Gerhard Hauptmann

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/March, 1913

OBVIOUSLY, this is Hauptmann’s year. Not only does he enjoy the vast prestige which goes with the award of the Nobel prize—and the princely emolument thereto appertaining—but he has also slowly attained, in a far more seemly and genuine sense, to the position of undisputed first favorite of the Ger man people.

Fifteen years ago, or ten years, or even five years, he had still to share that pre-eminence with a rival, Hermann Sudermann. All civilized Germans were agreed that Hauptmann and Sudermann were the greatest living dramatists of their country, and the majority of them were willing to substitute “men of letters” for “dramatists,” but further than that there was no amicable lying down together. Sudermann had his partisans and Hauptmann had his partisans, and the more they raged and pleaded and adduced evidence the more they seemed to drift apart. But of late, as I have said, the fortunes of that war have been increasingly with Hauptmann. Such hostile critics as Karl Heinemann, Heinrich Bulthaupt and our own Dr. Otto Heller have been borne down by the sheer weight of growing numbers, and so the dominant note in the German criticism of the moment is that sounded by Friedrich Kummer, who sees Hauptmann as “the sturdiest and most fully developed talent” of his generation, and ranks him as the equal, in the protean sweep and virility of his genius, of Ibsen and Strindberg. In brief, these triumphant German enthusiasts, practically unanimous at last, seem determined to beatify and even to canonize their hero, and no doubt they will not rest content until they have bracketed him with Shakespeare and Goethe, just as the advocates of Brahms have bracketed that honest music master with Bach and Beethoven.

At this distance, we may well hold aloof from such excesses of admiration, and particularly from that decrying of Sudermann which accompanies them, but meanwhile we may admit safely that Hauptmann is a master dramatist of a very high order, and perhaps the greatest now living in the world. If he had no outstanding merit save his astonishing versatility, it alone would be sufficient to make him notable, for it has not only led him to make experiments in various widely separated fields, always with considerable success, but it has also inspired him to explore and mark off pastures of his own. His very first play, “Before Sunrise,” was something new in the world—the first true drama of naturalism, the thing that Zola had tried to write and failed— and it made a splash whose waves are still plainly visible, particularly in the plays of Wedekind, Gorki and Brieux. That was in 1889. Four years later, in 1893, he wrote “The Beaver Coat,” another striking novelty—the first full length drama of unmorality. The old drama had inculcated the time-worn platitudes, and the new drama of Ibsen and company had roared against them. But here was a play dealing wholly with morals which yet had no visible moral—the first authentic “slice of life” ever seen on the stage—innocent, artless and meaningless morally, but enormously human and entertaining. And then, having thus proved his capacity for inventing new forms, Hauptmann turned to various older forms, and performed prodigies in nearly all of them.

He wrote a poetical play, “The Sunken Bell,” that set a new standard for German dramatic verse. He wrote a symbolical play, “And Pippa Dances,” that made the murkiest of Ibsen seem crystal clear. He wrote “The Assumption of Hannele,” perhaps the best miracle play ever written. He attempted a stately historical pageant in “Florian Geyer,” and failed by no more than an inch. He challenged Strindberg as a vivisectionist of tottering personality in “Michael Kramer.” He reduced that same enterprise to delicious absurdity in “Colleague Crampton.” He gave dramatic form to an ancient German legend in “Poor Heinrich.” He wrote bitter and unforgettable tragedies of the poor: “The Weavers” and “Rosa Bernd.” He experimented with rollicking Elizabethan farce in “Schluck and Jau,” and added the acid of satire. He returned to the mood of stark naturalism in “Teamster Henschel” and to that of cynical unmorality in “The Red Cock.” He wrote variations upon themes from Ibsen’s “Rosmershokn” in “Lonely Lives.” He sneered at the family in “ The Festival of Peace,” as Ibsen had sneered at it in “A Doll’s House” and “Ghosts.” And finally, as if to pile up proofs of his versatility beyond all cavil, he wrote three or four novels and half a dozen short stories. You must go back to Goethe, in sober truth, before you will find a scrivener with more hands.

And now at last, in the year of his triumph at home, this assiduous and unfailingly interesting Silesian makes his bow in an adequate English translation. Heretofore it has been difficult for the reader with no German to get any understanding of him, for but eight of his plays have been available in English, and of these but four have been in general circulation. I doubt that any American public library, saving perhaps the Library of Congress, could have shown all eight a year ago.

What is more, even the reader familiar with German has been baffled by the dialects of the peasant plays—dialects so outlandish that, in the case of “The Weavers,” Hauptmann had to publish a translation into High German for his own countrymen. But the difficulties thus apparent in the task of translation have been very bravely tackled, and, in large part, successfully overcome, by Ludwig Lewisohn, an almost ideal man for the enterprise, for he was born in Germany and came to manhood in the United States, and has spent a good part of his maturity teaching the German language. In his first volume of “The Dramatic Works of Gerhart Hauptmann” (Huebsch) he gives us four plays—“Before Dawn,” “The Weavers,” “The Beaver Coat” and “The Conflagration” (The Red Cock)—and all of them are in dialect. In the case of “The Weavers,” Mr. Lewisohn has borrowed the familiar translation of Mary Morison, but his versions of the other plays are his own, and it must be said for them that they show unflagging patience and ingenuity.

Not, of course, that they are wholly satisfying. As a matter of fact, the work of turning German dialects into equivalent English dialects not only bristles with difficulties, but even with actual impossibilities. Here and there, indeed, the translator must boldly throw exactness to the winds and descend from translation to paraphrase. Mr. Lewisohn, in such places, has made excellent use of that loose and picturesque English which is in common use throughout the United States, and which is fast developing into a separate American language. Its chief marks are its reduction of the tenses to three and its changes in the inflection of verbs and pronouns, so that “I should have seen,” for example, becomes “I ought to saw,” and “she and I,” in the nominative case, becomes “me and her.” Mr. Lewisohn is not quite as familiar with this American dialect as he might be, but that fault is not wholly his own, for it yet lacks a grammarian, though its grammar, as I hope to show some day, is already rigid, scientific and easily deducible. So far as he goes, however, he goes in the right direction.

But why does he corrupt this excellent American with Briticisms? Why does he spell “wagon” with two “g’s” and turn “jail” into “gaol”? Why, above all, does he transmute marks into shillings? Doesn’t every sane reader know that these plays are about Germans, and that Germans use marks and not shillings? Would he also transmute sauerkraut into soused cabbage—or chou vinaigrette? Or a kommers into a stag party? Or the Münchener Hofbrauhaus into the Munich Court Brewery House?

Nevertheless, we may well pardon him for his occasional follies in consideration of his copious and benign perspiration over a flabbergasting job. Let it be hoped that he will carry it to completion, and that its fruit will be a better understanding of Hauptmann in this fair land. Nineteen years ago, when the dramatist came among us to help prepare an English performance of his “Hannele” in New York, in Charles Henry Meltzer’s fine translation, the moral snouters and theological hoodlums of the town appealed to the authorities to stop the play. And why? On the ground that it was blasphemous! The greatest of modern miracle plays denounced as blasphemous! What is worse, the politician who was then mayor of New York lent a hospitable, if somewhat flapping ear to the clamor, and the first performance was actually delayed. But when the curtain finally went up, of course, it was quickly seen that the play was entirely reverent and extremely beautiful, and so the campaign of libel and balderdash went for naught. Since then “The Sunken Bell” and one or two other Hauptmann plays have been given in this country, but our osseocaputal managers are still blind to the merits of such pieces as “The Beaver Coat,” “Rosa Bernd,” “Teamster Henschel,” “Before Dawn” and “Michael Kramer.” Perhaps Mr. Lewisohn’s labors will open the way. At any rate, let us so frame our hopes.

I have no space here to enter upon a discussion of Hauptmann’s dramatic method, more than to say that he clings to naturalism even in the company of heroes and archangels—that he is as hard set against the soliloquy as the Ibsen of the plays after “A Doll’s House,” that he is as exact in his stage directions as Shaw, that he is as innocent of dirty prudery as Wedekind or Brieux, and that there is not the slightest hint of conventional heroics or of the “well made” play in any of his work. In this last particular he differs much from Sudermann, who has borrowed willingly from Sardou, as in “Magda,” for instance. That is one reason, and perhaps the main one, why “Magda” has conquered every civilized stage, whereas the Hauptmann plays are still but little known outside of Germany. But if I here seem to join the decriers of Sudermann, let me hasten to add that “Magda,” for all its old-fashioned touches, is still a play that Hauptmann himself might be proud to own, and that Sudermann’s novels are infinitely better than Hauptmann’s.

As a novelist, indeed, Hauptmann has narrowly escaped complete failure. His “The Pool in Christ,” which I reviewed a few months ago, was big in plan but wobbly in execution; his “Atlantis,” just published (Huebsch), is bad in both departments. It is the story of a young German physician who throws up his career to follow a Swedish dancer to this country. The manner of his ensnaring is at odds with the intelligence Hauptmann ascribes to him, and the manner of his rescue is at odds with his ensnaring. In brief, the story is psychologically incredible, and were it not for some entertaining episodes aboard ship, culminating in a rather theatrical shipwreck, it would be almost unreadable. Put it beside Sudermann’s “The Song of Songs,” or, better still, beside any of the stories in the volume called “The Indian Lily,” and you will see how far apart the two men stand as writers of prose fiction, and how vast is Sudermann’s superiority. Hauptmann, I freely admit, is probably the better dramatist, but I must dissent hunkerously from the current German doctrine that he has left Sudermann far behind him as a literary artist.

Another great Continental who begins to enjoy, like Hauptmann, the affecting honor of American recognition, is August Strindberg, the Swede. He was a famous man in Scandinavia so long ago as 1878, and the more serious German theaters have been presenting his dramas since the middle eighties, but he had to die to cross the Atlantic. Now we make up, characteristically enough, for lost time. No less than four American publishers announce Strindberg plays in considerable number and variety, and three very competent translators, Warner Oland, Edwin Bjorkman and Velma Swanston Howard, labor diligently upon even further translations. Before long, perhaps, these busy missionaries will catch up to Emil Schering, the German, whose edition of Strindberg already runs to thirty-seven volumes and seems to be still far from the end. It is likely that the dramatist left a ton or more of unpublished manuscript. Several striking one-acters, unknown to his biographers, have been printed in the German magazines since his death last May—and play writing by no means monopolized his time during his later years, for he also wrote an enormous number of essays, criticisms, political broadsides, social satires, theological tracts, short stories, poems, impressions of travel, chapters of reminiscence and new introductions to his earlier books. The man was incredibly industrious, even in his recreations: he found leisure, despite all his writing and stage managing, to master chemistry, to bounce around among three or four antagonistic religions, and to woo, win, marry and divorce three wives.

The latest contributions to the English canon of his works are “Lucky Pehr” and “Easter,” both translated by Mrs. Howard (Stewart-Kidd). Of the two, the former is the more interesting, for it shows Strindberg in the period of transition which connected his early poetical manner with his later savagery. In plan and execution, as well as in the name of its hero, the piece leans heavily upon Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” which preceded it by about fifteen years.

Young Pehr, like his namesake, is a yokel who runs away from home to see the world, and like Peer again, he tastes the bitterness of pleasure and the gall of power, and like Peer yet again, he comes back at last to the home and sweetheart of his youth. The two plays, indeed, run almost exactly parallel courses. Both alternate between an incisive realism and an extravagant fantasy, both are filled with ridicule of Scandinavian mooning and booming, and both close upon the note of elemental sentiment.

It is curious to see Strindberg, the woman hater par excellence, growing mushy over young love, and putting it high above the Nietzschean virtues and glories of his subsequent adoration. But even so, there are signs of the change that was going on within him—a touch of acid satire here, a flask of cynicism there. When he began “Lucky Peer,” he was still married happily to his first wife, Baroness Wrangel, but before it came to the stage they were at loggerheads; and once this idyllic comedy was safely behind him, he launched into his famous book of short stories, “Marriage” (1884), and into his more famous play, “The Father” (1887), two of the most appalling attacks upon women ever written in the world. “Easter,” which belongs to his period of dalliance with Swedenborgianism and other forms of mysticism, is much less interesting than “Lucky Pehr,” but Mrs. Howard has helped it out by adding to it a number of characteristic Strindbergian sketches and short stories, some of them no more than a few pages in length. Her translations, judging by Schering’s German versions, seem to be reasonably accurate, but now and then they are damaged by a stilted clumsiness of phrase.

Various other books of plays have been awaiting notice for months, among them two bearing the name of Arnold Bennett. For one of them, “The Honeymoon” (Doran), Bennett alone is responsible, while with the other, “Milestones” (Doran) , he was helped by Edward Knoblauch, author of “The Faun” and “Kismet.” The learned Nathan has already told you all that you want to know about the plots and personages of these dramas; suffice it to say that “The Honeymoon “ is even more delightful to read than to see, whereas “Milestones” shows a distressing gauntness of rib under the hard, white light of the study. “Rutherford and Son,” by Githa Sowerby (Doran), rises far above both. It is an extraordinarily searching and moving study of a crumbling family, with brother ranged against sister, and father against son. Old John Rutherford, grim, saturnine and tyrannical, is the most lifelike browbeater and money worshiper that we have had since John Anthony, in John Galsworthy’s “Strife.” The play is not a dull tract; it preaches nothing and gets nowhere. But you will go far before you will find anything more thoroughly dramatic, in the best sense of the word. The clash of character has a fury almost tragic; the management of situation is straightforward and striking; the tension of suspense is unrelieved to the very last. Altogether, a first play revealing an unmistakable talent for the dramatic craft. We must have more from this Miss Sowerby.

“The Heralds of the Dawn,” by William Watson (Lane) , has a number of passages of fluent, sonorous blank verse, but as a stage play it is weak and tedious. Far better stuff is in “The Middle Class,” an attempt at a serious American social drama, by Dr. J. Rosett (Phoenix Press). Dr. Rosett’s protagonist is one Dr. Bensal, a laboratory pathologist who finds himself elevated, by some joke of politics, into the important administrative post of Health Commissioner. Here he tries to put into practice the exact and unsentimental methods of the scientist. That is to say, he endeavors to stamp out disease in the community he is sworn to protect by first seeking out and removing its sources and causes. But this diligence quickly brings upon him the wrath of the whole population. When he orders the demolition of loathsome tenements, not only landlords reach for his scalp, but also tenants. And when he starts a campaign of confiscation against tainted foods, he is made to understand at once that the sellers there of are eminently respectable citizens, distinguished for their charity, and that any interference with their prosperity will damage the whole social fabric. In brief, bourgeois society prefers a dose of morphine to laparotomy; its ideal is not cure, but amelioration. The giving of alms satisfies both receiver and giver, for the one gets the alms and the other gets the glow of rectitude. If the need for alms were removed, if justice and common sense were substituted for charity, the receiver would miss his dole and the giver would miss his glow. Made aware by hard experience, of this capital fact, Dr. Bensal throws up his hands.

The play, of course, is full of echoes of Ibsen’s “An Enemy to the People”— how often our more serious dramatists are caught borrowing from old Henrik!—but it is far from a mere paraphrase. On the contrary, Dr. Rosett has put a lot of original observation into it, and not a little clear and destructive reasoning. You feel that he has thought the thing out patiently and painfully, that he has got very close to one of the fundamental shams of our civilization. What is more, you feel that he is a dramatist as well as a sociologist, that he can think in terms of emotion, that he has a keen eye for the little differences which go to the making of character. The Dr. Bensal that he offers is not the stuffed dummy of the usual propagandist play, but a fellow obviously human, with weakness in him as well as strength. And most of the other persons of the play are also near to reality—particularly Dr. Beacon, the “unethical” doctor, and his delightful wife, and the shrewd and sophisticated Adams, camerlingo of organized charity. The managers will never produce this play; it is too far removed from the windy nonsense of our theaters. But all the same, it is pleasant to note that such attempts at a genuine drama are being made in this land of piffle.

In “The Hamlet Problem and Its Solution” (Stewart- Kidd), Emerson Venable argues that “Hamlet” is not a picture of a weak man corroded and corrupted by misfortunes, but a picture of a strong man lifted to greater strength thereby. In other words, he sees the play as a study in moral stamina. Hamlet does not hesitate to kill his stepfather because the act is beyond his courage, but because it is beneath his dignity. A plausible theory, and one which seems to be well supported by Mr. Venable’s quotations, but as for me, I am more interested in the agreeable scandal of Frank Harris’s “The Women of Shakespeare” (Kennerley). Here, as in Mr. Harris’s earlier volume, “The Man Shakespeare,” an effort is made to connect the facts of the poet’s life with the characters and transactions of his plays, and to me, at least, it is an effort that carries considerable conviction.

That Shakespeare wrote himself into his dramas must be plain without argument: it is something that has been done by all poets at all times and everywhere. Then why not go through those dramas with Harris and hunt for light? Why not assume, when Shakespeare makes Lear or Hamlet rave about feminine frailty, entirely without intelligible bearing upon the current action, that the poet is relieving his mind about Mary Fitton, the maid of honor who played him so false? And why not admit freely, when he grows pessimistic over marriage, that he is probably thinking of his deserted wife, Ann Hathaway, who seduced him, made him marry her and then drove him from home by her scolding? Such assumptions, it seems to me, are much less difficult to accept than the transcendental assumptions of the Shakespeareomaniacs. It is easier to believe that Shakespeare was a human being, with all a human being’s weaknesses, than to believe that he was an archangel.

Which brings us to the novels—and to a rather sorry lot of them, alas, alas! Mary Johnston’s “Cease Firing” (Houghton-Mifflin) is reasonably less chaotic than “The Long Roll,” her first attempt at a Civil War epic, but it is still no model of form. The action leaps from Vicksburg to Gettysburg, to Atlanta, to Appomattox; the thin thread of banal romance obfuscates it more than it holds it together; the thing is far less a novel than a series of detached pen pictures of war. Some of those pen pictures—the siege of Vicksburg and the retreat from Gettysburg, in particular—are extraordinarily vivid, but they lose a lot by being made appendages to long-winded and aimless fiction. Worse still is Leonard Merrick’s “One Man’s View” (Kennerley), a sentimental story about a man who divorces his wife and then remarries her. I have more than once called attention to the damage Mr. Merrick is suffering by the republication of such jejune balderdash—the product, it would seem, of his prentice days. In recent years he has written many capital short stories and at least one sound novel, but when he was young he was very, very young. Another reprint of an early novel is “ The Fortunes of the Landrays,” by the late Vaughn Kester (Bobbs-Merrill), but here there is less to complain of, for in it appears ample evidence of that feeling for oddity in character which was later to make “The Prodigal Judge” a distinguished piece of work.

Over “The Inner Flame,” by Clara Louise Burnham {Houghton-Mifflin), and “Mary Pechell,” by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes (Scribner), and “The Valiants of Virginia,” by Hallie Erminie Rives (Bobbs-Merrill), and “Joyful Heatherby,” by Payne Erskane (Little-Brown), I pass without long lingering; they are written with no little grace and address, but they do not get much below the surface. Better stuff is in “The Drift,” by Marguerite Mooers Marshall (Appleton), a duet between a married man and the lady who is eager to be his second wife. He seems willing enough at the start, but when Wife No. 1 presents him with an heir, he begins to find excuses for being faithful to her. Then the other woman commits suicide. Conventional enough in plan, but there are excellent touches in the picture of the romantic, poetizing, over-confiding woman.

Still better is “The Royal Road,” by Alfred Ollivant (Doubleday-Page), the story of the life, labors, love and death of Teddy Hankey, a Cockney. You must go far before you find a more poignant tragedy of the poor. Teddy is an honest, well-meaning fellow, industrious, skillful and even a bit thrifty, but his whole life is a bitter struggle against great odds, and his end is misery and the chance mercies of the charitable. The book is more than a mere tale; it is a furious arraignment of civilization. But while he rages, Mr. Ollivant also confesses his lack of a remedy. The problem, after all, is probably insolvable. Civilization is a hopeless muddle. Life is not only cruel, but also wholly meaningless. There is no such thing as a moral order of the world.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380433;view=1up;seq=536)