1890s Hauptmann focused on drama, writing his outstanding naturalistic plays. A visit to Greece in 1907 offered the source material for his travel narrative Griechischer Frühling (1908). Additionally, his encounter with the birthplace of Western classical mythology proved a rich source of inspiration for his later works. In 1912 Hauptmann received the Nobel Prize for Literature and undertook a series of public readings to commemorate the event. Between the wars he wrote the novella Der Ketzer von Soana (1918; The Heretic of Soana) and produced an epic poem, Till Eulenspiegel (1928). Though he was an active supporter of the Weimar democracy and a critic of the Nazi regime, Hauptmann did not follow the example of many German artists who left the country during the Second World War. He consequently incurred much personal criticism for his wartime inactivity. The literary result of this period is Die Atriden Tetralogie, a reinterpretation of the classical myths surrounding the curse of Atreus. Having witnessed the bombing of Dresden and Nazi defeat by Soviet forces firsthand, Hauptmann died on 6 June 1946.
Overall Hauptmann's short fiction is principally focused on the lower classes or individuals who live in or retreat to the margins of society. Thematically bleak, these works offer a cultural critique of life in the modern world. Hauptmann's first novella, Fasching, was based upon a newspaper story detailing a couple's accidental drowning. Its title refers to the Shrovetide carnival from which the sail maker Kielblock, his wife, and child are returning. Crossing a frozen lake at night, the family falls through the ice and all three perish. Der Apostel features a nameless narrator, a preacher whose interior monologue reveals his mental instability. Afflicted by despair and spiritual delusions, the “apostle” endeavors to reenact the life of the Christ. Der Ketzer von Soana recounts the liaison of a young Italian priest with a country girl, which culminates in a departure from his congregation so that he may become a goatherd. A blend of naturalistic and symbolic strains, Bahnwärter Thiel follows the mental decline of a working-class railroad flagman, Thiel. Covertly worshipping his dead wife, Thiel has since entered into a new marriage with a sexually-dominating woman who abuses his child, Tobias. The violent death of Tobias by a locomotive precipitates Thiel's tragic collapse. In a fit of madness he kills his wife and their infant child. Hauptmann's final novella, Mignon, relates its narrator's obsession with a young, wandering orphan girl. His short story, “Das Märchen” (1941) reveals the influence of Goethe's 1795 work by the same name. The piece also evinces Hauptmann's interest in the mystical and supernatural late in his life.
One of the most celebrated German-speaking literary figures of the late nineteenth century, Hauptmann earned his notoriety primarily through his works of drama. Still, considerable critical attention has been focused on his short prose, particularly since his death. While Fasching is generally considered the work of an apprentice, Bahnwärter Thiel, written the same year, has been hailed by critics as a masterful narrative. At the time of its first publication in 1918, Der Ketzer von Soana proved to be Hauptmann's most esteemed prose work, and though it is still highly regarded, most commentators reserve their highest praise for Bahnwärter Thiel, which has become a standard on reading lists for students of German literature. Several critics have evaluated the musical qualities of Hauptmann's prose in Thiel, numbering it among the finest achievements in the German Novelle genre. Others have analyzed the complex imagery and shifting narrative perspectives of the novella, qualities that place the work beyond the confines of purely naturalistic prose and contribute to the contemporary perception of Bahnwärter Thiel as a significant transitional work of modern German literature.