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the people of the present and seems to condemn his
former endeavors as cruel and useless.

In the succeeding dramas he did not exercise any
further criticism of society but made use of existing
conditions only as a basis for the treatment of peculiar
psychological problems. In Rosmersholm (1886) it is
a question only of the fate of the individual so far
as it depends on ethical principles. Even here there is
an element of mysticism intermingled which next re-
ceives the principal attention in the Lady from the Sea
(1888), a drama in which the psychological solution of
the marriage question is attempted. In Hedda Gabler
(1891) this element of the absolutely mysterious again
disappears, though Hedda 's condition has something en-
tirely indefinable which conditions her state of feeling
and the whole course of the action.

Then the mystical becomes dominant in The Master
Builder, the tragedy of a will-power failing to act and
in Little Eyolf (1894), a drama in which the impulse



THE OLD ART AND NATURALISM 143

to evil is overcome and a selfish, sensual love is given
up in favor of mighty deeds for the future. The last
two works of Ibsen are variations of the same theme.
In John Gabriel Borckmann (1896) and the sequel,
When We Dead Awaken (1899), ruthless effort, even
when it sets the highest aims before it, is attacked as a
mortal enemy because it destroys the life of love, man's
most valuable possession.

The error of the German naturalists, who believed
that they saw in Ibsen an artist akin to Zola, arose from
the fact that he, too, was unfriendly to embellishment,
gave scenes from the life of the present, did not avoid
the distasteful and employed the results of the modern
natural sciences in the motivation and psychology of
his dramas.

But all these new methods are in Ibsen at the service
of the old problems of art which are no longer recog-
nized by Naturalism. With their aid he desires to solve
certain problems and to assign values. Not the simple
connection of cause and effect but the sway of fate,
though somewhat modern in dress, decides the result,
which is specially conditioned by very complicated per-
sonalities. Because of this it loses the typical character
required by Naturalism. And yet these personalities
do not, as with earlier authors, stand in empty space;
they must breathe the life of their times even if it is
full of pestilence.

All this might also have been found in Hebbel's
dramas, but Ibsen's technique appeared quite new and
contributed most to his being reckoned among the
Naturalists. Hebbel had made the implied demand that
the spectator allow the validity of certain special con-
ditions of the artistic world which are at variance with



ill- GERMAN DRAMA

iv.-ility and himself aid the poet to this end by the
display of a vigorous imagination. Ibsen, on the
other hand, makes illusion easier than any of his pred-
ecessors. His characters speak as in real life; sug-
gestively, brokenly, capriciously, revealing their thoughts
only accidentally and unwillingly. Nothing seems to
be said to instruct the hearers or to guide their judg-
ment, but the consummate art of the dialogue produces
an absolutely faithful picture of real conversation be-
cause the characters on the stage follow by inherent
necessity the laws of the reciprocal interchange of
thought. Moreover, we look deeper into their souls
than was possible by the earlier method which only
availed itself of conscious, pointed utterances on the
stage. At the same time the events are imitated and
joined to one another in a way which seems to have
no regard at all for the spectator or the needs of dra-
matic construction and especially assists in producing
the impression of a simple reproduction of an accidental
event. In truth, however, there is to be recognized
in this a triumph of the greatest command of dramatic
art-form, for everything seemingly accidental is at the
service of the problem of representing visibly the action
in its course. True, Ibsen's idea of an action is differ-
ent from that of the majority of his predecessors. He
has gone deep in this way, that the outward action
no longer dominates but the inward processes which
condition and accompany the action are made percepti-
ble to the senses. To demonstrate these as clearly as
possible he makes the real action extremely limited and,
like the Greek tragedians, represents on the stage only
the final steps which lead to the fall. He is thus com-
pelled to recover the earlier stages of the course of



THE OLD ART AND NATURALISM 145

events in the form of an exposition which runs along
through the whole play. In this he also shows in bril-
liant fashion his mastery over all devices by influencing
his characters, without any visible compulsion but be-
cause of the given conditions, to communicate the nec-
essary hypotheses.

By his enhancement of illusion, his deepening of the
intellectual life and his perfect technique, Ibsen has
become the most significant dramatist of the present
day and no one who in seriousness writes for the stage
can escape his influence, let him yield ever so reluctantly.

Ibsen's less important fellow-countryman, BJORN-
STJERNE BJORNSON, has also made a strong impression
in Germany and gained a certain influence. Even be-
fore Ibsen became known in Germany, Ein Fallissement
(1874), a society-play made after French models but
more realistic, had won its way on the stage and at
the close of our period his double drama, Uber unsre
Kraft (1893-95), called forth passionate excitement.
This, however, originated more from the religious sub-
ject of the first part and the social subject of the
second than directly from the merit of the work.
Bjornson's technique always retains something of the
conventional and the theatrical and cannot disown its
descent from the French.

Bjornson is still farther removed than Ibsen from
Naturalism of which the Swede, AUGUST STRINDBERG,
must be considered the most logical representative. In
many of his dramas, such as Der Vater (1887), Frdulein
Julie (1888), etc., he aims only at reproducing abso-
lutely and faithfully from second to second in its out-
ward course a scene from the world of reality and
claims that to him the value and the influence of what



146 GERMAN DRAMA

is presented is quite indifferent. Of course this is in
reality not the case and even with him there is not
wanting a trend which, according to Naturalism, ought
to be excluded.

Besides Ibsen and Strindberg there is a third nom-
inally Naturalistic dramatist who acquired an influ-
ence in Germany, the Kussian Count, LEO TOLSTOI. His
really great drama, The Powers of Darkness (1887),
throws a light upon the moral degradation of the Rus-
sian peasantry. Every one of their characteristics is
faithfully noted and candidly reproduced but there is
no effort to attain to the exactness demanded by Nat-
uralism and the moral standard is not lacking. Rather,
the purpose of the poet is directed to showing the
connection between guilt and atonement in a dramatic
action of the old style and, instead of scientific views,
a fervent positive Christian conviction permeates the
whole. Once again it is merely the psychological
depth and the peculiar nature of the coarse incidents
which ruthlessly reveal the depths of vice and contra-
dict the old ideal of beauty that suggest the appearance
of Naturalism.

On the basis of the impression produced by its foreign
representatives in Germany, the essence of Naturalism
is represented at the end of the eighties as follows:
Naturalism chooses its material exclusively from the
life of the present day and preferably from the domain
of the lowly, the ugly and the morally objectionable,
which up to the present has been excluded from artistic
treatment. Instead of plots it offers accurately ob-
served scenes and individual incidents which are to be
considered typical of the conditions of society. In ad-
dition, abnormal morbid qualities are assigned to the



THE OLD ART AND NATURALISM 147

characters introduced which, however, likewise claim
a typical significance as the results of the unnatural
conditions of modern life. Everything is derived from
psychological and pathological causes. The law of
causality holds unconditional sway, represented by scien-
tific hypotheses, such as heredity and the influence of
suggestion upon the will and by socialistic theories.
Instead of strong utterances of passion, conversation
alone serves as the means of sketching character and
of disclosing the progress of events. Involuntary sug-
gestions, instead of intentional communications, seeming
equalization of what is essential and non-essential, avoid-
ance of the monologue and of everything serving merely
for the enlightenment of the spectator, and the most
accurate prescriptions for everything external are to
produce complete illusion without any assistance from
the imagination of the spectator.

The single aim is ostensibly to do battle against lying,
hypocrisy and whatever is antiquated in art and life.
At the same time judgment is mostly given from the
standpoint of youthful inexperience and of extreme
political and social endeavor which would like at one
stroke to put a new order of society and a new art
in the place of the old, and to which therefore every-
thing is welcome which makes light of prevailing views.



148 GERMAN DRAMA

THE "FREE THEATRES"

From the year 1885 Naturalism has been a force in
Germany in lyric poetry and in drama, and has been
fostered by individual, mostly quite young authors.
Although it had to encounter the most violent attacks
from the moral, political and aesthetic point of view and
its representatives were, in fact, haled before the courts
to give answer for their faith, yet the new ideas gradu-
ally did, after all, make a place for themselves and
gained enthusiastic admirers, especially among the
young people of the large cities.

But all hope of winning over the regular theatres
seemed excluded. They were surrounded, as it were,
by a threefold wall, the anxious regard of their man-
agers for all possible prejudices of middle-class society,
the superficial love of amusement on the part of the
public and the censorship of the police, which, devoid
of all artistic judgment, forbade everything which
seemed to contain a criticism of existing conditions or
was not allowable in life, according to the judgment of
the normal state-official, or indeed offended merely
against aesthetic rules. The police, as everybody knows,
have in Germany the office of defending against every
attack, not only religion, custom and order, but even
the taste of the citizens.

Under these circumstances the production of a nat-
uralistic drama in Germany was, it seemed, impossible.
But in Paris the actor Antoine had established a theatre
libre, which arranged performances for the members
of a society only and therefore could not be troubled
by police censorship and was not influenced by the
"business" interest of the ordinary theatre.



THE "FREE THEATRES" 149

After this model the Freie Biihne society of Berlin
originated in April, 1889. In the choice of dramatic
works, as well as in their presentation on the stage, its
aim was to aspire to a living art uninfluenced by any
reference to models or artistic perfection. Especially
those dramas were to be considered which, because of
their nature, were not acceptable to the regular theatres.

The Berlin "Free Theatre" began its activity in the
autumn of 1889 with Ibsen's Ghosts and in the first
year of its existence reached the goodly number of
about 700 members. The half of the other plays it
offered were translations: Henrietta Marechal, by the
brothers Goncourt, a finely conceived but ineffectively
presented section of actual life; Der Handschuh by
Bjornson, a thesis-play, which, in spite of the importance
of the problem, was likewise no gain to the stage;
Tolstoi's Powers of Darkness and the unimportant play,
Auf dem Heimwege by the Norwegian Alexander Kiel-
land. German literature was represented by Fitger's
Von Gottes Gnaden, a drama of the old style which had
been refused entry to the stage merely from political
timidity, by Anzengruber's Viertes Gebot and by three
works of authors, up to that time unknown, who were
faithfully following in the footsteps of French and
Norwegian Naturalism : Die Familie Selicke, the joint
production of Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf, which
presented indifferent events with painful tediousness,
and the two maiden works of Gerhart Hauptmann.

For the first time attention was here called to the
prominent figure of the Silesian dramatist and the vio-
lent conflict of opinions which his dramas caused gave
significance to the important success which the Berlin
"Free Theatre" gained during the brief period of its



150 GERMAN DRAMA

prime. What only individual productions from foreign
countries had for a long time previously been able to
do, that is, excite general and passionate interest in a
work intended for the theatre, this a German author
now succeeded in for the first time.

In the second year the Berlin "Free Theatre" was
able to offer its members only five additional perform-
ances, among which, along with Hauptmann's Einsame
Menschen, Otto Erich Hartleben's Angele at most had a
certain importance. In the third year there was only
one single performance, Strindberg's Komtesse Julie.
The board of directors explained that the mission of
the "Free Theatre" was fulfilled. The real cause of
the rapid decline was, however, the lack of available
works of a naturalistic tendency.

The same fate befell the other societies which had
been founded with the same purpose as the Berlin ' ' Free
Theatre" in Munich, Vienna, Leipzig, Dresden and other
cities. In itself it was a happy idea for circles gifted
\vith artistic taste to cut loose by their own inherent
strength from the degenerate practices of the regular
theatres, though Kichard Wagner had already antici-
pated them in his Bayreuth "patronage society." The
idea came to naught because the guiding spirits of the
"Free Theatres" allowed themselves to be carried along
exclusively by the current of Naturalism. The danger-
ous rocks on which their boat went to pieces were lack
of dramatic interest and of aesthetic satisfaction in the
plays presented. When the first curiosity had been
satisfied, the majority of their adherents returned peni-
tently to the old style.

And yet the "Free Theatres" had gained a valuable
victory by their activity. The limits of the permissible



THE "FREE THEATRES" 151

were extended, new subjects had been introduced, a
more faithful presentation of external and internal de-
velopments was recognized as a most important duty of
the dramatist, careful observation took the place of con-
ventional characterization and the technique of author
and actor endeavored to arrive at complete illusion. At
the same time a keener judgment revealed the worthless-
ness of the hollow forms and of the phrase-filled ideal-
ism of the decadent literature, of the but seemingly
modern society-plays aiming at outward effect and of
the silly comedy and degenerate folk-play with its reg-
ular conventional figures.

For some years it seemed as if the classic plays also,
especially those of Schiller's last period, would be drawn
down into this whirlpool, but the outlook soon cleared.
It was recognized that these works had preserved their
full life and power throughout the nineteenth century
and that it was merely denied to the workers of an
altogether differently constituted time to give true and
complete expression to their thoughts and feelings with
the same artistic means.

Those older dramatists who had endeavored to reach
this goal, Hebbel, Ludwig and Anzengruber, only now
secured a proper appreciation ; the works of the mature
Grillparzer, such as Die Judm von Toledo and Libussa,
shone out with new brilliancy, and forgotten precursors
of Natnralism, like Biichner, Dulk and Nierbergall were
rediscovered. These earlier writers had also to make
up for the lack of artistic and technically capable rep-
resentatives of the "moderns."

It soon turned out that the attempt to establish an
entirely new dramatic art in Germany had failed. The
features peculiar to Naturalism that were of use were



152 GERMAN DRAMA

now combined in milder form with the old subjects
and with the old technique by certain of its first parti-
sans and new rising talents but without the pretense
of driving out the old art.

HERMANN SUDERMANN

While extreme Naturalism was undone because it was
unable to conjure up a new drama by magic, prudent
writers, acting as mediators between the old and the new,
chose well-beaten paths. In part they injected new
life into the old historical drama by weaving into it
realistic effective figures, as did Wildenbruch; in part
they anticipated the newly awakened interest in the
entire life of the present in that, while avoiding every-
thing too offensive, they presented the proletariat and
the inferior creatures, who had been unnoticed before
or had appeared only in idealizing colors on the stage,
as well as characters from the higher and middle classes
who were now conceived of in a slightly less conven-
tional fashion. In this they made careful use of the
expedients of naturalistic art but in general adhered
closely to the old well-connected plot and exercised all
other considerations for what was suitable to the stage.

In the same year that the Berlin "Free Theatre"
began its activity, the most successful representative
of this middle party, HERMANN SUDERMANN, was al-
lowed, after long waiting, to bring his play, Die Ehre
(1889), upon the stage.

Unadjusted and unconnected, the old and the new art
are still found side by side. One-half of the play
belongs to the Vorderhaus and without any essential
changes the well known figures of German middle-class



HERMANN SUDERMANN 153

plays come on the stage: the rich merchant prince, his
vain gossiping wife, his frivolous spoiled son and the
noble daughter who stands apart from the materialism
of the rest of the family and cannot disavow her descent
from Wallenstein 's Thekla. She loves a poor but very
virtuous youth and the subject of the plot, as with
innumerable predecessors, is the overcoming of the dif-
ficulties which lie in the way of the union of the two.
But while elsewhere the middle-class family appears
alone upon the scene and the solution is brought about
by some lucky accident, the saving of a life, an inherit-
ance or some similar cheap expedient, Sudermann has
given new charm to the old material by the introduction
of a house in the court (Hinterhaus), that is, a lower
class of society which with hatred and jealousy watches
the rich house and endeavors to rise to its easier life,
whether by honorable work or by vice. This proletariat
had not as yet appeared upon the stage in its true
form. Honest workmen were only allowed to show
themselves in clean clothes and with clean language;
common vice was represented only by comical, harmless
drunkards or Magdalenes who were firmly convinced
of the sinfulness of their doings. No dramatist had
ventured to represent such characters in their true form
and as a necessary product of the social conditions of
the present. As in life so all the more on the stage,
so-called good society tried to deny the existence of
persons of this class or allowed them at most to put
in an appearance in little episodes, in order to obtain
certain piquant effects. On the other hand, Sudermann
gave them equal dramatic rights and now when they
appeared before the public in full life-size, they were
looked at with a mixture of curious astonishment and



154 GERMAN DRAMA

disgust. Especially Alma Heinecke with her matter-
of-course immorality was a stone of stumbling for all
who wanted to see on the stage no vice but that which
had been punished and reformed. But the low senti-
ments of her parents, of her sister Auguste and of the
brother-in-law Michalski were, taken all in all, much
more disgusting, because their cowardly cringing to
the rich and their love of money and enjoyment came
out in brutal ugliness, while Alma possessed at least
the charm of youthful grace and naivete.

With accurate judgment as to what it was possible
to use on the stage, Sudermann has sketched this group
and its environment, so that everywhere the individual
traits contribute matter in confirmation of the scenes
to which even in this play the chief interest is turned.
At the same time a diverting effect is produced by the
purposely exaggerated description of their vulgarity.
There is no pretence of a profound characterization
nor any intention of proving the rottenness of society
conditions. The difference of the classes is rather em-
ployed merely to exemplify the theme under discussion.
This theme, that every class has its own conception
of honor, is proved by the course of the action, as in
French society-plays, and is discussed by the raissonneur,
a figure introduced expressly for this purpose, from
a lofty standpoint and as wittily as possible. But, after
all, it is a question merely of an entertaining play, in
spite of the appearance of the more serious purpose
of fathoming life's contradictions. This is clearly
shown at the end where money, which before had been
charged with the blame of all deterioration, now out-
wardly makes everything good, while in truth nothing
has happened to reconcile the profound contrasts. Also



HERMANN SUDERMANN 155

in the conduct of the dialogue in the front-house scenes
and in a plentiful use of clever ideas and surprising
comparisons there is an imitation of French society-
plays.

In this manner Sudermann was able with accurate
choice to unite in his first play everything, both from
old and new, that it seemed possible to turn to good
account on the stage at that time and the most brilliant
success attended his shrewd calculation, backed up, as
it was, by an uncommonly strong theatrical talent. No
German theatre, apart from some Court theatres which
adhered to their principles, was able for long to resist
the incentive of the proceeds promised by Die Ehre,
or the longing of the public for its production, so that
Sudermann plucked the first ripe fruit of the new
efforts to establish a drama suitable to the times.

That this suitability did not agree with the real state
of affairs, as far as the great majority of the public
was concerned, Sudermann had to acknowledge when
his second drama, Sodoms Ende (1891), was ruthlessly
rejected by the same public which had applauded Die
Ehre. In this play he has painted in much deeper
and truer colors the same front-house which was de-
scribed in Die Ehre in the customary kindly colors.
Their moral rottenness, their coarse sensuality, their
contempt for anything loftier than gain and enjoyment
was shown without any toning down of its revolting
nature. A young artist is dragged away from a modest
happiness to his ruin by a lascivious woman of Berlin's
financial circles and along with him a girl who had
in vain endeavored to struggle upward out of the irides-
cent slough.

Granted* that Sodoms Ende is not the equal of Die



156 GERMAN DRAMA

Ehre in direct dramatic power, that was after all not
the reason of the failure, but the fact that the public
usually occupying the parquet and boxes likes to see
everything on the stage "without paint" except its
own picture.

Although in this play, too, the old-fashioned raison-
neur plies his trade, still Sudermann's second drama is
far more of a unit in style than his first. The conditions
are described at length, the soul-life of the chief char-
acters is made individual and is finely analyzed and the
course of the action develops logically from the pre-
liminary conditions. No theme is to be advanced and
proven, but a piece of life is given, in too personal a
conception, which generalizes too hastily the accidental
impressions of certain parvenu circles and yet without
any interference with their real life. A few particulars,
such as especially the very sharp contrast of the artist's
home with the false brilliance into which he is drawn,
remind us of the author of Die Ehre.

The failure of Sodoms Ende made Sudermann more
careful. In Die Heimat (1893) he reverted to his first
well-approved style of connecting an exciting action
with a description of present day conditions so that the
inherent contrasts come out in directly effective clashes.
While in Sodoms Ende he was a partisan, here he leaves


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Online LibraryGeorg WitkowskiThe German drama of the nineteenth century → online text (page 11 of 17)