Analysis of Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Weavers

Seen in the context of Hauptmann’s work and of the contemporary literary situation, Die Weber was indeed a unique contribution. For its author it represented a first application of Naturalist theory and technique to documented, historical subject matter, and for the German stage it was a major step away from the traditional “classical” or “closed” form of drama to a more “open” indeed “epic,” form. As a Naturalist play it epitomizes the favorite ideas and techniques of the movement. The inherent determinism of milieu is all-pervasive—to the extent that the weavers’ very bodies have been deformed by endless labor in cramped postures behind their looms. On the one hand, the sheer uniformity of their lot—constant hunger, inadequate light and lack of sunshine, dusty working conditions, the necessity of constant work by all members of the family to keep from starving—imposes a terrible sameness of appearance and outlook on Hauptmann’s workers. On the other hand, through extensive, careful stage directions and an almost microscopic attention to detail— especially linguistic detail—the author manages to imbue all but the most peripheral of his characters with unique personalities. . . . The result is a portrait of the masses that differs radically from similar efforts which preceded and were soon to follow it. . . . Hauptmann elevates his masses from the status of stage extras, designed to enhance the atmosphere of revolution, to a central role, the “collective hero.”

—Warren R. Maurer, Gerhart Hauptmann

Gerhart Hauptmann’s Die Weber (The Weavers) is commonly regarded as the first revolutionary proletarian play in German literature as well as the greatest of all naturalist dramas. Based on events that took place in 1844 among Silesian weavers who violently protested their dire working conditions that the Industrial Revolution had brought to eastern Germany, The Weavers orchestrates documentary sources and interviews with participants into what has been called by critic James Huneker a “symphony in five movements with one grim, leading motive—hunger.” According to the critic Hugh F. Garten, The Weavers is “the supreme achievement of Naturalistic drama, at the same time transcending all aesthetic theories by its dramatic power and emotional impact.” Hauptmann’s play is revolutionary both in its message and its form. When it was first performed in Berlin in 1892 it sparked the most notorious political censorship trials in the history of German literature and gained international notice. Its social message and methods would set the prototype for the modern drama of social protest. Translated into Russian by Lenin’s sister, The Weavers would become not only an influential force in Russian literature but a factor in the Russian Revolution itself. Praised and condemned as socialist agitprop, The Weavers evades being easily reduced to the level of propaganda. Despite its being heralded and branded as an incitement to socialist revolution The Weavers has also puzzled and disappointed Marxist critics with its ambiguous, muted conclusion. As powerful and paradoxical as its message is, The Weavers is also a breakthrough in dramatic form. Adapting the thematically related, loosely connected tableaux of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, The Weavers achieves an epic magnification centered for one of the first times in dramatic history not on a conventional protagonist but on a collective hero, as indicated by the play’s title. Moreover, it replaces the accepted continuities of previous dramatic structure with a strategy of dislocation, of argument by analogy, contrast, juxtaposition, and leitmotif. All would serve as important elements in the formation of modern drama.

The Weavers synthesized Hauptmann’s background and artistic development, as well as European philosophical and aesthetic thinking in the latter half of the 19th century, and changed theatrical conditions to reflect those ideas. Born in 1862 in Salzbrunn in Silesia, Hauptmann was the son of an innkeeper and the grandson of a weaver. His father, who had witnessed the storming of the barricades in Paris in 1848, and was called by his neighbors “the red Hauptmann,” contributed to his son’s heightened political and social conscience, while his mother’s piety stimulated in her son both a religious fervor and faith in human ennoblement. An undistinguished student, Hauptmann took up an apprenticeship in agriculture from 1880 to 1882 before pursuing his interest in sculpture at the art institute in Breslau and in Rome. In Berlin in 1884 Hauptmann continued his scientific and social studies at the university, saw performances of Henrik Ibsen’s plays, and became involved with a group of young German intellectuals who were attempting to spread and apply the new theory of naturalism formulated by Émile Zola in France. Naturalism extended the movement toward realism—the accurate representation of ordinary life—in literature that had been developing throughout the 19th century in the novels of Stendhal, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy and others, and onstage especially in the works of Ibsen. To the realism’s faithful depiction of recognizable experience, naturalism added a new scientific exactitude supported by ideas derived from Charles Darwin and Karl Marx that heredity and environment are the key factors determining human behavior. Zola first articulated the principles of naturalism in his preface to the dramatization of his novel Thérèse Raquin in 1873 and in Naturalism in the Theatre and The Experimental Novel (1881). He asserted that the naturalist dramatist should seek to uncover the “inevitable laws of heredity and environment” observable in human behavior and then record that behavior with the same clinical detachment and objectivity of a scientist in pursuing truth. “Instead of imagining an adventure,” Zola declared, “complicating it, preparing stage surprises, which from scene to scene will bring it to a final conclusion, one simply takes from life the history of a being, or of a group of beings, whose acts one faithfully records.” Advocating a completely objective dramatic method, Zola and his supporters urged that drama should represent a slice of life, unobstructed and unmitigated by idealization and distortions imposed by an artful manipulation of experience into pleasing symmetries or calculated resolutions.

The Naturalism of Émile Zola

Zola’s radical theory of literary and dramatic expression initially resulted in few successful plays embodying naturalist principles. To do so a complementary change in theatrical practices was needed. Since naturalism began to be associated with depravity owing to its focus on raw and unidealized experience, censorship seriously curtailed the mounting of plays created to the new naturalist standards. André Antoine, however, created in Paris in 1887 the Théâtre Libre, a private subscription theater that was exempt from existing censorship laws. The Théâtre Libre would produce many formerly banned realistic and naturalistic plays, including works by Zola, Ibsen, and August Strindberg, while pioneering experimental production techniques that emphasized minutely rendered realistic settings and a natural acting style that eschewed the stylized and declamatory. The German equivalent of the Théâtre Libre was Berlin’s Freie Bühne (Free Stage), organized in 1889 under the leadership of Otto Brahm. Mounting its productions on Sunday afternoon, when the professional actors of Berlin’s legitimate companies were free to participate, the Freie Bühne, like its French counterpart, was able to evade the censorship of the established theaters and offered opportunities for new playwrights such as Hauptmann to apply the theory of naturalism to the stage.

Hauptmann’s first play Vor Sonnenaufgang (Before Dawn) became in 1889 the first drama by a German playwright to be performed by the Freie Bühne. Set in a rural mining community, it is a brutally frank anatomy of the destruction of two lovers trapped by their environment and alcoholism that represent the implacable power of heredity. The play established Hauptmann’s reputation as the “dramatic Zola,” in which he extended the realistic subjects and methods of Ibsen both by its sexual explicitness and its working-class milieu. Two more plays followed—Das Friendensfest: Eine Familienkatastrophe (The Coming of Peace: A Family Catastrophe) and Einsame Menschen (Lonely Lives)—before Hauptmann produced his naturalist masterpiece, The Weavers, in 1892.

With the subtitle A Play of the Eighteen-Forties, a striking innovation of The Weavers is its historical subject, which naturalism had avoided in favor of an emphasis on current conditions. Hauptmann, however, uses his depiction of the circumstance of the Silesian weavers on the verge of their 1844 rebellion to establish the continuity between the past and the present. The weavers’ revolt was brutally suppressed, and conditions had changed little a half-century later as Hauptmann took up their cause. Abiding by the scientific principles of naturalism, Hauptmann traveled to the scene of the revolt and interviewed survivors. Supplementing firsthand observation of current conditions with his recollections from childhood Hauptmann declared: “What was revealed in these huts of the weavers was . . . misery in its classical form.” To convey it Hauptmann replaced a conventional plot with a presentation of the weavers’ conditions from a variety of perspectives and escalating tensions leading up to the explosive revolt. The Weavers also forgoes a central protagonist, with only one relatively minor character appearing in all five acts. Instead the play combines multiple scenes and characters in an objective, documentary fashion to examine an entire community as the sum of various human parts.

Act 1 is set in the business offices of the exploitative mill owner Dreissiger where the region’s weavers have come to deliver and be paid for what they have woven in their homes. As Hauptmann’s stage directions indicate, the weavers “have a stark, irresolute look—gnawing, brooding faces. Most of the men resemble each other, half-dwarf, half-schoolmaster. They are flatchested, coughing creatures with ashen grey faces . . . their women folk . . . are broken, harried, worn out.” Several complain to the manager, Pfeifer, that they are unable to keep their families from starving with the pittance they are given. Pfeifer, a former weaver himself, deflects their pleas with platitudes— “He who weaves well, lives well”—or with explicit threats to take it or leave it. Only the younger weaver Baecker refuses to submit and demands his rights, prompting Pfeifer to summon Dreissiger. Baecker is denied further employment, prompting him to respond that “It’s all the same to me whether I starve behind the loom or in a ditch by the side of the road.” Their escalating confrontation is interrupted when an eight-year-old boy, sent to collect his parents’ pay, collapses from hunger. Dreissiger uses this crisis to excoriate the irresponsibility of the weavers for neglecting their children, while threatening to depress wages even more by hiring 200 additional weavers.

Having presented the suffering weavers collectively, act 2 shifts from macro- to microcosm, presenting the family life of one of the weavers on hand in the previous act, Old Baumert. As the act opens Baumert’s wife, daughters, deranged son, ragged grandson, and a recently discharged soldier, Moritz Jaeger, await his return with his pay. The family has slaughtered the starving family dog for the rare treat of meat for their dinner. From them Jaeger learns more of the hardship and disintegration of the community since he has been away. Baumert is unable to keep down the unaccustomed rich fare, and Jaeger reads aloud the banned “Dreissiger’s Song” that serves to focus and foment the weavers’ resentment and revolutionary fervor:

Here a bloody justice thrives ”
More terrible than lynching.
Here sentence isn’t even passed
To quickly end a poor man’s life.

Men are slowly tortured here,
Here is the torture chamber,
Here every heavy sigh that’s heard
Bears witness to man’s misery.

The song will serve as the play’s principal leitmotif, expressing the rising passion of the weavers and connecting the various stages of their rebellion.

Act 3 shifts the scene to the principal tavern in Peterswaldau, where a traveling salesman is instructed in the local conditions and a group of young rebels, led by Baecker and Jaeger, express their discontent. Incited by the blacksmith Wittig, they begin to sing the banned song despite the efforts of the policeman Kutsche to prevent them. The act ends with the protesters taking to the streets as Old Baumert is left with the innkeeper Welzel and the ragpicker Hornig, who utters the play’s most famous line:

Welzel: Are you goin’ to join up with such madness?

Old Baumert: Well, you see Welzel, it ain’t up to me. A young man sometimes may, and an old man must.

Hornig: It’ll sure surprise me if things don’t come to a bad end here.

Welzel: Who’d think the old fellows would completely lose their heads?

Hornig: Well, every man has his dreams.

In yet another contrasting setting act 4 takes place in Dreissiger’s luxuriously furnished drawing room, shifting the focus from victims to victimizers and dramatizing the complicity between capitalism and the church in protecting their mutual vested interests. Dreissiger is joined by Pastor Kittelhaus, who respond to the challenges voiced by Weinhold, the young tutor of Dreissiger’s children, that the growing unrest among the weavers is the expression of “hungry, ignorant men” who “are expressing their dissatisfaction in the only way they know how.” Weinhold is summarily dismissed, and an apprehended Jaeger is brought in to be interrogated as a ringleader of the uprising. Announced by their song, the rebels storm the house. Dreissiger, his family, and Pfeifer barely escape, while the rebels set about the destruction of Dreissiger’s home. Baecker incites the mob to greater effort: “Once we’re through here, we’ll really get goin’. From here we’ll go over to Bielau—to Dittrich’s— he’s the one who’s got the steam power looms. . . . All the trouble comes from those factories.”

The play’s concluding act draws back from the explosive violence of act 4 to the perspective of the weaver Old Hilse in his tiny, dismal room. Breaking dramatic conventions by introducing a significant new character in the final act, Hauptmann offers an alternative to the play’s previous victim-victimizer conflict in Old Hilse’s rejection of the materialism that dominates both the capitalists and the workers. Hilse regards his lot as providentially ordered, with its suffering as a precondition to spiritual salvation. His faith and piety, however, cannot insulate him and his family from the troubles outside. When his granddaughter brings home a silver spoon found among the rubble left by the rioters, the family is split over whether to keep what could provide them with several weeks of sustenance. Ultimately Hilse is abandoned by his family when the rebels call their comrades to join them, remaining at his loom, where he is killed by a stray bullet. Ending on this ominous and ambiguous note The Weavers continues to spark critical debate in which Hilse has been interpreted both as a deluded victim of the opiate of religion and a heroic visionary sacrificed in a senseless cycle of violence in which the victims become victimizers. Hauptmann in turn has been viewed as both an advocate of revolution and acquiescence, of social change and spiritual reform. By adding a metaphysical and spiritual dimension to his naturalistic drama Hauptmann succeeds in elevating his historical chronicle and social protest play, in the words of critic Paul Schlenther, to the level of a “modern fate drama.”

Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time

Categories: Drama Criticism, German Literature, Literature

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