This play is the most autobiographical and poetic of all the great Silesian playwright’s efforts. It is about the problem of the artist against the world, the creative spirit against reality. The problem of living while maintaining standards of idealism is Gerhart Hauptmann’s own very real problem, one that he did not solve. The Sunken Bell is a tale of two worlds that briefly overlap by virtue of a doomed love affair. The elves and elementals that populate traditional German Märchen (folktales) and the Kunstmärchen (art-folktales) of German Romanticism are very different from the gentle and benign insect-winged fairies of English art and fiction. In Teutonic mythology the world of nature-spirits was a dangerous place whose beauty and wildness were treacherous. Like the wood-sprite in the play, who lures the Vicar, the Schoolmaster, and the Barber deeper into the woods by calling for help in Heinrich’s voice, the population of the other world takes a mischievous delight in confusing human beings and in leading them to destruction.
The Sunken Bell’s plot is reminiscent of a famous Kunstmärchen, Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué’s Undine (1811; English translation, 1818) in which a water-sprite marries a young knight against the wishes of her own folk, who are swift to take their revenge when he proves unable to remain faithful to her. Hauptmann’s play complicates this plot. Heinrich is no handsome young man free to plight his troth; he is a mature man who already has a loving wife and two children. Nor is Rautendelein’s attachment to him a matter of spontaneous sympathy; she has a fervent desire to escape the claims of her own kind, embodied in the lascivious ambitions of the ugly Nickelmann. Heinrich’s failure to make good his alliance with Rautendelein does not arise from lack of faith but from the fact that his ambition to make a bigger and better bell than any that has ever been made before—a bell fit for the mountaintops—destroys his mental composure.
The mountains have symbolic roles in The Sunken Bell. On the one hand they are wilderness regions, untamed by human culture, where the supernatural still holds sway. On the other hand, they are the heights of human aspiration and ambition. Heinrich’s first bell, which...
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