Gerhart Hauptmann. Between utopia and reality

(EMU). On 3 March 1892, Berlins police headquarters issued a ban on the performance of a theatre piece. A social drama in five acts, it described the situation of the weavers in Silesia and their uprising in 1844. The authorities were infuriated by a young author experimenting with the revolutionisation of German theatre. His name was Gerhart Hauptmann. His new style was seen as naturalism; he showed not only a hero, but a starkly portrayed reality of a social class who were given a voice of their own. Astounded audiences, most of whom were members of the upper classes, considered the language, the situations and the realistic social strata revolutionary. Hauptmann himself was less interested in ideological subversion than in reminding people of the social responsibilities of state, business and society. The drama laid the foundations for the poets fame; ultimately he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1912. But it also had a more timeless effect. Today it could well be performed in Bangladesh, a place where the lower classes now produce fabrics for global markets.
Despite the revolutionary potential of the weavers, the poet maintained a distance from the political currents of his time. Like his contemporary Thomas Mann, he led a life dedicated exclusively to writing, art and the search for alternative utopias. His marriage with his affluent first wife, Marie Thienemann, initially enabled him to lead a privileged artist’s existence and concentrate on his own creativity. He worked unceasingly for several years before achieving any economic success himself. Later on, a second woman, the young actress Margarete Marschalk, entered the life of the father of three, and the affair they had shook not only the poets innermost being, but also the public and their conventional and social expectations of bourgeois marriage. It was a shattering experience which Hauptmann later processed in a fictitious diary called The Book of Passions.
Together with this second woman, whom he eventually married after the divorce, he purchased a holiday home at Hiddensee, the Capri of the North, and combined his work with this island on the Baltic and the artists scene there. Amid the sinister atmosphere of the First World War, Thomas Mann composed his legendary ‘Magic Mountain’, while Hauptmann sat by the Baltic and fashioned a utopia: the Island of Great Mothers. While Europe was being destroyed by militarism, this novel told the imaginary tale of an alternative, purely feminine society. The women had saved themselves from a shipwreck and created their own civilisation on an imaginary island in the Caribbean. The island of Hiddensee served as an inspiration for the landscape descriptions. The novel reveals Hauptmann’s complex intellectual and religious world and touches upon Greek mythology, the history of Christian revelation and the phenomenology of Buddhism.
Hauptmanns poems, dramas and novels created a fascinating intellectual world which also touched upon Islam in certain places. The annual Hiddensee Colloquium held by the Institute of Caucasica, Tatarica and Turkestan Studies, has artists, authors and academics host a special evening on the subject in August. One of the initiators of this evening, Dr Mieste Hotopp-Riecke, while researching Hauptmann’s connections with the Orient at the German National Library, made an outstanding discovery. Looking through his estate, the academic discovered a beautiful, hand-written edition of the Qur’an, probably from the 17th or 18th century. “Nobody has been interested in this mysterious side of the author for over seventy years,” says Mieste Hotopp-Riecke. This wonderful event involved readings and talks, songs and melodies dealing for the first time with Gerhart Hauptmann and the Orient. And it was announced at the event that a book will be published next year revealing to a wider audience the connections between Hauptmann, Silesian home and the Orient.
Hauptmanns interest in the Islamic world is also demonstrated biographically. At the beginning of the 20th century, Hauptmann, having just toured much of Greece, visited the city of Istanbul. The poet explored the Islamic metropolis for some days. On 23 May 1907, Gerhart Hauptmann wrote in his diary: “I find the aniconic nature of the mosques to be gradually purifying my religious feeling. And the services without music are wonderfully curious. We attended a prayer at the Sulaimaniyye Mosque around midday. Ranked in long lines, the Muslims kneel facing Makkah. An imam recites verses from the Qur´an and a voice answers in the background. The Muslims bow, touch the floor with their foreheads, spend long periods of silence in prayer, kneel, rise up, and then wait again in silence. And to think that, at this very same hour, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people are focused with all their senses on one point, inwardly and outwardly, a point at which the Divine light most recently burned and then went out, inspires awe.”
Hauptmann lived long enough to experience the phenomenon of television images which so define our modern perception, and in another place he writes: “People produce images like trees produce fruit, and if they are not eradicated from time to time, they suffocate us.” This is how Hauptmann, inspired by a visit to the mosque, discovered for himself the meaning of the prohibition of portraiture in Islamic tradition.
As well as this, Hauptmann, had personal contact with the Muslims, as can be seen in his correspondence. The event at Hiddensee described this aspect of the open-minded artist in detail. His circle of friends included the Hungarian-Egyptian princess and later womens right activist, Djavidan Hanim. “If I could, Master, I would lay the most beautiful rose garden of Allah at your feet,” she wrote to him in 1943.
The Noble Prize winner was also interested in the adventurous life of the globetrotter Essad Bey, who was originally Jewish and had converted to Islam. The author was banned from publishing in Germany in 1936. After a long odyssey, he eventually died in Italy, lonely and forlorn. It is probable that Essad Bey intended to write a biography of Mussolini there before he fell seriously ill. Gerhart Hauptmann wrote a poem entitled “Positano“ in 1944 discussing Essad Bey’s lonely death. It concludes: “Everything had left him, / Which he had ever loved, / Until finally, death released him / From the misery of man.”
Hauptmanns favourite books included Goethes West-Eastern Diwan, and in his fictitious diary, The Book of Passions, he wrote down one of the poets mottos in life: “And so long as you have not attained it, this, ‘Die and become!’, you will only be a gloomy guest on this dark earth.”
This autobiographical book contains other references to Islam as well as very personal reflections on the Islamic life practice. The institution of bourgeois marriage, within the social circumstances of his time, concerned Hauptmann throughout his life. Two of his famous theatre pieces, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, describe the role of love, marriage and convention.
The fictitious author, like Hauptmann himself, torn for years between two women, eventually considered the possibility of converting to Islam himself. In his diary entry on 25.12.1894, the freethinker discusses the question of polygamy and writes: “I find monogamy unsatisfactory, from every point of view, the material as well as the ethical”. Further on in his discussions, in an entry on 18.10.1895, he speculates about this other, unconventional variation of partnership and its consequences: “And why should one not, by working seriously on oneself, arrive at this doubtlessly noble form of conflict resolution, a finer and more human form than brutal and bloody separation? Or are tearing, separating and destroying higher than healing, reconciling, uniting and building up?”
Of course, the idea of uniting three people in marriage remained a utopia, in fiction as well as practice. But it shows the poet’s longing not to have his intellectual freedom limited by the standards of his time. The world-famous poets relationship with the Orient and Islam, in connection with his commitment to the social question, remains an intriguing field of research.