Gerhart Hauptmann, the most famous German playwright of his era, was born a few years before Bismarck’s unification of Germany and died after the defeat of fascism. When a writer lives a long life his creativity, despite its internal variability, becomes an integral part of the culture of the nation for many decades. One can read the history of Germany and whole Europe in Hauptmann’s books; they reflect the upheavals, changes, and social shifts, intellectual and artistic innovations. Hauptmann reasonably considered himself the heir of European humanism. His numerous dramas (of which there are almost fifty) and his much lesser-known novels and stories depict the images of the historical past, religious struggles, revolutionary actions, hopes and defeats of desperate, dying of hunger Silesian weavers, farm laborers, people of Berlin bottom, tragedies and the frantic searches of artists, highly gifted and unfortunate adherents of truth and justice.
Gerhart Hauptmann was not only a very successful writer. He was a kind of a symbol of spiritual development in Germany in the late 19th – first half of the 20th century. He witnessed the rise of Prussia. Hauptmann welcomed this process, though treating it rather critically. He survived, deeply felt and analyzed the defeat of Germany; however his utopian projects of a more humane society have remained unfulfilled. In 1912, the reading audience was quite surprised to learn that Hauptmann was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, only 2 years after awarding Paul Hayes.
The fact is that Hayes and Hauptmann were considered opposites in literature. In 1910, the Nobel Committee grounded its decision exactly by the absence in Hayes’ works of naturalistic, photographic display of the ugly reality. Hauptmann in turn was considered a representative of naturalism in literature, for which his candidacy was rejected twice by the Nobel Committee. In 1912, however, the Swedish Academy regarded it was possible to award Hauptmann the Nobel Prize, “primarily in recognition of the fruitful, varied and outstanding work in the field of dramatic art, as well as for his ability to penetrate into the depths of the human spirit”. According to the jury, realism in the plays of Hauptmann inevitably leads to the dream of a new and better life, to realizing that dream into reality. Giving thanks to the Nobel Committee in a brief acceptance speech, Hauptmann paid tribute to “the ideals the Nobel Foundation serves to”, adding that he meant “the ideal of universal peace, the art and science ultimately tend to” (Holl 118-125).
In the beginning of his artistic career, Gerhard Hauptmann indeed experienced the strong influence of natural-scientific determinism, and the positivist conception of reality is expressed clearly in his plays of the late 1880’s – early 1890’s. However, in the best of them, he goes beyond the boundaries of a naturalistic aesthetics. Starting from the second half of the 1890’s Hauptmann creates realistic plays on contemporary themes and at the same time, drama-fairy tales imbued with neo-romantic and symbolist searching (Holl 65-71). This peculiarity of works of the German playwright was noticed by T. Mann. In a speech dedicated to the ninetieth birthday of Hauptmann, Mann said that his life’s work blended many literary movements – neo-romanticism turned into realism, the hawkish exposure of reality interwined with poetry (Maurer 11).
The literary development of Hauptmann was greatly influenced by Tolstoy and Ibsen. He wrote that his creative writing went back in its roots to Tolstoy. Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House”, according to Hauptmann, affected him as a loud fanfare, as a sign of time. However, the devotion to positivism made Hauptmann at early stages to take from Tolstoy and Ibsen precisely those elements of art that met the requirements of his naturalistic conception. It is noteworthy that at the time naturalism was widespread in France, Russia and Scandinavia, while it was quite a rare artistic method in German literature, in which romanticism still occupied the central place (Maurer 162-165).
Hauptmann’s play “Before Dawn”, which tells the tragic story of fast enrichment and just as fast impoverishment of a peasant family, written, moreover, in the Silesian dialect, was the first naturalistic drama in German (Hauptmann 31-161). The audience was shocked by its ruthless honesty and vivid colloquial language. As a result of the scandalous success the production Hauptmann became being considered a serious, promising playwright. The next piece – “A World Feast” helped him to finally decide on the choice of direction in his work and make an attempt to create a new dramatic style of naturalism.
Within 15 years Hauptmann took charge of the modern German drama. Starting with the naturalism in the style of Zola, with the problem of heredity in his early pieces (“Vor Sonnenaufgang”, “Friedensfest”), Hauptmann subsequently set himself a variety of tasks. From naturalistic dramas describing the tragedy of the environment he moved to the psychology of personality in the struggle with the environment. This was the basis of his “Einsame Leute”, which represented the types of transition time when personality having learned his/her rights, yet not matured to firm up in them. His drama “Die Weber” (The Weavers, 1892) is of great public importance, representing a terrible picture of human misery against the background of the revolt of the starving weavers. The main motive of the whole drama is expressed in the concluding words: “Every man must have a dream” (“Jeder muss halt a Sehnsucht haben”) (Hauptmann 268). It is very interesting by its technique: its hero is a crowd whose composition varies in each act.
This play, which brought Hauptmann the true recognition, depicts with grim realism the strike of Silesian weavers in 1844. In the play there is no traditional division into positive and negative characters. The author rejects the moral judgment of his heroes. The play contains a very accurate social analysis (Hauptmann 161-269). Overt social criticism of the drama was the reason for Kaiser Wilhelm II to refuse from his box at the theater after its premiere, and the further staging of the play was banned. Sharp criticism of the state of contemporary society led to the worldwide fame of Hauptmann. Thomas Mann, in his speech on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Hauptmann called him a poet of the poor.
“The Sunken Bell” (1896) is one of the most significant plays written by Hauptmann. The author basing on folk traditions recreates the picturesque scene of mountain kingdom, reviving the magic of a fairy-tale romantic poetry. He describes the slopes of the majestic mountains with steep cliffs, bluffs, clear blue lakes inhabited by gnomes, mermaids, fairies, pucks, etc. All of these fabulous creatures represent the poetic element of life. In a small timber hut under overhanging rock lives an old sorceress Wittich and a young fairy Rautendeleyn, an intoxicating, attractive, but an unattainable ideal of beauty and perfection (Maurer 73-78).
Hauptmann contrasts the mountain world of poetic fantasy and freedom with a dull world of the valley. It is inhabited with completely different characters. They are a pastor, teacher, barber and other residents of the village at the foot of the mountain, for whom the initiation to the beauty is not available. Between these two worlds the protagonist is torn apart, a bell founder called Heinrich. Once he casted a bell for the temple high in the mountains. But the bell had a crack and its sound was off-pitch. It fell from the rocks and sank to the bottom of a deep lake. Heinrich fell along with the bell into the cliff and crashed on the rocks. The poetic world of the mountains did not accept him because his creation lacked perfection.
Heinrich does not want to serve the valley. He leaves his wife and children and goes back to the mountains to cast a new bell there. Still, the artist does not manage to fulfill his dream into reality. He cannot overcome a deep chasm between the philistine world of the valley and spiritual freedom of the mountains. In the valley, as in the mountains, he feels both a native and a stranger at the same time (Maurer 73-78).
However, the democratic ideals of Hauptmann both at the end of the 19th century and in subsequent decades had neither clarity nor radicalism. Factually, Hauptmann was far away from the true revolutionary mood, although the revolutionary actions of the German proletariat and the struggle of Social Democrats against the so-called “Anti-Socialist Law” in the 1880’s could not help influencing the early creative work of Hauptmann. In the drama “Drayman Henschel” (1898), “Rose Bernd” (1903), and “The Rats” (1911) contained the criticism towards the manners of Imperial Germany, and compassion for the disadvantaged (Maurer 90-96). However, in the works of Hauptmann were also impacted by the limitations of naturalism: absolutization of biological laws, and passivity of the main characters.
In 1907, being upset by the decline of popularity and the lack of creative energy, Hauptmann went to Greece, where he creates his “Greek spring”. Written in the form of travel diary, this book is, in fact, an attempt of Hauptmann to understand the contradiction between the commitment to the Christian heritage and attraction to paganism of the ancient culture. The same theme is revealed in the other two Hauptmann’s novels: “The Simpleton Emmanuel Quint”, in which he tells the story of a modern mystic, Silesian carpenter whose life he compares to the life of Christ (Maurer 143), and “The Island of the Great Mother”.
All these dramas are quite real in their manner of writing, but they are still filled with the desire to reflect the “idealistic impulses of the spirit”. This can actually be considered as Hauptmann’s main force: both in public and psychological dramas devoted to the struggle of a person with the environment, he never limits himself to depicting the earthy side of conflicts, but is always sensitive to the voice of the spirit. Along with being a highly realistic creature, Hauptmann is a poet, who can sensitively recreate the atmosphere of German national tales and legends in verse dramas. Thus, “Poor Henry” (1903) is a new version of an old German legend about a leper, healed by the selfless love of a girl. The spirit of the ancient poetic tradition is perfectly preserved in Hauptmann’s drama. Thus, the main feature of Hauptmann is the combination of naturalistic methods, proximity to real life and its direct interests, sympathy for human sufferings, and profound idealism, faith in the spirit of a man who sets more and more stringent aims for himself.
Hauptmann’s plays are very suitable for staging. Therefore, at the end of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th century, they literally won the stage of not only German, but all European theaters. Hauptmann’s imagination, courageous violation of various literary canons – both naturalistic and symbolistic ones, excellent powers of observation, ability to develop acute, paradoxical situations, and a variety of genre structures – all this provided success to the colorful, unexpected plays of Hauptmann. It’s also worth mentioning that with all their internal unity, Hauptmann’s works are very diverse thematically, and until Brecht, Hauptmann remained a recognized leader in the German theater, who did not know any rivals.
Besides, he was frequently working on several novels simultaneously, and more often than once he started something new, just after putting the last word on the last page of the previous drama or novel. These unusual creative productivity of Hauptmann was also one of the factors why he was awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1912, “primarily in recognition of the fruitful, varied and outstanding work in the field of dramatic art, as well as for his ability to penetrate into the depths of the human spirit”, as the representative of the Swedish Academy Hans Hildebrand mentioned in his speech, adding that realism in the plays of Hauptmann inevitably leads to the dream of a new and better life, to realizing that dream into reality. As we see now, this intersects with the main idea of Hauptmann’s “Die Weber” of 1892 and other works of this period.
Still, after his death, Hauptmann’s fame was eclipsed; his plays are stages now, as a rule, only in Germany and much less in other countries. The plays, written by him over the past 25 years of life, are, according to the critic John Gassner, nothing very much special, and now even his most important works sound out of tune, both in Germany and abroad (Holl 127). Even the adherent admirers of Gerhart Hauptmann recognize that the most successful his plays are the early ones. Nevertheless, assessing the achievements of the great dramatist as a whole, his biographer Hugh Garten calls Hauptmann “one of the last true humanists, who inherited and, in the diversity of his characters, developed a great European tradition” (Holl 128).
Hauptmann, Gerhart. The Dramatic Works of Gerhart Hauptmann (vol.1). BiblioLife, 2008. Print.
Holl, Karl. Gerhart Hauptmann, his life and his work, 1862-1912. Nabu Press, 2010. Print.
Maurer, Warren R. Understanding Gerhart Hauptmann. University of South Carolina Press, 1992. Print.