“His worth lies in his character. He is an achievement in himself, clear and uniform in his merits as well as in his deficiencies, not everywhere of equal value, but always honest.” This admission comes from Kurt Busse, Hermann Sudermann’s most ardent admirer, in his often defensive analysis of the author and his work. It appeared in 1927, about a year before Sudermann’s death. Busse’s attempt at vindication of an author who had been undervalued and mistreated by the critics ever since his Die Verrohung in der Theaterkritik did not succeed, and the novelist and playwright remained virtually forgotten in Germany after World War II. Such oblivion is not entirely deserved. Circumstances made Sudermann a political liability after the end of the Nazi era. His perennial themes were Heimat (homeland), Ehre (honor), Treue (faithfulness), Blut und Familien-bande (blood and family ties), and Sittlichkeit (morality), all of which had become suspect through their exploitation by the Nazis.
There have been some signs of at least a partial rediscovery of Sudermann as a playwright. After he had been absent from the German theater for many years, his Der Sturmgeselle Sokrates (storm companion Socrates) was staged in 1981, and a collection of modern essays on the artist and his work appeared in 1980. Perhaps his views were more acceptable in the prosperous West Germany of the 1980’s. His early obsolescence was hastened because he never fully incorporated the new currents of naturalism into his works. Such naturalistic catchwords as “environment” and “heredity” played important parts in his early plays, yet Sudermann’s characters usually eluded the dire consequences of these two factors, overcoming the misery for which they seemed initially destined. Thus, his plays essentially remained attached to the optimism of the middle classes, to the ideas of political liberalism, and to the philosophy of the eighteenth century Königsberg philosopher Immanuel Kant. Although he absorbed the intellectual currents of his time only superficially, it is probably exaggerated to call him simply a Routinier (slick writer), as some critics have done.
Busse calls Sudermann the late heir of the French sociocritical salon drama, whose principal representatives were the older and the younger Dumas and Sardou. Their dramas had inspired German playwrights after the middle of the nineteenth century and had thus rejuvenated German bourgeois drama without, however, instilling in it the same sociocritical fervor of its French models. The German copies remained somewhat unaggressive and complacent, reflecting the restoration mood after the failure of the Revolution of 1848. After Germany’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, historical plays and tragedies of major proportions experienced great popularity in the newly founded nation, relegating the bourgeois drama almost entirely to the realm of comedy and farce. During this era of national euphoria, the plays of Henrik Ibsen, and, later, August Strindberg, made only little impact in Germany and were not fully comprehended even by the two German theater revolutionaries of 1889, Hauptmann and Sudermann. Busse concedes that Sudermann “learned from Ibsen, he received an impetus from the characters and problems in Ibsen’s works, but he remained untouched by Ibsen’s technique and therefore by the new intellectual sphere, into which Ibsen had placed his characters.” He observes further that the rift in Ibsen’s drama, which fatefully divides the old and the new time, is not present in that of Sudermann. The German playwright certainly juxtaposed old and new times, old and new generations, old and new morality, but he lacked the scope and depth displayed in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867; English translation, 1892), for example. Sudermann depicted, accused, and educated; his work was reform rather than confession.
Reform, especially political reform, or rather the lack of it, was very much a current topic in Germany when Sudermann began his career. The Sozialistengesetze (laws dissolving the Socialist Party) which had been passed in 1878, are reflected in his work and significantly influenced his attitudes. Indeed, Sudermann’s alert social conscience and his biting social criticism are as characteristic of his drama as his ability to create vivid and genuine dialogue and a naturalistic milieu. If one examines the psychological presuppositions in Sudermann’s plays, on the other hand, one will find them as cheap as the conflicts are banal.
Sudermann’s plays were written with the average theater audience in mind, focusing on an engaging story rather than on characterization; his stories were often superior to those of Hauptmann, who remained the master of characterization. Many of Sudermann’s plots depend on a contrast between different milieus, and such a contrast is central to his first work, Honor. The manufacturer Mühlingk lives with his wife and their two children, Kurt and Lenore, in the mansion on Mühlingk’s factory grounds, while the family of the old and crippled Heineke dwells in a shabby cottage on the other end of the large estate. Years ago, Heineke was seriously injured in an accident caused by a coach leaving a ball at the mansion. In order to placate his own conscience and avoid any further litigation, Mühlingk has provided Heineke and his family with free lodging at the cottage and has also seen to the education of Heineke’s son Robert.
Robert has just returned home from India, where he has been Mühlingk’s factory representative for the past ten years. While abroad, he had longed for his Heimat (homeland) and his family. Now that he is back, however, it becomes obvious that he no longer fits. A different environment abroad and a new circle of friends have allowed him to grow beyond the narrow confines at home. He has developed a new code of honor that his destitute parents and younger sisters could never afford themselves. He can be proud of his achievements, but he must also remember his place in this class-conscious society. Now, however, he has the disconcerting suspicion that his beloved younger sister Alma, in whom he has put all of his hope, has apparently been compromised by Mühlingk’s son Kurt, whom she has repeatedly met at a secret hideaway. The couple has also been observed at a dance by Robert’s wealthy friend Count Trast-Saarburg, who has traveled home from India with Robert. As Robert’s suspicion becomes a certainty, he demands satisfaction from Kurt. Kurt’s father, who wants to avoid a scandal, has a different sort of satisfaction in mind. He demands that the Heinekes vacate their cottage and thereby remove the temptation for his son. In turn, he will pay them forty thousand marks for their silence.
When Robert finds out that his family’s honor has been sold in this manner, he plans to take his family with him to India, in order to start a new life there, but not before he has gained satisfaction. His friend Trast-Saarburg dissuades him from his plans. He also convinces Robert that honor is part of the inner man and cannot be stolen from him by a scoundrel. Trast-Saarburg admonishes Robert not to despise his family for their perceived lack of honor. The Mühlingks have after all given them back the only honor useful in their circumstances—namely, sufficient capital to make them respectable. At this moment Lenore, Mühlingk’s daughter, appears. She has not been corrupted by her family’s wealth, and she has always loved Robert, with whom she had grown up. Trast-Saarburg has noticed their fondness for each other, while Robert does not even dare to admit his love for Lenore to himself. Trast-Saarburg will help the relationship to blossom by lending Robert enough money to repay the Mühlingks the amount they paid to bribe his parents. Lenore, who loathes her family’s practice of righting every wrong with money, openly declares her admiration and love for Robert. She will become his wife, and Robert, in turn, will become the new partner in Trast-Saarburg’s vast business and, eventually, his heir.
After the premiere of Honor, Sudermann was hailed as the “rightful heir to young Schiller,” presumably the Friedrich Schiller of Kabale und Liebe (pr., pb. 1784; Cabal and Love, 1795). He had put his finger on the pulse of the times and had accentuated the social problems welling up in industrial Berlin, particularly those problems arising from the juxtaposition of extreme leisure and wealth with abject poverty. He had also added exactly the right amount of naturalism through his infusion of inescapable family bonds and constricting milieu; but not so much naturalism as to spoil the experience for the middle-and upper-class playgoers who constituted the theater audience.
Honor already displayed all the strengths and weaknesses of Sudermann. The story is well conceived and engaging but ultimately rather banal. The conflicts of his characters often seem concocted. Robert’s concern about his sister’s honor, for example, remains simply unbelievable for a man who has seen so much of the world and carried so many responsibilities. This is especially true in that nothing dishonorable seems to have happened between her and Kurt. Even audiences of Sudermann’s time must have questioned Robert’s concern. Moreover, character development remains sketchy. The best example is Count Trast-Saarburg, who is Sudermann’s mouthpiece and a character of some scope. He remains noble but hollow in his platitudes; his statement that honor should be replaced by duty for decent men exemplifies Sudermann’s middle-class morality. The many asides of the characters throughout the work do not match the otherwise naturalistic setting. This device, which betrays a certain ineptness on the part of the budding playwright, is not so prominent in his later works. Sudermann’s reliance on convenient but implausible entrances and exits, on the other hand, was a flaw that would persist throughout most of his works. In Honor, it is the timely but unmotivated appearance of Lenore toward the end of the last act that is especially disturbing. Busse remarks that Honor became fateful for the author in two respects: It was the work that had made him famous, and it remained the one by which critics continued to judge him, even after he had written better plays.
A Man and His Picture
A Man and His Picture, Sudermann’s second drama, again employs the contrast between classes. The first and the fourth acts are situated in the mansion of the wealthy stockbroker Barczinowski, and the second and third acts, at the petit bourgeois home of the dairy inspector Janikow. The play is again set in Berlin. Honor has been replaced by morality as a theme. Barczinowski’s wife, Adah, a forerunner of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu in her consumption of able-bodied men, has a love affair with Janikow’s son, the painter Willy. Willy’s claim to fame is the painting The End of Sodom, which hangs in Barczinowski’s house. Decadence and fin de siècle attitudes permeate the characters in Frau Adah’s salon. She recognizes that she must grant Willy more freedom in order to bind him ever closer to herself. She thus intends to have him marry her young niece Kitty, but Willy remains reluctant. He wants to remove himself from Adah’s sphere of decadence, which has robbed him of his strength and artistic talent.
He has another reason for this change: He has discovered the purity of Klärchen Fröhlich (the name Klärchen is derived...
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