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Bridges to Scandinavia

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Andrea Meregalli
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Camilla Storskog

Vildanden and Hanneles Himmelfahrt. Two Plays about Denied Childhood

Elena Putignano

Résumé

The present article offers a comparative reading of Henrik Ibsen’s Vildanden and Gerhart Hauptmann’s Hanneles Himmelfahrt. By giving a short description of the literary environment in which Hauptmann made his debut as a young playwright, I have illustrated the importance of Henrik Ibsen’s work for the development of the German writer’s own poetic. In doing so, I refer to Georg Brandes’s article Henrik Ibsen and his School in Germany, which shows how strongly Ibsen’s dramas contributed to and influenced the thematic choices of German naturalist writers and playwrights – Hauptmann amongst them. I have then explained how, even in the years following Hauptmann’s naturalistic debut, Ibsenian echoes still resonate in the Silesian writer’s literary output, albeit in a more personally elaborate way. In this regard, I have paused to reflect on Hauptmann’s oneiric drama Hanneles Himmelfahrt. The play shows a large number of correspondences with Ibsen’s Vildanden, which, curiously enough, have not been analysed yet. In this essay I have paid particular attention to certain themes that are well represented in both plays and that establish a strong connection between them. I have then directed my attention to the way Ibsen and Hauptmann described the characters of Hedvig and Hannele, respectively, by stressing the playwrights’ use of a similar array of symbolic elements and by examining the aspects of dream-escape and dream-like transfiguration of space.

Texte intégral

  • 1   Cf., e.g., Zander 1947; Sandberg s.a. (uncertain year in the 1950s); McFarlane 1964; George 1968; (...)

1The importance of Henrik Ibsen’s poetics in the development of Gerhart Hauptmann’s early literary output has been investigated and documented in a number of studies.1 The vast majority of these inquiries concentrate on Hauptmann’s early naturalistic writings, since it is there that the most obvious echoes of Ibsen’s theatre can be found. However, in the present essay I will try to show how – even in the years following Hauptmann’s debut on the naturalistic scene – Ibsenian reminiscences and suggestions were still resonating throughout the Silesian writer’s literary production, though in a subtle and more personally elaborated way. After contextualising Hauptmann’s pièce briefly, I will focus my attention on Henrik Ibsen’s Vildanden (The Wild Duck, 1884) and on Gerhart Hauptmann’s Hanneles Himmelfahrt (The Assumption of Hannele, 1893) through a comparative reading.

2Whereas Ibsen’s play is still known worldwide, Hauptmann’s pièce is today a less remembered blend of naturalistic and oneiric-symbolic elements, which at the time of its publication seemed unique and groundbreaking.

3A thorough reading reveals, in my opinion, a large number of correspondences with Ibsen’s Vildanden. In particular, the analysis will bring to bear those thematic aspects that most strongly establish a clear and intimate connection between the two plays. Likewise, I will direct my attention to the way Ibsen and Hauptmann described the characters of Hedvig and Hannele, respectively, stressing the playwrights’ use of a similar array of symbolic elements in portraying the two adolescents and their environment. In addition, I will examine the aspects of dream-escape and dream-like transfiguration of space, focusing on the aquatic suggestions, which, in both cases, are strictly associated with the theme of adolescence.

4Both plays are characterised by an innovative display of symbolic undertones and elements. It is also interesting to note how similar atmospheres and moods reappear in Hauptmann’s oneiric drama almost a decade after Vildanden’s publication.

5A shared interest in the mysteries of puberty as well as the presence of a similar symbolic landscape and analogous choices in the characterisation of the theatrical space suggest a close connection between the two dramas, revealing how Henrik Ibsen’s influence on Gerhart Hauptmann’s theatre reaches far beyond the early naturalistic period of the latter.

1. Henrik Ibsen and his school in Germany

  • 2  “An outstanding dramatic talent, heavily influenced by Ibsen.” All translations are mine unless ot (...)

6Hauptmann’s contemporaries were already fully aware of the strong influence that Ibsen’s plays had on coeval German literature, as shown by the Danish critic and man of letters Georg Brandes in a detailed and exhaustive article from 1890 (Brandes 2011). In his essay, Brandes thoroughly examines the work of the main German naturalistic playwrights, praising their will to bring new creative juice into the contemporary, stagnant, cultural scenario and applauding them for the courage they showed by drifting away from a worn-out late-romantic literary paradigm while focusing their interest on both current social problems and moral issues. At the same time, Brandes stresses how heavily dependent German naturalists were – both in the choice of dramatic subjects and in the structure of the dramatic plot – on the model offered by Henrik Ibsen’s dramas. The whole fifth section of the article is devoted to Hauptmann – in the words of the Danish critic “[e]t udpræget dramatisk Talent, stærkt paavirket af Ibsen” (2011, part V)2 – and to his debut pièce Vor Sonnenaufgang. Soziales Drama (Before Sunrise. A Social Drama, 1889).

7Although Ibsen was not a poet of the big city nor a singer of the poor, he deeply inspired German naturalistic literature with his realistic depictions of society and with his will to unveil the hypocritical emptiness of old dogmas. According to Brandes, the modern and innovative spirit that animated Ibsen’s plays made him the greatest inspirer of German naturalism, the quintessence of modernity:

  • 3   “The fact that Ibsen has now reached the status of one of the infallible popes of literature with (...)

Naar Ibsen for store Kredse i Tyskland nu er rykket op i de u- fejlbare Literaturpavers Klasse, saa beror det paa, at hans Væsen nøjagtigt svarer til den fremmelige moderne Bevidsthed i det store Rige. [...] [I] Tyskland er [Ibsen] bleven en Art Fører paa det dramatiske og almindeligt literære Omraade. Man opfatter ham der som Realisten; man har gjort hans Navn til et Banner, og en hel Ungdom flokkes nu under dette Banner [...]. Atter og atter nævnes Navnet Ibsen som det Tegn, i hvilket man vil sejre (2011, introduction, part VIII; italics in the original).3

  • 4   “In recent years […], Ibsen has changed from being a realist […] to a symbolist.”

8Towards the end of the article, in its last section, Brandes alludes to how – due both to the late reception of Ibsen’s modern dramas and to the praiseworthy, yet quite unidirectional, interpretation and elaboration of his literary production within the German naturalistic circles – the Norwegian playwright had been saluted in Germany as the realist writer par excellence, paradoxically at a time when he was moving towards more symbolist poetic solutions: “I de senere Aar er [...] Ibsen [...] fra Virkelighedsgengiver […] bleven Symboliker” (2011, part IX).4

9Brandes could not know that very soon one of the most promising writers of German naturalism, Gerhart Hauptmann, would show with his dream-like pièce Hanneles Himmelfahrt how the influence of Ibsen could not be confined to the relatively narrow space of a literary movement.

2. Hanneles Himmelfahrt. A short introduction to the drama

  • 5   At the time, Silesia was a region steeped in mysticism where many cults and gatherings thrived, s (...)

10In 1891, Gerhart Hauptmann returned to his birthplace in Silesia,5 after leaving the hallucinatory muse of modernity – Berlin. While in Berlin, he came into contact with naturalistic influences and the work of Henrik Ibsen, an influential playwright for many a young writer in that city, where his work was considered the ultimate expression of naturalism.

  • 6   For further information cf. Tschörtner and Hoefert 1994, 132.

11In 1893, while not completely abandoning aspects of social realism, the young playwright drifted away from the rigid poetics of the movement with his oneiric play in two acts, Hanneles Himmelfahrt, which was awarded the Grillparzer prize in 1896 and was nominated for the Schiller prize by politicians, artists, intellectuals and men of letters such as, among others, Gustav Freytag, Karl Kraus, Ernst Barlach and Lion Feuchtwanger. However, this prestigious German literary prize could not be presented to Hauptmann, mainly because of Kaiser Wilhelm’s strong aversion to the Silesian writer.6

  • 7   “Gerhart Hauptmann’s early […] works show that his naturalism was of a naïf, that is to say, crea (...)
  • 8   In his book on fin de siècle German literature, Peter Sprengel calls Bahnwärter Thiel “eher ein P (...)

12In reality, the coexistence of symbolic elements with more naturalistic ones was something that characterised Hauptmann’s literary work from its very beginning: “Bereits die frühen […] entstandenen Arbeiten [...] Gerhart Hauptmanns zeigen, dass sein Naturalismus naiver, d.h. schöpferischer Art war und sich deshalb nicht in einer Sackgasse totlief” (Alker [1950] 1969, 776).7 In fact, Hauptmann was never a “konsequenter Realist” (quoted in Sprengel 1998, 113), to borrow a definition that the playwright himself used referring to Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf, the two main theorists of German naturalism and the authors of the most important programmatic essay on modern – in other words naturalistic – German art, Die Kunst. Ihr Wesen und ihre Gesetze (Art. Its Nature and Laws, 1891). As a matter of fact, already one year before his drama Vor Sonnenaufgang debuted on the Freie Bühne’s stage, the writer had published the short novel Bahnwärter Thiel (Lineman Thiel, 1888), where both naturalistic and symbolic suggestions were present.8

13There is, however, something quite interesting and unique with Hanneles Himmelfahrt:

  • 9   “[Although] a genuinely naturalistic impulse is still effective in the playwright’s effort to dis (...)

[obwohl] im Bemühen des Dramatikers, die Anlässe und Motive von Hanneles Fieberphantasien deutlich zu machen, […] noch ein genuin naturalistischer Impuls wirksam [ist], […] verschwimmen die Grenzen zwischen Traum und Realität und […] zugleich werden die Weichen in Richtung jener Traumdramaturgie gestellt, die Strindbergs Schaffen (ab Nach Damaskus, 1898–1901) ebenso wie das expressionistische Theater kennzeichnen wird (Sprengel 1998, 507).9

  • 10   On the occasion of the drama’s première, Max Burckhard, the impresario of the Wiener Burgtheater, (...)
  • 11   Franz Mehring, notoriously affiliated with the German Social Democrats, bitterly criticised the p (...)

14The original title of the drama, Hannele Matterns Himmelfahrt (The Assumption of Hannele Mattern), was changed to the less specific Hanneles Himmelfahrt when the play was published by Fischer Verlag in 1893. A murmur of indignation immediately rose among the critics, who claimed that the ascension into heaven of a poor orphan of humble origins was highly inappropriate.10 Not even the most liberal critics approved of the work, criticising Hauptmann for having indulged in a ridiculous and hypocritical representation of the lives of the poorest classes.11

15The tragic story of Hannele was inspired by an actual event, which had been reported in a local newspaper. A young girl from a Silesian village, who had been physically abused by her stepfather, was saved from certain death when she was pulled from an icy pond. She was then carried to the poorhouse where she died despite the efforts of a doctor.

16Although neo-romantic and symbolist tendencies were undeniably more substantial in this play, the naturalistic essence and the elements of social criticism had not actually disappeared from Hauptmann’s poetics. The contrast between the squalid reality and the colourful dreams of the young main character at death’s door was interpreted in diametrically opposite ways.

17Indeed, the play was ambiguous and controversial and revealed a strongly subversive potential beyond its dreamy façade, as John Osborne remarks in his monograph on Gerhart Hauptmann:

The attention to causal details and the consequent undermining of the authority of the religious insight is, if anything, even more scrupulous than in Die Weber [The Weavers]. The play falls into three parts, showing the objective world of the young Hannele Mattern’s present situation, the nightmare world from which she has tried to escape by suicide, and her dream of heavenly bliss (2005, 156).

18As already mentioned, the critique was mostly alarmed by the romantic escape represented by Hannele’s dreams: the description of the girl’s mystic visions places the work outside the dictates of social drama. On the other hand, her vivid hallucinations can easily be read as a delusive yet beneficial solace that relieved the dying girl’s pain and the play as a strong accusation against a society where the agony of death had to be considered more merciful than life itself, as Carl David Marcus stresses in his essay on Gerhart Hauptmann and the modern Scandinavian drama:

  • 12   “If ever the romantic escape from reality has had a real motivation, this is just what happens in (...)

Om någonsin den romantiska flykten ur verkligheten är realt motiverad, så är det i dramat om det plågade proletärbarnet Hannele; blott i sina sista ögonblick lever hon en mäniskovärdig tillvaro, på gränsen till döden. Det hela är en [...] bitter anklagelse riktad mot hela det moderna samhället (1932, 367).12

3. Towards new literary solutions. A symbolist representation of space

19The title of the drama, Hannele Matterns Himmelfahrt, with its ironic contrast between the humble and celestial extremities, refers to the dualism between earth and heaven that is a characteristic of the whole text. The existence of pain and suffering in the ‘vale of tears’ contrasts with the promises of eternal joy and redemption. In a sense, the title also encapsulates Hauptmann’s new poetics, which balances between a truthful portrayal of reality and its symbolic interpretation.

  • 13   In the aforementioned article, Georg Brandes (2011, part IX) mentions Fruen fra havet (The Lady f (...)

20As previously hypothesised, a similar literary tendency had been observed before in Ibsen’s late dramas.13 In particular, Hauptmann’s choice – at the time most unusual – to focus his attention on an adolescent girl’s destiny, recalls Ibsen’s more renowned Vildanden. As in Hannele, the main character is a fourteen-year-old girl, Hedvig, who dies prematurely. Although the two girls’ backgrounds are rather different, they both perish because of a lack of love that cannot be filled.

  • 14   Cf. “Es ist fast ganz dunkel. […] Von der Erscheinung geht ein fahles Licht aus” (Hauptmann [1893 (...)

21There are numerous analogies between the two dramas; conceivably, one of the most striking is the similar symbolic characterisation of the theatrical space. Both the first and the second act of Hauptmann’s drama are set at an almshouse. This is the external tangible scenery for Hannele’s agony. The play starts within a solid framework of reality, although it quickly diverges into the realm of dream and vision. The young girl’s hallucinations, which initially manifest themselves as shifting light,14 become more and more concrete. Light moulds the space, contorting the poorhouse’s shabby features and shaping them into magnificent pictures of eternal spring. Dreams and visions demolish the walls of the almshouse, opening the way for an other- worldly procession of ghosts, which probably are nothing but the projections of Hannele’s inner wishes and desires. Even when the hallucinations vanish, Hannele remains detached in her world of delusion. In a sense, Hannele’s dreams redeem the loneliness and squalor of her own existence, allowing her to witness – in the very last moments of her life – the (illusory) triumph of God’s justice and divine order on earth. While the girl is sleeping, the visions disappear, and the author shows to his audience the humble and inconspicuous reality of the setting. The rays of golden light, which had previously engulfed the room, dissolve into the dim light of a tallow candle that flickers in the dark room.

  • 15   “The two worlds are separate for the viewer, but not for Hannele. In the imagination of the poor (...)

22In Hauptmann’s pièce, irrational elements are interwoven in such a way that, at a certain point, it becomes impossible to distinguish between reality and dream. In fact, as Marcus (1932, 367) has observed, “de två världarna äro skilda åt för åskådaren men ej för Hannele. I det arma barnets fantasi tar drömmen mycket konkretare former än den eländiga verkligheten”.15 As already mentioned, the oneiric component plays an essential role in the drama, since only dreams and the anticipation of future joy can allow the child to die peacefully. The redeeming – or at least soothing – power of imag- ination and fantasy is evident.

23The unbridgeable gap, which in Hannele divides the two worlds, is reminiscent of the more subtle, but nevertheless clear, separation between rêverie and prosaic reality in Ibsen’s Vildanden. Here, although accurate stage directions describe the space in great detail, the room remains only vaguely outlined: the hidden heart of the play is an only partially visible garret, detached from the rest of the dramatic space; the strange shape of the room and the intricate effects of light and shadow do not provide an adequate description, as is evident from the stage directions:

  • 16   “Through the open doorway a large, deep irregular garret is seen with odd nooks and corners; a co (...)

Gennem døråbningen ses et stort, langstrakt, uregelmæssigt loftsrum med krinkelkroge og et par fritstående skorstenspiber. Der er tag-glugger hvorigennem et klart månelys falder ind over enkelte dele af det store rom; andre ligger i dyb skygge (Ibsen [1884] 2009, 83, italics in the original).16

  • 17   “The Wild Duck deals with human beings who are fumbling in the darkness of a garret-existence. Mo (...)

24The black pipes of a stove, running up the walls, resemble the branches of a spectral forest; sifted through the skylights, a lunar gleam bathes the room; the shadow on the floor soaks up patches of light. It is a disquieting realm of fantasy, where imagination tries to mimic life, but only manages to give a distorted image of it; the space resounds with tales, ancient memories and illusions. An ordinary garret – separated from the apartment by an old fishing net – reveals itself as a world of mirages and of escapism. Hemmer (2003, 324) sees it as a refuge for a mutilated humanity: “Vildanden handler om famlende mennesker i en mørk loftstilværelse. De fleste er blitt skadeskutt for lenge siden, men de overlever tross alt. Bare det uskyldige og uerfarne barnet i disse voksnes verden bukker under.”17

  • 18   “Mankind is like tough wild game that has been mortally wounded. It sweats, runs – collapses – bl (...)

25As is the case with the wounded and suffering characters in Ibsen’s drama, Hauptmann’s Hannele shows us a typical example of a tortured, crippled humanity, thus described by the writer in his diary: “Die Menschheit ist ein zählebiges, aber zu Tode getroffenes Wild. Es schweißt – rennt – bricht zusammen – blutet fort, rennt, weil es hofft oder gejagt wird, und bricht abermals zusammen. Möglich, dass es vor Sonnenuntergang nicht sterben kann” (quoted in Oberembt 1999, 127).18 According to Hauptmann, the human condition is deeply tragic; human beings are like wounded animals waiting for death to come as a long-awaited liberation.

26In both dramas dream and imagination offer the young girls a chance to escape their gloomy existence. In the following section of this paper, I will shortly illustrate the oneiric component of these dramas.

4. Escape into dreams and imagination

27In Vildanden’s partly hidden attic, a child’s imagination can thrive, sheltered from life’s routine by a worn-out fishing net. For Hedvig Ekdal, the frail adolescent, the garret is a world full of dreams that are destined to remain unfulfilled. It is an ambiguous, two-faced space. In a sense, the room almost represents a different sphere, a special place that the girl enters every time she slides away from her everyday duties. With her rêveries, Hedvig creates a space of her own, a personal and private place, where she can dream of journeys on the seven seas and where she tells herself whimsical and fanciful tales. The garret is therefore valuable as a refuge from her dreary daily life to the pleasant world of fantasy.

28Although the room seems to some extent to have positive connotations, it appears, on the other hand, as a lunar realm of dusted shadows, where nothing new can penetrate, take root, bloom, or bear fruit. The grand- father’s clock is broken, as if it has forgotten about the very existence of time; everything in this room is the exact opposite of life. Everything is dusty; every object comes from an ancient past or from the timeless world of fairytales.

29The enchanted attic emanates an aura of mystery, though within the safety of the family. Still, from the very beginning a series of sinister premonitions are present, like the broken clock previously mentioned, whose stillness forewarns of Hedvig’s imminent end. She will, in fact, not live through puberty, killed by the egoism and obtuse vanity of the adult world.

30Hedvig is particularly attracted to an old book of tales, on the cover of which appears the grim reaper clasping an hourglass, while engaged in a sort of danse macabre with a maiden:

  • 19   “Hedvig. [...] And all the books. [...] [T]here is one great big book called ‘Harryson’s History (...)

Hedvig. [...] og så alle bøgene. [...] Der er en svært stor bog [...], den er visst 100 år gammel; og den er der så umådelig mange billeder i. Foran står avbildet døden med et timeglas, og en jomfru. Det synes jeg er fælt. Men så er der alle de andre billederne med kirker og slotte og gader og store skibe, som sejler på havet (Ibsen [1884] 2009, 112-13).19

31The sad end of the girl is already suggested through this book. The wild duck, the girl’s most precious treasure, is the ultimate tragic symbol, a relic from the realm of the shadows. Reduced to captivity, the wild duck is a contradiction in terms. Instead of living free out on the open sea, the wild duck grows fat in a tub.

  • 20   “Ekdal (sleepily, in a thick voice) [...] always do that, wild ducks do. They shoot to the bottom (...)

Ekdal (søvnig, med tykt mæle). [...] Gør altid så vildænderne. Stikker til bunds – så dybt det kan vinde, far; – bider sig fast i tang og i tarre – og i alt det fandenskab, som der nede find’s. Og så kommer de aldrig opp igen (Ibsen [1884] 2009, 88; italics in the original).20

  • 21   “Gregers. Jeg, for min del, trives ikke i sumpluft” (Ibsen [1884] 2009, 137); “Gregers. For my pa (...)
  • 22   “Gregers. Du har dukket under og bidt dig fast i bundgræsset. […] du er kommet ud i en forgiftig (...)
  • 23   “Here is a duck shot in flight, and here are human beings shot in flight.”

32This domesticated animal is a very complex, multifaceted symbol and I will not attempt to analyse it in its entirety, but I will limit myself to contextualising it briefly in relation to the present subject. In a sense, the maimed duck stands for the existential state of denial and the lack of authenticity that inform the life of the whole Ekdal family. This point is heavily stressed by Gregers Werle, the staunch claimer of the ideal summoning, when he refers to the Ekdals’ household as a marsh,21 implying a similitude between the Ekdals and the wild duck.22 They have bitten into the seaweeds that grow on the bottom of the sea and have grown accustomed to the dim twilight of half-truths: “Her er en vingeskutt and, og her er vingeskutte mennesker” (Ystad and Aarseth 2009, 35).23

33One breathes the still air of death in Ibsen’s magical attic, a Raritätenkabinett full of books and fascinating dust-covered objects, left there by an old sea dog, the previous owner of the apartment, who had been given the sobriquet of ‘The Flying Dutchman’. As with the legendary ghost ship, he disappeared during one of his crossings and was lost at sea. Similarly, the tideless and waveless sea in the garret will eventually engulf young Hedvig in its waters. The garret resembles a sepulchre where one’s existence is destitute of energy and vitality. It is a smothering fantasy world, a diorama imitating life and offering the same images again and again to anyone contemplating it.

  • 24   This unusual expression appears for the first time in the third act during a dialogue between Hed (...)

34In the attic, Hedvig is alone with her dreams; her imagination tries to run wild but is blocked by the surrounding walls of the room. It implodes and sinks beneath the shadows of the room. Hedvig’s eyes lose themselves in a myriad of fantastic images rising from “havsens bund”,24 the “depths of the sea”, as she refers to the garret’s floor. The attic is thus a marine environment in the girl’s daydreams.

  • 25   Frau Holle, known in English as Mother Hulda, is also a character from the Brothers Grimm’s Kinde (...)

35In a similar way, Hannele’s visions and hallucinations also seem to emerge from the depths of water. At the beginning of the play, a minor character narrates the antecedent events: Hannele ventured on an ice- covered pond of her own accord; the thin layer of ice broke under her feet, causing the girl to fall into the gelid water where she almost died. The words that Hannele uttered in the poorhouse reveal that she was in a trance-like state when she sought death by drowning. On that cold fatal December night, Hannele heard both Jesus and Frau Holle calling her from beneath the pond. Frau Holle is a Silesian folklore character, an ancient goddess who welcomes deceased children into the realm of her eternal spring.25 Her kingdom lies beyond the surface of a well or a pond. Hannele’s suicide attempt is therefore justified by the call that arises from the two divine entities in the water – the Lord and Frau Holle, the latter representing the maternal spirit of Nature. Tales and sections from the Bible merge in the numb mind of the feverish girl. They create the condition for the dreamlike apparition of sacred and secular figures from Silesian folktales.

36Because of her life of hardship, most of Hannele’s dreams and visions of an afterlife have quite concrete and earthly characteristics. Heaven’s treasures have the scent of flowers and fresh grass; they taste of bread and milk; they are the things Hannele could not enjoy in her life.

37Although the suggestion of the dreamlike element is vivid and fascinating, the audience cannot forget that the play in question is a tragedy. Hannele’s desperate desire to vanish among the figures in the dream is born of endless pain and solitude. Dreams of summer flourish in her dimmed eyes and burst in the squalid room, now filled with fruit and sunshine. Characters from German folktales gather together with celestial figures on the child’s deathbed, forming a peculiarly assembled company of angels and characters from the Cinderella fairytale (Aschenputtel). In the fever-induced delirium the girl identifies herself with Cinderella, her sad destiny overlapping with the tale’s happy ending. Hannele passes away shivering with fever and joy in a blissfully colourful and naively rich atmosphere, while heavenly hosts sing her a sweet lullaby. In Hannele’s feverish dreams, the squalid room is saturated with incense, the poorhouse flows with sweet milk and rosy cherubs swing censers, while strewing flowers and all sorts of good things on the sordid floor.

38After a choir of angels has sung the last lullaby, the drama ends with an abrupt return to reality. Once the magnificent visions have disappeared, the room appears as it was at the beginning: the tallow candle lights up the humble bed where Hannele, the beggar child, dreamt her most beautiful dream until her death.

39A similar light pervades the epilogue of the two dramas; it is a dim light in an enclosed dark place, where the warmth of the sun cannot penetrate, a kind of limbo where the two girls are trapped forever.

5. Two Plays about Denied Childhood. The symbolic value of water

40Like Vildanden, Hanneles Himmelfahrt shows us the tragedy of a denied childhood. The young girl in Hauptmann’s tragedy is alone in the world; deprivation and hardship caused her mother’s death and left her at the mercy of a drunken and violent stepfather, who forces her into exhausting work and into the humiliation of begging. That is the reason why Hannele, responding to the oneiric call from the two divine entities, seeks refuge and solace for her grief in the pond’s icy water, thus choosing death over life.

  • 26   “In Ibsen, tragic guilt remains unfathomable and unconscious, and the tragic permeates life, rath (...)

41Just like Hannele, for Vildanden’s Hedvig, too, freedom is only possible in dreams and in their fantasy world. Both girls seek death as an alternative to an unbearable life, which is burdened with the tragic guilt for uncommitted crimes. The end liberates them from the incomprehensible pain that afflicts mankind, especially its most vulnerable members, as Andersen (1986, 197) underlines: “Hos Ibsen forbliver den tragiske skyld uigennemsigtig og ubevidst, og det tragiske hænger ved livet, ikke ved døden”.26

42It is quite significant how one finds in both plays the theme of an adolescent drowning. As an element of nature, water has different symbolic meanings, often contradictory. Though often seen as a beneficent life-giver, water sometimes demonstrates its deadly aspect. Water flows restlessly and, like puberty, it is impetuous, turbulent and, though sometimes calm on the surface, it is always moved by deep currents, and ever-changing. Like the sea, adolescence can evoke feelings of fear; it is a delicate moment in which girls leave childhood and embrace womanhood, with the risk of not surviving this phase of transition.

43In the two plays the sphere of dream is linked to an imagery of limited and motionless expanses of water. Hannele’s pond and Hedvig’s garret are places filled with deep water, yet not comparable to the open sea, even though Hedvig has renamed the attic “the depths of the sea”. The attic, despite evoking the sea, rather resembles the pond where Hannele sought death. Both are places of stagnant water conjuring up ideas of death. At the end of Ibsen’s play, a dead girl rests in the depths of the sea, like a wild duck that had suddenly awoken to the darkness of a garret; in Hauptmann’s drama, a sleeping maiden lies on the bottom of the pond; dying, she told herself the most beautiful story – the tale of a poor maiden who discovers herself as the young princess of a world that does not exist.

6. Conclusion

44Whereas the great majority of the comparative studies on the works of Henrik Ibsen and Gerhart Hauptmann focus on the quite obvious importance of the Norwegian playwright for Hauptmann’s early naturalistic literary output, I have chosen to concentrate my analysis on Hanneles Himmelfahrt by highlighting the strong, yet more personally elaborated, Ibsenian echoes that still resonate in this oneiric drama.

45A thorough comparative reading of Vildanden and Hanneles Himmelfahrt has revealed the deep connection between these two dramas, while showing how the work of Henrik Ibsen has influenced Gerhart Hauptmann’s poetics more profoundly and for a longer period than generally believed. In particular, I have analysed the interest in the artistic representation of adolescence that characterises both plays, showing a similar choice of symbolic elements in the portrait of Ibsen’s Hedvig and Hauptmann’s Hannele.

Bibliographie

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Andersen, Elin. 1986. Den bristende uskyld. Studier i 1800-tallets barnekvinde i dramatikken og på scenen. København: Reitzel.

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―. 1914. “The Assumption of Hannele.” In The Dramatic Works of Gerhart Hauptmann, ed. Ludwig Lewisohn, vol. 4, Symbolic and Legendary Dramas, 1-71. London: Martin Secker.

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Notes

1   Cf., e.g., Zander 1947; Sandberg s.a. (uncertain year in the 1950s); McFarlane 1964; George 1968; Oellers 1975; Campignier 1984.

2  “An outstanding dramatic talent, heavily influenced by Ibsen.” All translations are mine unless otherwise specified.

3   “The fact that Ibsen has now reached the status of one of the infallible popes of literature within a great circle of critics in Germany depends on the way his nature corresponds with the innovative modern consciousness of this great nation. […] In Germany [Ibsen] has become, in a sense, a leader within the dramatic and the literary field in general. Here, he is regarded as a realist. The name Ibsen is repeatedly mentioned as the sign in which one shall conquer.”

4   “In recent years […], Ibsen has changed from being a realist […] to a symbolist.”

5   At the time, Silesia was a region steeped in mysticism where many cults and gatherings thrived, such as the pietistic fraternities of Herrnhut and Gnadenfrei as well as the sect of the Moravian brothers. This sullen, rigid religiosity pervades the gloomy atmosphere of Hauptmann’s drama. For further information on Hauptmann’s life in those years, see Sprengel 2012, 226-44.

6   For further information cf. Tschörtner and Hoefert 1994, 132.

7   “Gerhart Hauptmann’s early […] works show that his naturalism was of a naïf, that is to say, creative kind, and for this reason it did not come to a dead end.”

8   In his book on fin de siècle German literature, Peter Sprengel calls Bahnwärter Thiel “eher ein Psychodrama als naturalistische Schilderung eines Berufsmilieus” (1998, 338; “a psychodrama more than a naturalistic portrayal of a working-class milieu”).

9   “[Although] a genuinely naturalistic impulse is still effective in the playwright’s effort to display the reasons and causes for Hannele’s feverish delirium, [...] the boundaries between dream and reality become blurred and [...], at the same time a new direction is set towards that oneiric dramaturgy which will characterise Strindberg’s work (from To Damascus, 1898-1901, onwards) as well as the expressionist theatre.” For an analysis of Hauptmann’s dramatic work in relation to contemporary Scandinavian theatre, cf. Marcus 1932.

10   On the occasion of the drama’s première, Max Burckhard, the impresario of the Wiener Burgtheater, decided to change the title of the play to Hannele. It is clear that, at that time, Hauptmann’s choice of words must have been perceived by a certain public as highly offensive and, to a certain extent, revolutionary (cf. Sprengel 2012, 241).

11   Franz Mehring, notoriously affiliated with the German Social Democrats, bitterly criticised the play for the “verheuchelt[en] Mystizismus zu Ehren der ausbeutenden und unterdrückenden Klassen” (1961, 303; “hypocritical mysticism in honour of the exploiting and oppressing classes”).

12   “If ever the romantic escape from reality has had a real motivation, this is just what happens in the drama of the oppressed proletarian child Hannele. It is only in her last moments, near to death, when she lives a life worthy of being called human. The entire work is […] a bitter accusation directed against the entire modern society.”

13   In the aforementioned article, Georg Brandes (2011, part IX) mentions Fruen fra havet (The Lady from the Sea) and Rosmersholm as two examples of plays where the symbolic component is particularly strong.

14   Cf. “Es ist fast ganz dunkel. […] Von der Erscheinung geht ein fahles Licht aus” (Hauptmann [1893] 1996, 562-63, italics in the original, here and in the following passages; “It is almost dark. […] A pale light envelops the apparition”, Hauptmann 1914, 31-32); “Ein Dämmerlicht erfüllt nun das ärmliche Gemach” ([1893] 1996, 565; “Twilight fills the room”, 1914, 37); “Jetzt erfüllt […] ein goldgrüner Schein das Gemach” ([1893] 1996, 567; “A gold-green light suddenly floods the room”, 1914, 41); “Ein weißes, traumhaftes Licht füllt den Raum” ([1893] 1996, 570; “A supernatural dreamlike white light fills the room”, 1914, 45); “Ein helles Goldgrün erfüllt den Raum ([1893] 1996, 581; “A golden green light steals into the room”, 1914, 66).

15   “The two worlds are separate for the viewer, but not for Hannele. In the imagination of the poor girl, the dream becomes much more concrete than the miserable reality.”

16   “Through the open doorway a large, deep irregular garret is seen with odd nooks and corners; a couple of stove-pipes running through it, from rooms below. There are skylights through which clear moonbeams shine in on some parts of the great room; others lie in deep shadow” (Ibsen 1905, 83; italics in the original).

17   “The Wild Duck deals with human beings who are fumbling in the darkness of a garret-existence. Most of them have been injured long ago, but they still manage to survive. In this world of adults only the innocent and inexperienced child perishes.”

18   “Mankind is like tough wild game that has been mortally wounded. It sweats, runs – collapses – bleeding, runs again, because it has hope or because it is being hunted, then collapses again. It may be that it cannot die before sunset.”

19   “Hedvig. [...] And all the books. [...] [T]here is one great big book called ‘Harryson’s History of London’; it must be a hundred years old; and there are heaps of pictures in it. At the beginning there is Death with an hourglass and a young girl. I think that is horrid. But then there are all the other pictures of churches, and castles, and streets, and great ships sailing on the sea” (Ibsen 1905, 117).

20   “Ekdal (sleepily, in a thick voice) [...] always do that, wild ducks do. They shoot to the bottom as deep as they can get, sir – and cling steadfast to the tangle of seaweed – and to all the devils’ own mess that grows down there. And they never come up again” (Ibsen 1905, 89; italics in the original).

21   “Gregers. Jeg, for min del, trives ikke i sumpluft” (Ibsen [1884] 2009, 137); “Gregers. For my part, I don’t thrive in marsh vapours” (1905, 144).

22   “Gregers. Du har dukket under og bidt dig fast i bundgræsset. […] du er kommet ud i en forgiftig sump […], og så er du gåt til bunds for at dø i mørke” (Ibsen [1884] 2009, 128-29); “Gregers. You have dived down and bitten yourself fast in the undergrowth. […] [Y]ou have strayed into a poisonous marsh […], and you have sunk down to die in the dark” (1905, 134).

23   “Here is a duck shot in flight, and here are human beings shot in flight.”

24   This unusual expression appears for the first time in the third act during a dialogue between Hedvig and Gregers Werle (Ibsen [1884] 2009, 115). The form havsens is a linguistic holdover from an old genitive (cf. Ystad and Aarseth 2009, 156) and conveys an even more mysterious tone to the expression.

25   Frau Holle, known in English as Mother Hulda, is also a character from the Brothers Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children and Household Tales).

26   “In Ibsen, tragic guilt remains unfathomable and unconscious, and the tragic permeates life, rather than death.”

Auteur

Università degli Studi di Milano – Is currently a third-year PhD student in Scandinavian (Norwegian) Literature at the University of Milan. She wrote her BA dissertation on Peter Weiss’s early Swedish text De Besegrade (The Vanquished). She obtained her MA in German and Norwegian Literature with a dissertation in comparative literature on the influence of Henrik Ibsen’s work on Gerhart Hauptmann’s theatre. Her current PhD research project deals with the artistic representation of childhood and adolescence in Norwegian literature, with examples taken from fin-de-siècle up to present-day works. She is also active as a literary translator

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