Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669
The novelist and playwright Hermann Sudermann (ZEWD-ur-mahn), regarded during his lifetime as one of Germany’s great literary figures, was the son of a brewer who worked in the village of Heydekrug. The Sudermann family was Mennonite and from Holland; one of Sudermann’s ancestors was the moralistic writer Daniel Sudermann. Hermann Sudermann’s birthplace, the village Matziken in East Prussia, was characterized by a mixture of German and Lithuanian elements, and it was from the rich local strain of folk tales and customs that he drew late in his career in order to put new life into his work.
He received his early education at the Realschule in Elbing, but as a result of his family’s near-poverty he was compelled to go to work at the age of fourteen as apprentice to a chemist. Later he entered the Realgymnasium in Tilsit, and he received his advanced education at the University of Königsberg, where he studied philology and history, and at the University of Berlin. While in Berlin, to which he came at the age of twenty, he was tutor of the children of Hans von Hopfen, a writer by whom Sudermann was to some extent influenced in his own creative work.
In 1881 and 1882 Sudermann worked as an editor of the political journal Deutsches Reichsblatt. At that time his political views were fairly liberal, but after leaving the editorship he became increasingly conservative; he was later charged with allowing considerations of royalties to affect his political convictions.
His literary career began with the writing of short stories, and a first collection, Im Zwielicht, appeared in 1887. The same year saw the publication of Dame Care, a sentimental example of German Romanticism, skillful enough in its portrayal of persons of various classes to make it one of Sudermann’s most successful novels. Neither this book nor Regina achieved popular recognition until after the overwhelming reception accorded to his play Honor, which opened at the Lessing Theater in Berlin on November 27, 1889. Sudermann had originally intended the play as a tragedy, but following the advice of others he gave it a happy ending. Honor shows the influence of Nietzsche; the play is in effect a pseudointellectual attack on the morality of the lower classes. This play launched Sudermann’s highly successful career as a dramatist, and as a result his novels, too, suddenly began to sell well. With the play Magda, Sudermann’s name became known all over Europe, and the play became a favorite vehicle for the leading actresses of the day, among them Sarah Bernhardt, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Eleonora Duse, and Helena Modjeska.
Sudermann lived in a villa at Grunewald, a suburb of Berlin, and at his castle at Blankensee, near Trebbin, which he was able to purchase with royalties from his plays. In 1891 he married Klara Schultz Lauckner, a writer. Sudermann wrote his plays at a fortunate time, and he was careful to give them the kind of technical finish that would make them popular. Although he enjoyed considerable fame for a number of years and was ranked with Gerhart Hauptmann, his plays lost favor when the fashion changed. Sudermann thereupon concentrated on the novel during the last few years of his life, and established himself as an important writer in that genre.
The play A Man and His Picture, like Fires of St. John, provided some critics with evidence to support their claim that Sudermann was a writer with an honest social conscience, that he was freeing German drama from the French influence and replacing Romanticism with naturalism. Sudermann’s portrayals of the vicious social life of fashionable Berlin never quite succeeded in losing the drawing-room comedy touch, however; perhaps the very features that accounted for his quick success were also accountable for the decline of interest in his plays. Of his novels, Dame Care and The Song of Songs later came to be regarded as his best, and the short stories in The Excursion to Tilsit, which contain much of his best writing, remain highly regarded.
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