Hermann Sudermann, Mennonite Playwright and Novelist from the Boundary

Hermann Sudermann

Hermann Sudermann

The playwright, poet and novelist Hermann Sudermann was also known as the “Balzac from the East” by compatriots, and this essay seeks to establish the extent of his popularity in his time, as well as examine his Mennonite connections and the themes in many of his works.

Sudermann was born in East Prussia, near today’s Silute, Lithuania, on September 30, 1857, and died in Berlin on November 21, 1928. The facts of his life are fairly well established: Mennonite father, Lutheran mother, dropout from Humboldt University in Berlin, editor of a widely read radical newspaper Deutsches Reichsblatt (1881-89) beginning at the age of 22, and first novel Dame Care (Frau Sorge) a major success when he was 28. This novel is still on the required reading lists for junior high students in many areas in Germany.

His first play, Honor (Die Ehre), followed two years later. It was such a success among the youth of Berlin that, according to one report, the students rioted for three days. Another report stated that it was not a riot but a protest against German class structure and political oppression. On the Schiller statue outside the Royal Deutsches Theatre the students posted this sign: “Yesterday you were the man, today it’s Sudermann” (Gestern warest du der Mann, heute ist Sudermann). The rhyme endings work in either language. In 1891 he married Clara Lauckner who, from a previous marriage, had two young children, Rolf and Hede, that Sudermann raised as his own. Both children inherited the real and intellectual properties owned by Clara and Hermann.

By the early 1900s Sudermann owned an apartment in fashionable Berlin and another in Konigsberg, rented one in Paris and purchased a 15th century palace outside of Berlin in Blankensee. He traveled extensively through Europe and even went on a long Asian excursion that included a trip through the Suez Canal, the Indian Ocean and various ports along the way until he reached Japan, where his plays were produced on a fairly regular basis.

Birthplace and House Museum              Silute, Lithuania

Birthplace and House Museum Silute, Lithuania

Sudermann reached such heights of theatrical recognition that, according to one biographer,[1] would be attained by Charlie Chaplin a generation later—and, we might add, the Beatles after that. Possibly no one compares today. Men all across Europe wanted their barbers to give them a “Sudermann trim.” His visage was on postage stamps, tram tickets, ration cards, railway postcards and souvenir medals, and his whereabouts were a weekly feature in many Berlin newspapers. His literary reputation was such that major writers of that time, such as Bernard Shaw, Emile Zola and Henrick Ibsen, all attended productions of Sudermann’s plays. Shaw’s essay[2] in which he provided the first and, some say, still the best articulation of realism was written as a review of Sudermann’s Madga in which Eleanora Dusa played the lead. Actors and directors generally refer to this as Shaw’s essay on “Dusa’s blush.”[3] Sudermann’s plays packed the largest theaters in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Rome, New York and even Japan. The great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler became an advocate for Sudermann in America.

A century ago Sudermann semed to have become one of theater’s great immortals, yet today he is largely forgotten. He was never comfortable with the literary label of “Naturalism,” the label many have bestowed on him.[4] Eight movies were made from his novels. One of them, Sunrise, directed by W. F. Murnau, received an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category.

For a contemporary reader, the themes in Sudermann’s works are probably more surprising than knowledge of the sensational effect he had during his lifetime. In nearly all of his plays (31) and novels (18) Sudermann establishes a consistent approach to four major themes, which had already begun to emerge in his youthful days as editor of the radical Deutsches Reichsblatt. Again and again he illustrates the plight of Jews[5] and other marginal ethnics in Germany (Poles, Russians and a few Mennonites), a concern for what he calls the autonomous woman, the militarization of Germany under the Iron Chancellor Bismarck, and the poverty of the lower classes. Sudermann was not alone with these concerns. Ibsen also addressed the plight of women in his time and Hauptmann explored issues of class and poverty, but the difference is that Sudermann repeatedly kept these issues in focus as major and secondary themes from his first work to his last.

Sudermann’s links to Mennonites have been acknowledged by all of his German biographers. In fact, Herbert Reinoss states that it was from his Mennonite ancestors that he inherited his “thin skin.”[6] During his junior high school years, he lived with his Mennonite relatives in Elbing, East Prussia, and attended the Mennonite church where his uncle was the main minister. He wrote that he had a “warm glow” when he attended services and thought about his heritage.[7]

More important, though, the repetition of themes that seem consistent with 20th century Mennonite values links Sudermann indelibly to this faith community. The one document that stands in contradiction to his caustic attacks on German militarization is the document that he and most other writers signed in the middle of World War I that supported the Emperor in his war effort. This document must be placed in context of his other work during the war: the Lithuanian Stories, which form an ardent plea for the integrity of minorities and the injustices they have experienced from their German overlords. These values seem to arise from Mennonite soil.

Sudermann was frequently also identified as a “boundary author.” While this title refers to the eastern border where Germany met Poland and Russia, it also had other meanings. It also meant that he was exploring issues that emerged from those border areas, especially those linked with ethnicity, linguistic and religious diversity, and the problems of German control over minority ethnic groups. These boundary issues, so vital at the beginning of the 20th century, vanished when the eastern borders were decimated by war and the areas absorbed by other nations. That historical turn pulled the proverbial rug from under Sudermann’s dramatic works, until recently when ethnic tensions again are on the rise in Germany. Sudermann’s plays are slowly being remounted again by major theaters.

For Sudermann’s early years with his parents in Lithuanian Prussia and his Mennonite relatives in Elbing, see his autobiographical account, The Book of My Youth (1922).

Monument to Sudermann Silute, Lithuania

Monument to Sudermann Silute, Lithuania

[1] Reinoss, Herbert. Das Hermann Sudermann Buch (München: Langen Müller, 1985), 41.

[2] Shaw. Plays and Players (London: Oxford, 1952), 35. The essay was first published in 1895.

[3] Meisner, Sanford. Sanford Meisner On Acting (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 13-15.

[4] Reinoss, 538.

[5] “We Jews have reason to be careful, I shouldn’t be surprised if the new Berlin (anti-Semitism – note by essayist) movement, which tries to reduce us to the level of outcasts, has already extended to this remote spo t . . . the student of history is quite familiar with such phenomena. Whenever a wave of nationalism was at a loss for an issue the Jews had to serve as the butt.” The Mad Professor, Vol. 1 (Berlin: Cotta, 1905) 124.

[6] Reinoss, 524.

[7] Book of My Youth (New York: Harper and Row, 1922) 82.

About the Author

Lauren Friesen

Lauren Friesen, Ph.D., was born near Henderson, Nebraska where he resided until matriculating at Bethel College (Kansas). He received his Ph.D. with honors from Graduate Theological Union and the Department of Dramatic Art at the University of California-Berkeley. From 2000 to 2013 Friesen served as Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Michigan-Flint. Currently he is the David M. French Distinguished Professor of Theatre Emeritus at the University of Michigan. He was the founding director of the Master of Arts in Arts Administration program for the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan. He also served as Professor of Drama and Director of the John S. Umble Center at Goshen College. The Kennedy Center awarded Friesen with the Gold Medallion for Excellence in Theatre Education and the Indiana Theatre Association presented him with the Outstanding Contribution to University Theatre plaque. In 2013 Pacific School of Religion presented Friesen with the Distinguished Alumni award. Lauren and his wife, Janet Burkholder, have been married forty-six years and are the proud parents of Erica who was married to Blair Franklin and Eliot who is married to Carrie Meyers. Erica and Blair have two sons, August Emerson and Maximus Grey. Eliot and Carrie have two daughters, Greta Catherine and Alexandra Claire.