Tuesday, July 7, 2020


Hermann Sudermann's play Heimat (Home) takes place in a respectable, middle-class German home of the 1890s. It also never fails to make that literal home stand in for the larger bourgeois respectability the play critiques.

In the opening stage directions, Sudermann describes the home as being decorated with "Steel engravings of a religious and patriotic character, in tarnished gold frames." Behind the sofa is a portrait of the patriarch's first wife "in the costume of the sixties." Seemingly, not much has changed in the past 30 years.

Well, one thing that has changed is that Lieutenant-Colonel Leopold Schwartze now has a new wife, though he seems to have paid neither of his spouses much attention. He says in the first act, "It's only right that an old soldier should dedicate the little strength left him by the throne to the service of the altar. Those are the two causes to fight for." Other than the emperor and the church, little interests him anymore.

In Act II, Schwartze's estranged daughter Magda, who is in town for a music festival, reconciles with him. Looking around the house she hasn't seen in twelve years, she declares, "Just to think that I am at home! It seems like a fairy tale." The house does not look to have changed a bit, other than that the family dog has died. What has changed is Magda herself. "From that door to the window, from this table to the old bureau, -- that was once my world," she says.

Magda's world has opened up considerably, as she is now a famous opera star. Her father is scandalized that she does not travel with a respectable lady chaperone as dame d'honneur, but Magda does what she likes. Now that she is back home, though, she feels the oppressive pull of the old ways. "The paternal authority already stretches its net over me again, and the yoke stands ready beneath which I must bow," she says. In spite of her misgivings, she decides to stay with her family while in town.

While there, Magda receives an unexpected visitor, the respected Doctor von Keller, who in his student days had known her in Berlin. (Known in the Biblical sense, by the way....) Magda's face turns white when she hears his name, but she receives him, and then reveals that after he abandoned her, she bore a child. She spurns her former lover, saying: "Who are you? You're a strange man who gratified his lust and passed on with a laugh. But I have a child, -- my son, my God, my all! For him I lived and starved and froze and walked the streets; for him I sang and danced in concert-halls...."

Unfortunately, the secret cannot be kept from Magda's father, and when he finds out the truth about his daughter, he resolves to challenge von Keller to a duel. Before he can do that, though, von Keller arrives and agrees to marry Magda. For Schwartze, this would solve everything, but Magda refuses the man, for a second time defying her father. This is too much for the old man to bear, and he perishes, dying of a stroke.

So what is Sudermann's ultimate judgment on the home? Is it a stifling prison that needs to be escaped? Or a salvation that is scorned by the wicked? The play never quite makes up its mind, which is why Sudermann was scorned equally by traditionalists and the avant garde alike. For years, though, many people in the middle loved his plays, particularly Heimat.