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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ludwig Lewisohn (1882–1955)

By Gerhart Hauptmann (1862–1946)

DESPITE his very wide reputation, an understanding of Hauptmann’s full significance as a modern dramatist is making its way but slowly. And it is quite natural that playwrights of far less power and far less ultimate importance should make a more direct and immediate appeal. For we are all accessible to ideas and to methods that are time-honored, and follow but haltingly the masters who are also leaders. Among these, however, Hauptmann must be reckoned by virtue of the impulse, the trend, and the form of his works.

He was born in the Silesian village of Obersalzbrunn in 1862. His father was an inn-keeper in modest circumstances, his grandfather had been a waiter and earlier a weaver. Through his mother’s family he is connected with the pietistic country-folk of his native province. Thus, and the point is of importance, Hauptmann springs directly from the common people whom he understands and whom he has so constantly portrayed. His scholastic career was brief and irregular, his attempts at the plastic arts with which he began were half-hearted. After some travel in the south of Europe where his vision was more alive to the miseries of social man than to the memorable things of nature or of art he settled in Berlin. His life there for some years was tentative and vague. He read Zola, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, seeking some form in which to express the dominant impulse of his nature: his compassion for the life of the disinherited of the social order. That form, the drama of consistent naturalism, came to him in the later eighties, and he immediately became fully and magnificently articulate. He has since often written in forms and moods that are apparently nearer the traditional. But only apparently, for his plays in verse, no less than his most sternly realistic plays in prose, proceed from a radically new method of envisioning life in dramatic form.

Any understanding of Hauptmann must begin with an understanding of this method. He has been called undramatic, ignoble, dull. He is none of these things. He has simply, from his own observation and under the influence of the indisputable facts of individual and social psychology, broken with the secular tradition that the drama ought to represent the struggle of opposing wills, and that, on the assumption of an inherent freedom of choice, an evil or mistaken or inadequate volition must be brought to punishment. Both his knowledge and his compassionate insight have taught him, on the contrary, that the tragedy of human fate lies, in the majority of cases, in the throttling of the will, in the inability of any pure volition to get itself translated into action, in the intolerable weight upon the individual will of evil inheritance, of tribal inhibitions, of social pressure and social injustice. Thus Hauptmann becomes the tragic proclaimer not of the evil will but of the frustrated will, not of man sinning deliberately, but of man aspiring vainly. As fervently as Nietzsche, though in a very different spirit, Hauptmann would first of all wish men to be such men as can will. That they cannot is their tragedy, which is, then, a tragedy caused not by “tragic guilt” but by “tragic fatality.”

A moment’s reflection will show that this new way of grasping the eternal human problem which is the stuff of the drama involves a new dramatic technique. For the traditional technique of the drama was based upon the requirement that there must be a tensening conflict, that will must come to grapple with will, or duty and inclination within the same will. In the drama of Hauptmann one must at once substitute for the term conflict the other and, in reality, far more pregnant term crisis. His plays are all crises toward the culmination of which went not only, not indeed primarily, the volitions of men, but all those strange and obscure and complex forces which do, as a matter of fact, rule our lives. The center of the tremendous problem of life is shifted. Not what men do is all-important, but the things that make them what they are. Thus the tragedy of ‘The Weavers’ lies in the fact that social injustice has made these men incapable of liberating themselves; and in ‘Michael Kramer’ that that great soul’s gifted son cannot conquer the weakness and the division of his own nature; and in ‘The Sunken Bell’ that Heinrich has not the power and hardihood to harmonize the ideal and the real in his own life. His tragedy is not that he does not: it is that he cannot. Thus in the drama of Hauptmann there is never any attempt to tie a dramatic knot which is to be cut or unraveled by a sudden moral or volitional volte-face. These plays are made to grow with the unobtrusive but pitiless progression of life itself: all artifice, all undue heightening, all pointing of the conflict is austerely avoided. There is action, of course, for men express themselves through action as well as through speech. But Hauptmann would hold it to be a literally vulgar error that the action must be “interesting” or, in the traditional, pseudo-idealistic sense, noble. For all action, the humbler as truly as the more resounding, illustrates the far deeper and far more vital problem of being.

The twenty-four plays which Hauptmann has written between 1889 and 1914 may quite obviously be divided into two major groups: the naturalistic and the neo-romantic. Or, more exactly, those in which he has faithfully and closely illustrated the life of contemporary society and those in which he has sought to interpret legendary or historical material which is the ancient and common possession of the Western mind. Among the first group the indisputable masterpieces are: ‘The Weavers’ (1892), ‘The Beaver Coat’ (1893), ‘Drayman Henschel’ (1898), ‘Michael Kramer’ (1900), and ‘Rose Bernd’ (1903); among the second group ‘Schluck and Jau’ (1899), ‘Henry of Auë’ (1902), ‘Charlemagne’s Hostage’ (1908), and ‘The Bow of Odysseus’ (1914). Apart from both groups stands ‘The Sunken Bell’ (1896), the most intimate, the most famous, and perhaps the most deeply poetical of his works, into which he poured the aspirations and perplexities of his own soul both as a man and as an artist.

Each of these two groups of plays possesses its high and characteristic merit. That of the first is the creation of character; that of the second is the interpretation of character. The naturalistic method of dramaturgy in the first group, the sensitively exact rendition of human speech, the vision of man unclouded and undistorted by any anterior moral prejudice enabled Hauptmann to create characters of extraordinary vividness and truth. The projection of these characters is complete: they are not, as is so often the case, exaggerated aspects of a single creative mind, but independent, free, original, human. To say that these characters are Shakespearian in their vitality is, in a sense, to do them less than justice. For Shakespeare has given even to his very clowns a portion of his own divine energy of speech and of his passion and humor. Hauptmann has let his men and women speak wholly for themselves. The great outburst of Luise in ‘The Weavers,’ the terrible eloquence of Rose Bernd’s repentance—these are no golden tirades which the poet lends souls essentially dumb. They are the authentic speech of these humble but impassioned women wrung from them at the great crises of their lives. You hear the very words, the vibrant quiver of the very voices. It is not literature: it is life—it is Wordsworth’s theory of the nature of the art of letters completely realized in another age and land and tongue. Thus might Henry Fielding have written and thus have made men speak had he lived in a more sensitive, more complex, and more tragic age.

In the second group of Hauptmann’s plays the interpretation of character passes insensibly into the interpretation or, at least, the definite facing of certain universal problems. Thus in ‘Schluck and Jau’ he writes a new and exquisite version of the old subject of life a dream; in ‘And Pippa Dances’ (1906) he deals with ideal beauty so passionately pursued by many men in many ways; in ‘Henry of Auë’ and in ‘Charlemagne’s Hostage’ he addresses himself to the basic problem of evil in its two aspects of natural and moral evil. The princely leper in the first of the two plays despairs of the world and of God in blind and bitter rebellion. His healing comes to him when he is reunited in love and trust to the universe. Hauptmann’s treatment of the problem of moral evil is embodied in the girl Gersuind in the second of the two plays with less breadth and power but with far more subtlety. The old Emperor Karl through passion and anger and renunciation comes to see that the judgment of man must fall silent before the sin which is also beauty and whose strange question can be answered only in the courts of God.

  • “She stands to-day before her heavenly Judge!
  • What will he say, oh, what oppose unto
  • The proud and searching silence of her lips?…
  • Was she a flake of the infernal fire?
  • Then think, my lords, of seas of equal fire!
  • No wonder then that with a singèd heart
  • The happy spirits to destruction crowd!”
  • Noble and notable as these dramas are, there is no doubt, on the other hand, that Hauptmann now and for some time to come will make his deepest appeal through those plays in which, with an unexampled veracity and objectivity, he has treated the two crucial concerns of his own age—social justice and the relation of the sexes. And the peculiar virtue of Hauptmann’s dealing with these matters lies in the fact that he is never polemic, like Shaw, and that he never, like Hervieu and Galsworthy, builds his action in an acutely expository, almost in a didactic form. He gives us the concrete facts: he knows that the concrete is the eternally significant and he lets that suffice.

    But Hauptmann’s overshadowing position among the dramatists of his time is due, after all, to the fact that he possesses both types of imaginative power: the one either constructs an ideal world upon the basis of the real or interprets the real by the great symbols of poetry and legend. The other type of imaginative power achieves a vision of the totality of life and character from such meager hints as even the widest and most penetrating observation can afford. By his possession of the idealistic imagination Hauptmann is akin to the Shelley of ‘The Cenci,’ to Kleist and Grillparzer and Hebbel. By his possession of the realistic imagination he stands almost alone among dramatists and must seek his equals among the masters of the objective in another medium. For his men and women have a breathing fullness of life which Ibsen’s people never attain and which we shall find only in Fielding and Flaubert at their best.