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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Hermann Sudermann (1857–1928)
Critical Introduction to Sudermann’s Later Work by Ludwig Lewisohn (1882–1955)
DURING the nineteen years that have elapsed since Sudermann wrote his ‘John the Baptist’ (1898), his reputation in Germany has very steadily declined. To German criticism, indeed, the extraordinarily high station assigned to him in America has always been a source of puzzled dissent. To couple his name with that of Hauptmann is, at all events, manifestly absurd. But to the American critic the reason for this over-estimate is abundantly clear. Both our readers and our hearers of plays are still very largely under the influence of the older artifices of the French stage. A public that is not offended by the technical clap-trap of Henry Arthur Jones, that welcomes John Galsworthy with meager and hesitant appreciation but that, nevertheless, has developed a taste for an external realism of detail—such a public has, almost inevitably, seen a great dramatist in the author of ‘Magda.’ Sudermann is, of course, not that. He has never attempted a great subject but to fail in fundamental veracity and power; he has never availed himself of the opportunities which he has had again and again of bringing a dramatic action to its inevitable end. And as the years have gone on he has become increasingly the slave of his own abounding ingenuity, of his quite matchless but purely theatrical skill.  1
  It is but fair to say, on the other hand, that his shortcomings, obvious and indeed glaring as they are, have often been cruelly stressed by hostile portions of the Berlin press at the expense of such genuinely vital qualities as his best plays possess. Thus, though a great deal has been made of the hollow artifice of ‘Long Life to Life’ (1902) and the touch of spiritual corruption—a very different thing from the most pitiless plain speaking—in ‘The Flower Boat’ (1905) and ‘Fair Fame’ (1912), very little attention has been paid to the elements of poetry and true passion in ‘The Fires of St. John’ (1900), the kindly, human observation in ‘Companions of the Storm’ (1903), and the not ignoble imagination displayed in ‘Children of the Strand’ (1910). What has naturally aroused the hostility of the critics is the fact that even the superbly intelligent modern German public has often permitted itself to be carried off its feet by the dazzling theatrical dexterity of his very worst plays. Thus Sudermann’s immense success on the stage has constantly contributed to his critical ruin. And it is, indeed, more than doubtful whether any of his plays are destined to survive. His characters are not infrequently clearly seen and most convincingly shown in action; he has long passages of dialogue that are admirably true and significant and telling. But one is never more than ten minutes away from a piece of theatrical trickery, from a sop to the nerves of the unthinking, that sets the teeth on edge and makes one ashamed for a man who was so richly endowed for the art of the drama and sold his art for more money than he needed or than was good for him.  2
  The art of fiction, with the practice of which he so admirably opened his career, Sudermann abandoned for many years until in 1909 he once more achieved a wide and resounding success with ‘The Song of Songs.’ This novel has been judged in a variety of ways. It must be admitted at once, to be sure, that in some of the Berlin scenes—Berlin is the evil genius of Sudermann’s art, as East Prussia is its good angel—there is that same touch of a subtle delight in mere corruption that one finds in certain of his plays. Nor has the history of Lilly Czepanek either the austere fatefulness of that of Emma Bovary, or the deep poetry of the life of Evelyn Innes, or the elemental veracity of the career of Carrie Meeber. Yet the very temptation to compare this story of the adventures of a modern woman to the works of Flaubert and Moore and Dreiser, shows the plane on which it has been attempted. Nor is the story in itself an ignoble one. What Lilly seeks, what she strives for is, after all, love and harmony and beauty. That her own ignorance deceives her, that she constantly accepts pinchbeck for gold, is assuredly more the world’s fault than her own. And the admirable and characteristically German ending (which has been so strangely misunderstood by at least one eminent American critic) is almost the best thing that Sudermann has ever done. Lilly throws the score of her father’s beautiful composition into the river in token of the fact that the world has conquered and that she will strive and aspire no more. She marries her heavy Robert Dehnicke and sinks permanently to the level of her environment. She becomes respectable and loses her soul. That is her tragedy and that conception of the supreme tragedy of a woman’s soul may one day do not a little to rehabilitate the sincerity of Sudermann’s mind and art.  3

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