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International Socialist Review, Fall 1962


Trent Hutter

Gerhart Hauptmann

Review Article


From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.4, Fall 1962, pp.113-115, 118.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


IT IS a pity that one of the greatest playwrights of world literature and one of Europe’s last classical writers has remained almost unknown to the American public, although he not only stayed at Meriden, New York, in 1894, but received an honorary doctor’s degree at Columbia University in New York City in 1932. (Oxford University had made him an honorary doctor already in 1905. And he won the Nobel Prize in 1912.)

Fortunately, a paperback edition (Bantam Classics) containing English translations of some of his most successful plays has now appeared in this country; and it is to be hoped that many Americans will become acquainted with Gerhart Hauptmann, a pioneer of the social drama, in the year of the 100th anniversary of his birth, November 15, 1862. Impressive anniversary celebrations are planned in Germany and other European countries, and many of his plays will be performed. Even without this centennial they would, however, not be forgotten; quite a few of them form part of the repertory of German theaters; and time and again, one or the other of Hauptmann’s works has been made into a motion picture. For Hauptmann’s genius remains very much alive; and the sometimes distorting film versions of his plays are a consequence of his durable popularity.

I shall try to briefly analyse the basic significance of Gerhart Hauptmann’s work and personality, rather than to comment individually on his selected plays in the American pocket edition. Yet, in speaking of Hauptmann, it is, of course, indispensable to refer to some of his creations.

When Hauptmann was young, the German Socialists were being persecuted by Prince Bismarck’s government. Hauptmann was a witness, in 1887, at the Breslau trial of a group of Socialists. Not actually a militant and no party politician, he nonetheless strongly sympathized with them. Hauptmann’s first play, Before Dawn (1889) – already a masterwork and considered extremely controversial in those days – declares war on capitalism and bourgeois hypocrisy, opportunism and cynicism. The tragedy’s hero resembling young Hauptmann to a large extent, is obviously a Socialist. Originally, the drama’s title was to be The Sower; and a sower of socialist ideas the author undoubtedly was.

But Hauptmann never wrote superficial propaganda plays. In addition to the social question, another serious problem is on his mind. The 19th century was the century of the industrial revolution and of a scientific revolution as well. With profound insight, Hauptmann understood both phenomena very early. Science could be a powerful factor of knowledge and progress. Misinterpreted, falsified, over-simplified or wrongly applied, it could also spell danger. The hero of Before Dawn causes the girl who loves him to commit suicide, when too rigid an adoption of the biological theory of heredity is pushed to extreme conclusions and thereby to absurdity: since she comes from a family of alcoholics, he rejects and destroys her, although she is perfectly healthy herself ...

Prophetically, the poet-playwright visualized the threat and destructive effect of a combination of pseudo-science and dogmatism, which, 50 years later, was to culminate in the death orgy of Nazi Fascism when Hitler – born in 1889, the year of Before Dawn – had 6 million human beings killed in the gas chambers because they belonged to the Jewish “race”: genocide based upon the pseudo-biological concept of a human race that does not exist as such and its alleged inferiority.

At a time when the Liberals believed science and the machine were progressive in themselves, Hauptmann perceived that man had to dominate them if they were not to subjugate him. He warns of the de-individualized machine man. The machine becomes a monster breeding monstrosities if it is not used for man’s own good. Hauptmann is not one of those poets who merely glorify the machine, nor one of those who merely condemn it. He was aware of its marvelous potential but also of the complex relationship between society, man and machine, which determines the role of the latter. Never was his attitude reactionary. Never did he simply wish to go back to an earlier phase of social development.

In 1844, the starving weavers of Silesia, Hauptmann’s homeland, had revolted in desperation against unemployment and the lowering of their wages following the ascendency of Irish linen on the world market, the massive importation of cotton and the introduction of mechanical looms. One of the preludes of the

1848 revolution, the revolt had inspired a moving poem by the great Heinrich Heine. And it became the subject of Gerhart Hauptmann’s most famous play: The Weavers, completed and published in 1892. Its performance was first forbidden by the Prussian police. It was finally permitted by a court decision in 1893; but after its public premiere in Berlin, in 1894, Emperor William the Second had the imperial box cancelled at the theater in question. In Austria, The Weavers was banned until 1904; and even then it was censored.

The Weavers amounted to a triumph of social realism. It is a drama without the traditional “hero” or “heroine,” the drama of proletarians in revolt and of their defeat, a drama of their hopes and furor. We see the exploiters and their lackeys. We see the exploited and the unscrupulous outsiders, the adventurers desirous of profitting from the weavers’ misery and indignation. Each person is sharply profiled as an individual. And, as in other Hauptmann plays, each one speaks exactly as he would in real life. Other authors had used regional dialects to produce a comical effect. Hauptmann had the opposite aim. Through the use of dialect in a proletarian tragedy he underlined the Silesian dialect’s pertinency and sensitiveness and thereby the dignity of the workers.

Gerhart Hauptmann’s intelligence was luminous, his understanding of social problems remarkable; and he mastered the playwright’s craft as few others have done, with all the devices that enhance a play’s effect. But above all, he wrote with his heart. He wrote with love and pity. Without this deep emotional and moral involvement, his plays would not be the masterworks they are.

He knew the people he was writing about, knew their faith and feelings. He talked for example in 1891 with surviving veterans of the weavers’ upheaval and studied the locale carefully. And he loved his people. His own ancestors had been weavers. But he knew the proletariat of Berlin and its language just as well, as he had lived there for years. He never was just a poet of local lore.

Set in 16th century Franconia, Florian Geyer, Hauptmann’s gigantic tragedy of the Peasants’ War (1524-25), written after The Weavers as an answer to the bourgeoisie’s clamoring for new measures against the Socialists, presents the social classes of the time of the Reformation, with a total of 80 speaking persons to represent them! Again, the author carefully studied the locale and even tried to imitate 16th century language. Florian Geyer depicts the failure of the German peasants’ revolution against the princes of the Catholic Church, the feudalists, and the rising bourgeoisie of the cities. Florian Geyer, a knight, joined the oppressed, impoverished, God-seeking peasants and became their leader, fought to the last, and heroically fell in battle.

At a time when the bourgeoisie was convinced that the powerful German Reich (Empire) was invincible and pursuing the road of continuous, uninterrupted progress and prosperity, Hauptmann felt it was rushing towards a catastrophe. He had written a most enjoyable comedy, The Beaver Fur, a bitingly realistic satire on the arrogance and narrow-mindedness of Prussian officialdom; but about 17 to 19 years later, in 1910, he pointed out the underlying decay of the seemingly happy and glamorous Empire of the Kaiser in his tragicomedy, The Rats, in which he particularly castigated the oppression by imperial Germany of the Polish minority in the East. A Polish servant girl of aristocratic ancestry is pushed around and abandoned in Berlin. She is alternately cajoled, threatened, brutalized. Her illegitimate child is taken from her; and the childless woman who pretends the baby is her own has the Polish girl removed from the scene by her criminal brother when she, the real mother, claims the infant. The servant girl is murdered by the woman’s brother. And in the house where the play is set, a former military barracks, a gang of professional criminals sings patriotic songs. We also meet a rebel (again resembling young Hauptmann), a naive rank-and-file unionist, and a hypocritical super-patriot.

Hauptmann was a true realist. He never painted of the proletariat an abstract, idealized propaganda picture. He was not afraid to show the weaknesses, the fears and the short-comings, frequently conditioned by the social situation of the class. And precisely because of their social realism, Hauptmann’s plays also are highly symbolic, as all great realistic dramas are. This symbolism is especially evident in Hauptmann’s case. The individual figure also represents a social force and situation, as well as a certain historical development, and its significance therefore transcends the individual’s uniqueness. And the playwright’s art underscores through his story’s traits and twists the symbolical value and meaning of the drama.

Twenty years after The Rats, when the Weimar Republic was shaking under the depression and when the fast expanding Nazi party prepared the destruction of the labor movement and of bourgeois democracy, Hauptmann, now almost seventy, again sensed an impending catastrophe. In Before Sunset (1931), the tragedy of a seventy-year old publisher loving a girl in her twenties and being loved by her, but running into opposition from his children and particularly his son-in-law who destroys him, a changeover inside the German bourgeoisie is clearly expressed, albeit without any illusion to politics. The gripping play is far more than the story of an older man falling in love. Commercial Councillor Matthias Clausen, modeled after Hauptmann’s friend, wealthy bibliophile Max Pinkus, is one of the heirs to Germany’s tradition of spiritual greatness, of humanism and classic-romantic literature, thoroughly cultured, and a patrician who grew up in an era when capitalism, on the whole, still had a progressive function in the development of productive forces. His son-in-law and enemy, Klamroth, who gets control of the family and of Clausen’s newspapers, is uncultured, unscrupulous, vulgar, determined to do anything to reach his goal. He is the representative of the cold new “managerial” type of the era of monopoly capitalism. In order to further their aims, the Klamroths were about to hand power to Hitler, to consent to the demolition of the humanist-rationalist heritage in which they were not interested.

Except for the youngest son (the one remaining hope for the future), Clausen’s entire family, including his older son, a university Professor, and a daughter-in-law who is the daughter of a ruined general – official science and the military caste – side with Klamroth against the father; and so does the Professor’s friend, a jurist. The sun was indeed setting over Germany and Hauptmann was the witness of the old Germany’s death.

Hauptmann’s work is tremendously vast and many-sided. Besides his numerous plays, he wrote novels, short stories, autobiographical pieces, poems and epic poetry. He was the last great writer of epics, and they reflect his and the German people’s experiences in times of crisis. The word realism would not be sufficient to characterize Hauptmann’s entire, enormous output. Part of his work is marked by social realism, part is romantic, and another part takes up, in Hauptmann’s own way, the tradition of the classics. These are not styles or phases that succeed each other in Hauptmann’s life. They were simultaneous. They coincided. Hauptmann was a realist, a romantic, a classicist; and any image of this genius would be false if it were to ignore any of these three facets.

His realism, romanticism and classicism do not at all contradict each other. I have already tried to indicate the higher and wider reality behind the realistic surface of some of his plays. This goes for his entire work, including the romantic and classicist creations. Hauptmann always resorts to the form and style best suited to what he wants to express. His romanticism is never anti-rational, quite the opposite. Hauptmann was an admirer of Lessing, the towering figure of Germany’s 18th century enlightenment who opened the classic age of German literature. There is no room in Hauptmann’s work for muddled thinking or a denial of reality, the inner reality of his creatures and their relation to the world.

Those who are under the influence of the Stalinists’ literary dogmatism will not be able to understand a universal figure like Gerhart Hauptmann. To him, the myth is the poet’s highest accomplishment. In our daily use of the word, the myth is just an untrue story; but of course, Hauptmann used it in a very different sense. The poet creates a story which is not necessarily probable and can dispense with surface reality, as it is only in the freedom this form affords him that he is able to crystallize a certain vision and feeling of the world and its underlying reality. The figures of the myth are powerfully alive, nursed with certitude, longing and experience, not coldly allegorical but embodying as distinct individuals human forces (and sometimes extra-human forces of nature) that shape the world, conveying through their character and actions a truth that could not be communicated in another way, a formula of condensation of a vast and complex reality in the world and in our soul.

Let us not forget that even the realistic drama is not simply a photograph of reality but must be a clever composition that radiates an illusion of reality. Hauptmann’s foremost romantic drama, And Pippa Is Dancing (1905), “a glass-works legend” set in Silesia’s mountains, a mythical creation, actually is full of realism in the characters, their basic situation in the world, in countless details and in the overall significance behind the surface. And this applies to Hauptmann’s romanticism and classicism in general.

Much as he was attached to Silesia, his native province where he resided with his (second) wife Margarete, a violinist, in his beautiful house Wiesenstein at Agnetendorf in the Giant Mountains (Riesengebirge), Gerhart Hauptmann was not provincial and had his eye on Germany and the world. Since 1929, the handsome, sturdily built poet had a second home at Hiddensee, a Baltic island were his remains were buried in 1946 by local fishermen. He frequently stayed in Italy and Switzerland, visited Greece and loved all these countries. Greek antiquity, that cradle of our civilization, inspired him. French theater audiences acclaimed him; and so did Gorky and other revolutionary Russian writers on the occasion of Hauptmann’s 60th birthday, in 1922. And Hauptmann helped to mobilize world opinion in the campaign to aid the Soviet people during the famine of the early twenties. Several states bestowed medals and other honors on the playwright-poet. Over the CBS network, he spoke to the American people about Goethe in 1932. Yet, Gehart Hauptmann was deeply rooted in the soil of Silesia.

When Hitler seized power in 1933, Hauptmann did not emigrate because to him it would have been a psychological impossibility. A homeless refugee, practically begging in a foreign country at the age of 71, he would have withered in no time. Thomas Mann was able to emigrate because his personality was different, because he was younger, and because he had a sufficient income from his novels in foreign countries, too. Thomas Mann was a son of Lübeck, a maritime city, a door to the world, while Gerhart Hauptmann was a son of the Silesian mountains. Both authors, represented the finest tradition of the German spirit, and both did the right thing because they both acted in accordance with their own individual nature without surrendering to the Nazi anti-spirit, to fascist insanity. Hauptmann, while continuing to live and work in Germany, with various trips abroad, never made any serious concession to the Nazi regime, although the Nazis would have liked to use him for their propaganda, prominent and venerated as he was.

Hauptmann remained true to himself. When his Jewish friend Max Pinkus died in 1934, Hauptmann was the only “Arian” to attend the funeral of the man who, only two years earlier, had still been called a public benefactor by those who now did not have the courage to pay their respects to a Jew. Under the Hitler regime, a gesture such as Hauptmann’s amounted to a demonstration, for Hauptmann was very much a public figure. In 1937, in Rapallo, Italy, Hauptmann wrote his dramatic requiem, The Darknesses, dedicated to his encounter with the eternal values of the Jewish spirit (represented by Pinkus) and to the defense, in a time of darkness, of its immense contribution to civilization. The Jewish contribution being an integral element of our culture, an ethical foundation, the attack against the Jews is an attack against us too, Hauptmann cried out. He realized how the blow also fell on the Germany he stood for.

In World War II, immediately before the end of Hitler’s Third Reich, Hauptmann who had never aided Goebbels’ war propaganda, witnessed and protested, without giving any support to the Nazis, the senseless destruction by Allied bombers of Dresden, one of Europe’s splendid cultural centers, and the mass slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians. Not a man of hatred but of love and pity, the poet denounced the coldblooded murder policy of total war and deplored the death of a city that had belonged to the common cultural heritage of Europe and mankind. The burning of Dresden in February, 1945, sapped the strength of the 82-year old.

He was in his Silesian home when the Soviet Army occupied East Germany. Russian and Polish officers treated the world-renowned patriarch of German literature with marked courtesy; but since Stalin had handed the purely German province of Silesia to the Poles, the entire Silesian population was expelled; and no exception could be made for Hauptmann. He was sick. The Soviet authorities offered to transport him with his wife and his movable possessions to Berlin in a special train. But before this could be done, Ger-hart Hauptmann died at the Weisenstein where he had lived and worked since 1901, amidst his beloved Silesian mountains, on June 6, 1946. His last words were: “Am I still in my house?”

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