The German dramatist and novelist Gerhart Johann Robert Hauptmann (1862-1946) is best known for his pioneering naturalistic dramas. His subsequent work treats in various forms and styles the role of the individual in an apparently deterministic universe.
Gerhart Hauptmann as naturalist, was the leader of the literary school which flourished especially from 1880 to 1900, a period coinciding with German imperialist expansion and industrialization. The naturalists reflected with photographic and frequently harrowing realism the resultant dislocations in a society that confused material progress with its destiny. Scientific and political theorists drew attention to the formative effects of heredity and environment, the exploitation of workers, the subservient role of women, and the general decay of moral fiber. In treating such themes, the naturalists hoped to alert their contemporaries to the need for reform.
Hauptmann was born in Obersalzbrunn, Silesia, on Nov. 15, 1862, the son of a hotel owner. As a dreamy and restless young art student in Breslau, he experienced lean and frustrating years after a decline in the family fortunes. His marriage to Marie Thienemann brought financial independence and made possible his studies at the University of Jena and journeys to Italy (1883).
Upon his return Hauptmann produced an autobiographical epic poem, Promethidenlos (1885), anticipating the materialistic-idealistic conflict prominent in his subsequent work. Settling in Berlin, he studied Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and contemporary schemes of social reform and developed an interest in Henrik Ibsen. The result was the pioneering naturalistic drama Vor Sonnenaufgang (1889; Before Dawn), which caused a sensation and inaugurated a series of related dramas.
Vor Sonnenaufgang, first performed in Berlin on Oct. 20, 1889, supported by the society Freie Bühne, typifies Hauptmann's naturalism with its "analytic" technique, the "completed" characters, the stifling force of milieu and heredity, and the incompetence of the "savior" from the outside world. For a time it appears that the arrival of the socialist reformer Alfred Loth means for the virtuous Helene salvation from the degradation of a family utterly corrupted by sudden wealth and now burdened by alcoholism, infidelity, and other vices. But when Loth becomes aware of this domestic situation, he abruptly breaks with Helene and departs, unwilling to risk deeper involvement with one who, he fears, may later fall victim to a hereditary taint. In despair Helene commits suicide.
The "analytic" technique thus reveals not a development in response to conflict, but rather the static situation created by forces and events preceding the opening of the play. Similarly, the characters respond to situations in a manner preordained by immutable forces.
A comparably burdened and flawed family group is displayed in Das Friedensfest (1890), while Hauptmann's third drama, Einsame Menschen (1891), presents another incompetent and "misunderstood" central character. Johannes Vockerat harbors scientific and scholarly ambitions, but his loving wife, Käthe, who supports his life of scholarship, is intellectually incapable of understanding him. His own capacities appear paralyzed in consequence. The arrival of Miss Anna Mahr, a student who shares Johannes's interests, creates a triangular impasse. Johannes and Anna fall in love, but he cannot bring himself to choose between the two women and the sharply differing life-styles that they represent. Anna departs, and Johannes commits suicide. (Similarly flawed and "misunderstood" husbands appear in the "artist dramas"—Kollege Crampton, 1892; Michael Kramer, 1900; and Gabriel Schillings Flucht, 1912.)
Die Weber (1892; The Weavers), based on a historical incident of 1844, established Hauptmann's international reputation. Here the sociological problem overshadows the personal—machines are replacing the handwork of the weavers—and the mass of exploited Silesian workers emerges as "hero, " taking on a character and identity of its own: a novelty in German drama. The workers' revolt is put down, but it is clear that their cause is just.
A similar attention to the psychological implications of the mass characterizes the broadly conceived drama Florian Geyer (1896), based on the ill-fated 16th-century Peasant Revolt. The peasant troops represent the tragic hero, whose fate is paralleled in Geyer, the well-intentioned leader who lacks the ruthless will to act.
Three further naturalistically oriented plays represent a climactic achievement, although they transcend strict naturalistic technique. In Fuhrmann Henschel (1898) a lowly trucker takes his own life, consumed by remorse at breaking a solemn oath to his wife on her deathbed that he would not marry Hanne, their unpleasant maid. (The situation is similar in an early novella—Bahnwärter Thiel, 1887.) In Rose Bernd (1903), however, the shame and remorse of an unmarried mother guilty of infanticide are assuaged by the forgiveness of her fiancé. In Die Ratten (1911) a comic element is overshadowed by the tragedy arising from Frau John's pathologically intense and frustrated maternal instinct. The work reveals expressionistic elements and symbolizes the ethical brittleness of imperial Germany's social fabric. (In one of German literature's outstanding comedies—Der Biberpelz, 1893; The Beaver Coat—Hauptmann had already satirized a prominent flaw of the Prussian establishment: its stiff-necked and ethically myopic officialdom.)
The drama Vor Sonnenuntergang (1932) closes the naturalistic cycle. Here the hope of the aging Clausen for happiness in marriage to his young secretary is thwarted by the ungenerous conniving of his children by a previous marriage. The grasping materialism of the new generation drives the humanistic Clausen to suicide.
Neoromanticism and Legend
With his most successful fairy-tale drama, Hanneles Himmelfahrt (1893), Hauptmann transcends the naturalistic limits. In this work a young girl who despairs because of mistreatment by her stepfather attempts to drown herself and is rescued, but her ensuing fever is fatal, and her fantasies as death approaches are realized onstage—the language reflects the transition in passing from lowly prose to exalted verse—projecting her attainment of the fulfillment impossible on the plane of reality.
Hannele provides a bridge between naturalism and the neoromantic myth drama in verse, Die versunkene Glocke (1896; The Sunken Bell), in which the bell caster (artist) Heinrich, though incapable of living on the normal plane of reality, is made tragically aware that the artist cannot attain the life of pure spirit. The conflict mirrors a similar struggle in Hauptmann's own career, climaxed in 1904 by his decision to divorce his first wife and marry a gifted musical artist. The prose drama Und Pippa tanzt! (1906) projects the fragile quality of beauty, or of longing, pursued and victimized by crass reality.
The epic element characterizes three dramas: Der arme Heinrich (1902) reworks the themes of blood sacrifice and compassion in the old legend; Kaiser Karls Geisel (1908) treats the love of the 80-year-old emperor Charlemagne for the 16-year-old Saxon hostage Gersuind, while Griselda (1909) examines the patience of this legendary figure in terms of abnormal psychology.
Comparable treatments of legendary and historical themes are found in the drama Der weisse Heiland and the dramatic poem Indipohdi (both 1920), which protest the inhumanities of the Spanish in their New World conquests. The dramas Winterballade (1917) and Veland (1925) offer analyses of abnormal or morbid psychological states.
Hauptmann's 20 novels and narratives develop similar psychological themes, frequently combined with an autobiographical element. Der Narr in Christo Emanuel Quint (1910) treats the messianic complex and the conflict of spirit and flesh in modern terms. Atlantis (1912) reflects Hauptmann's own struggle to choose between two women of sharply differing qualities.
Der Ketzer von Soana (1918) and Die Insel der grossen Mutter (1924) celebrate the overpowering force of the erotic impulse. Das Buch der Leidenschaft (2 vols., 1929-1930) analyzes the psychological complexities for the man torn between two women, while Mignon (published posthumously in 1947) recreates, with demonic overtones, this remarkable figure from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. In Im Wirbel der Berufung (1936) the basic pattern is again the triangle, and opportunity is created, again as in Wilhelm Meister, for a long analysis of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Classical settings and themes predominate in the four verse dramas of the late Atriden tetralogy, in which Hauptmann seeks to interpret the events of the Greek past in terms of a catastrophic present (Nazi domination and World War II). The results are at best ambiguous and the prospect for man's further development clouded.
In Hauptmann's literary output one finds a compendium of the contending forces, from materialism to mysticism, active in German literature during his long career. In his lifelong efforts to encompass them in art, the view of man as a powerless victim of higher forces is balanced in some measure by a recurrent faith in the redemptive power of human compassion.
Hauptmann died on June 6, 1946, and was buried on the Baltic Island of Hiddensee, his favorite summer retreat. His extensive travels included two trips to America (1894 and 1932). He received the Nobel Prize in 1912.
Further Reading on Gerhart Johann Robert Hauptmann
Informative older studies of Hauptmann are Otto Heller, Studies in Modern German Literature (1905; repr. 1967), and Camillo von Klenze, From Goethe to Hauptmann: Studies in a Changing Culture (1926). The sociological implications of Hauptmann's work are stressed in Margaret Sinden, Gerhart Hauptmann: The Prose Plays (1957), and Leroy R. Shaw, Witness of Deceit: Gerhart Hauptmann as Critic of Society (1958). A good general analysis is by Hugh F. Garten, Gerhart Hauptmann (1954). Hauptmann and his times are well treated in Jethro Bithell, Modern German Literature 1880-1950 (1939; 3d ed. 1959).
Additional Biography Sources
Holl, Karl, Gerhart Hauptmann, his life and his work, 1862-1912, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.
Maurer, Warren R., Understanding Gerhart Hauptmann, Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.