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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers tells the tragic tale of a community of Silesian weavers whose desperate situation compels them to rise up and drive out their employer, only to be punished with death by the regional authorities. While written in the age of Marx and Engels, a period where socialist ideas were flowering all across Europe, this play is situated in the 1840s. This is an era of staunch political conservatism, where protests were invariably met with harsh repression. The playwright creates a powerful pathos for his characters’ situation by portraying both the material and the emotional realities of poverty simultaneously. Baumert’s killing and butchering of his dog, for example, is calculated to disturb an audience not only psychologically with the idea of a family’s consuming meat which European culture disqualifies as food but also emotionally with the idea of a family needing to consume a beloved pet in order to survive. It is moments like these that force the audience to teeter with logic and feeling to understand the dynamics of living with poverty.

The Weavers seems to reiterate several aspects of Marxist theory. In the unsympathetic figure of Pastor Kittelhaus, a member of the clergy who fraternizes shamelessly with men of capital and has little sympathy for the poverty of his parishioners, can be seen the Marxist conception of religion as an ally of secular authority, whose purpose was the pacification of the poor. Similarly, in the death of Old Hilse, one of the few weavers who remained loyal to the forces of authority, is conveyed the idea that such loyalty is meaningless, that the struggle between the classes is not one that any individual can opt-out of.

However, Hauptmann differs from Marx in his presenting a proletariat divided along the lines of profession and age. The scorn directed toward the weavers by the foresters at Welzel’s public house, and the later refusal of the dyers to support the weaver’s strike, offers a less romantic yet perhaps more realistic notion of the proletariat that Marx imagines for his socialist state. However, a clear sense of unity is conveyed among those weavers who do protest because of the playwright’s novel choice of character dynamics.

Hauptmann’s play has no definite protagonist, no single character to serve as a focal point for the play’s events, a fact that Barrett H. Clark sees as a deliberate decision intended to emphasize its message. For Clark, the weavers as a class constitute the play’s protagonist so that the voice of a whole class can be heard. This marks the importance of an ensemble, both on the stage and in representing this style of content. No one person can start the proletariat revolution—it takes all of the weavers to make a meaningful impact and overthrow their employer. This is a technique described by Barrett as creating a “mob” that provokes the action of the play. By forgoing the protagonist role in favor of a group of main characters, Hauptmann has skillfully matched the play’s plot to the medium.

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