The Good Hope (In "The Drama_ A Quarterly Review of Dramatic Literature")
A Quarterly Review of Dramatic Literature
THE PLAYS OF HERMAN HEIJERMANS.
To those content with convenient superficialities the plays of a dramatist such asHeijermans are easy of definition. He is dismissed as “a realistic writer,” “a playwrightof the naturalistic school,” a follower of Ibsen, or Hauptmann, or Tolstoy, or Zola.Even then, perhaps, the definitions are not exhausted. They spring from the encyclopediaof commonplaces, and are as chaotic as the minds of their authors. There is the adjective“meticulous,” for example,—invaluable to critics. And “morbid,”—equally indispensable,in the form of “morbid psychology.” “Photographic” and “kinematographic” must notbe forgotten; the latter an almost brand-new weapon of offence. For the rest, “grey,”“faithful,” “squalid” or “lifelike” will serve their turn, according to the critic’spoint of view.
In phrases such as these we hear the echoes of a controversy now a generation old;a controversy dating back to the “free theatres” of the 1890 period in Paris, Berlinand London, the first performances of Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” and the early plays of Hauptmann and Strindberg. Then the issuesbetween Realist and Philistine were sharply defined; the very terms were mutuallyexclusive. To be modern, to be “free,” was to be an Ibsenite, an apostle of moralindignation, an author or playgoer burning to lay bare social hypocrisies and shams;not merely pour ťpater le bourgeois, but in order to assert the Great Truths of Actual Life, so recently discovered bythe stage. It mattered little that Ibsenites owed their existence to their misunderstandingof Ibsen. He had supplied them with an essential war cry. The old domination of insinceresentiment and false romance in the theatre was indefensible and insupportable. Allthe enthusiasm of dramatic reformers was perforce directed to the advance of the newrealistic movement. Hence arose a battle of epithets between the two camps, with “antiquated,”“conventional,” “sentimental,” “romantic” on the one hand, and “vulgar,” “dreary,”“indecent,” “noisome” on the other.
In Anglo-Saxon countries, naturally enough, the issue was made one of morality ratherthan artistic method. Ibsen’s views on marriage were suspect, and the whole dramaticmovement lay in quarantine. Indeed, realism in literature came to be regarded as anunsettling tendency, emanating from the Continent, and directed against all Britishinstitutions from property to religion. The division of opinion may be studied in historical documents such as the criticisms of the London Press on the first Englishperformance of “Hedda Gabler,” and the early prefaces of Bernard Shaw; the one sidetilting at realism, the other at romance;—both, alas, the most shifty of windmillswhere morality is concerned.
The provocative cry of “naturalism,” raised by the newer dramatists and their supporters, was responsible for half the trouble. Anaturalist, in good English usage, is taken to be a professor with a butterfly netor an inquirer into the lower forms of pond life; and there is a good deal to be saidfor the analogy as applied to the author of realistic literature. Pins and chloroformmay be his implements of tragedy; his coldly scientific method gives point to thecomparison. Undoubtedly the “naturalistic drama” suggested probable inhumanity andpossible horror. In any case it clearly offered no hope of an enjoyable evening, andwas condemned from the first to be unpopular.
So much for the misconception encouraged by a purely journalistic phrase. Uselessto maintain that the older dramatists, from Robertson and Dumas fils to Sardou, held a monopoly of the milk of human kindness, while Ibsen, Hauptmann,Tolstoy and Strindberg wallowed in mere brutal, original sin. The alleged “naturalism”of the latter belied its name. It ranged from revolutionary Utopianism to the creationof most unnatural giants,—stage characters removed from the average of everyday lifeby their own distinction. Indeed, the differences between the old school and the newwere as nothing compared with the intellectual gulf between, say, Strindberg and Tolstoy.Setting out from the common ground of external approximation to life, the dramatistsof the period soon diverged upon individual paths. Hauptmann passed from the vividand revolutionary “Weavers” to the mythology of “Hannele” and the “Sunken Bell,” andthe simple domestic drama of “Fuhrmann Henschel” and “Rose Bernd.” Tolstoy becamea preacher; Strindberg a Swedenborgian mystic. Of the early playwrights of the FrenchThť‚tre Libre, Courteline and Ancey, practised the Comťdie rosse, or brutal comedy, until Paris, tired of the uncouth novelty, turned to the moreamiable and no less natural work of Capus and Donnay. Brieux devoted himself to thecomposition of dramatic tracts. Bernard Shaw, after protesting that he “could noneother” than dramatize slum landlords and rent collectors in “Widowers’ Houses,” foundreadier targets for his wit in bishops, professors of Greek and millionaires. Nature,in fact, proved too strong for naturalism. No formula could embrace all the individualplaywrights of that stormy time. The most catholic of “schools” could not hold them.
Formulas, however, die hard; and it is still necessary to free Heijermans from the“naturalistic” label so conveniently attached in 1890 to works like Tolstoy’s “Powerof Darkness,” Hauptmann’s Vor Sonnenaufgang and Zola’s “TherŤse Raquin.” All that his plays have in common with theirs is a faithfulobservation of life, and more particularly of life among the common people. Moreover,he belongs to a newer generation. He had written several short pieces (notably Ahasuerus and ’n Jodenstreek?) in 1893 and 1894, but “The Ghetto” (1899) was his first important play. This three-acttragedy of the Jewish quarter in a Dutch city has been published in an English adaptationwhich woefully misrepresents the original, and I should rather refer readers to aGerman translation (Berlin, Fleische) revised by Heijermans himself. Like most earlywork, the play did not satisfy its author, and several versions exist.
The story is simple enough. Rafael, the son of an old Jewish merchant, has an intriguewith the Gentile maidservant, Rose. His father, Sachel, lives in an atmosphere ofmistrust, hard dealing, thievery; a patriarch with all the immemorial wrongs of theghetto upon his shoulders, and all the racial instinct to preserve property, familyand religion from contact with “strange people.” He is blind, but in the night hehas heard the lovers’ footsteps in the house. Rose has lied to him; Rafael, as usual,is neglecting his business for Gentile companions. So the play opens. After some bargainingover the dowry, a marriage is arranged for Rafael with the daughter of another merchant.The authority of the Rabbi is called in, but Rafael refuses. He is a freethinker;in the ghetto, but not of it. “Oh, these little rooms of yours,—these hot, stiflingchambers of despair, where no gust of wind penetrates, where the green of the leavesgrows yellow, where the breath chokes and the soul withers! No, let me speak, RabbiHaeser! Now I am the priest; I, who am no Jew and no Christian, who feel God in thesunlight, in the summer fragrance, in the gleam of the water and the flowers uponmy mother’s grave … I have pity for you, for your mean existence, for your ghettosand your little false gods—for the true God is yet to come, the God of the new community;the commonwealth without gods, without baseness, without slaves!”
Sachel is blamed for allowing this open rupture to come about. It is better to paythe girl off quietly and have done with her, argue the other Jews. Every woman hasher price—and especially every Gentile woman. A hundred gulden—perhaps two hundredif she is obstinate—will settle the matter. The money is offered, but Rose is notto be bought. She has promised to go away with Rafael as his wife. He has gone out,but he will return for her. The family tell her that the money is offered with hisconsent; that he is tired of her and has left home for good. But she is unmoved. Shehas learned to mistrust the word of the Jews; she will only believe their sacred oath. At last oldSachel swears by the roll of the commandments that his son will not return. In despair,Rose throws herself into the canal and is drowned. Rafael comes too late to save her.The God of the Jews has taken his revenge.
The play is perhaps a little naÔve and crudely imagined, but it has all the essentialcharacteristics of Heijermans’ later work; the intense humanitarian feeling, the burningrhetoric, the frankly partisan denunciation of society. Indeed, it could not be otherwise.In dealing with such a case of bigotry and racial intolerance, it is idle for a playwrightto hold the scales with abstract justice. At most he can only humanise the tragedyby humanising the villains of his piece, and showing them driven into cruelty by traditionalforces beyond their control. That is the part of the “Anklšger,” the social prophet and Public Prosecutor; and it is the part which Heijermans,above all others, has filled in the newer dramatic movement.
In Het Pantser (“The Coat of Mail”) his subject is the life of a Dutch garrison town. “The Coatof Mail” is militarism; the creed of the governing caste. And the setting is peculiarlyapt for the presentation of a social issue. In a small country such as Holland militarypatriotism may be strong, but it is tempered by the knowledge that the country onlyexists by the tolerance, or the diplomatic agreement, of more powerful neighbours,and that in case of war it could do no more than sacrifice an army to the invader.To the philosophic workman, then, well read in revolutionary literature from Marxto Kropotkin, the standing army presents itself simply as a capitalist tool, a bulwarkof the employing class against trade unionism. The industrial struggle is uncomplicated by sentimentality. Patriotic stampedes to the conservative side areunknown. Social Democracy is strong. Strikes are frequent, and the protection of “blackleg”labourers is in the hands of the garrison. That is the theme of this “romantic militaryplay.”
Mari, a second lieutenant, refuses to serve on strike duty. He is a weak but sincereidealist; his head full of humanitarian enthusiasm, his rooms stocked with anti-militaristpamphlets. He will leave the army rather than order his men to fire on the factoryworkers. Around him stand the members of the military caste, linked together by traditionand family relationship. His father is a colonel in the same regiment; the fatherof his fiancťe, Martha, is commanding officer. One friend he has: an army doctor namedBerens, who has infected himself with cancer serum in attempting to discover a curefor the disease, and passes for a drunkard because he keeps the symptoms in checkby alcohol. Here a parallel is drawn between military bravery and the civilian courageof the scientist.
Mari is put under arrest, but the affair is kept secret in order to avoid a scandal.He can only be reinstated by full withdrawal and apology. Martha comes to him andimplores him to withdraw. The strike is thought to be over. He can plead the excitementof the moment in excuse, and the matter will be settled honorably. He gives way andapologises. A friendly discussion of the point with his superior officers is interruptedby a volley in the street outside. The troops have fired upon the mob, and the sonof the shoemaker over the way has been shot.
Mari sends in his papers; but a newspaper has published the facts of the case, andhe is met with the disgrace of immediate dismissal from the army. This does not suit Martha. She must marry a soldier; civilian life with a dismissedlieutenant was not in the bond. So Mari suffers another disillusionment, and the endof the play sees him setting out from home, while the old shoemaker is left to lamentfor his son.
And the sum total of it all? A warm heart, a weakness for rhetoric, and—a study invacillation.
In Ora et Labora Heijermans is less rhetorical;