Wednesday, November 2, 2011

It is exemplary, sets us an ideal which we may emulate - Gerhart Hauptmann's nightmarish Before Daybreak

My translator* insists on Before Daybreak for the title of Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1889 shocker of a debut play; I think it is more commonly called Before Sunrise (Vor Sonnenaufgang is the German).  The play has a subtitle, too: A Social Drama.  We are once again in the world of Naturalism, heaven help us.  The translator has a nice dig at the term, calling it, at its worst, the melodrama of the wretched.  Fortunately, Before Daybreak is Naturalism at its best, so I can ignore the entire issue forevermore.

The second line of dialogue will set the tone (ellipses in original):

MRS. KRAUSE:  (Screams)  You sluts!!... Honest to God, I never seen scum the like o’ you girls!... (To Loth).  Shove off!  You don’t get nothin’ here!... (Half to Miele, half to Loth.)  He got arms, he can work.  Get out!  Nobody gets no handouts!

Now that’s the way to start a play.  Her face is “bluish red with rage,” “hard, sensual, malevolent.”  She is in her early forties, so just imagine your favorite actress of that age chewing through this part.  Jennifer Aniston, say.

The joke of the whole thing is that the abused Loth, a rationalist and idealist, is just there to visit his old but newly wealthy college pal, Mrs. Krause’s son-in-law.  Coal has been discovered in Silesia; the riche are all nouveau, like the nightmarish former peasant Mrs. Krause; and Loth is there to reform the conditions of the workers.  In the meantime, he becomes romantically entangled with the only not-entirely-horrible member of the family, the stepdaughter Helen, who is not vicious but merely hysterical and neurotic.  Disaster comes crashing down in Act V.  Hereditary alcoholism is in some sense the cause, but this is not really a “social issue” play.  If t’weren’t t’one thing, t’would be t’other.

I’m just leafing through the play now, thinking about what I might quote.  The post’s title is from a discussion about reading.  Helen is reading, what else, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which earnest Loth calls “a book for weaklings.”  He recommends a historical novel about virtuous, self-denying Romans which he calls “rational and reasonable,” “an ideal which we may emulate” (Act II, p. 35).  The irony is that it is Loth who causes the final catastrophe by following his unreasonable ideals.

I might write more about the characters tomorrow.  The success of the play is the mix of people, awful and otherwise.  Hauptmann emulated Ibsen, but he reminds me a bit more of the slightly later Chekhov, if I imagine a Chekhov play with only two or three sympathetic characters, which is of course not Chekhov at all, since his great gift was to make us pity or understand or even indulge the follies of his puppets.  Before Daybreak is dingy Chekhov, Chekhov where everything goes horribly wrong.  I mean, you know, even worse.

*  Peter Bauland, Gerhart Hauptmann’s Before daybreak, 1978, University of North Carolina Press.  He argues, that the 1912 translation, the one available at, is a disaster: “substantially accurate, guts the play.”

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