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THE SUNKEN BELL

a play in four acts by Gerhart Hauptmann
First published in 1897

This analysis of The Sunken Bell was originally published in The Continental Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914. pp. 96-100.

The Sunken Bell is without doubt Hauptmann's best known play. It is not, however, his most representative piece of work: Hauptmann is so many-sided that three plays at least must be read in order to obtain some definite idea of his total output.

The question of influences, nearly always a precarious one to discuss, constantly arises in connection with the plays of the author under consideration, and it is at least safe to assert that Before Dawn shows distinct traces of Tolstoy, Lonely Lives and The Sunken Bell of Ibsen. Even Goethe has been suggested as a probable source of Hauptmann's inspiration in the last-mentioned play. Maurice Huret has well said that "Henrik Ibsen was at once a naturalist and a symbolist.... This combination, though apparently contradictory, is effected in perfect harmony, which is the result of the labor of supreme genius. Hauptmann was incapable of so great an effort." Instead of welding into a harmonic whole the diverse elements of realism and poetry in The Sunken Bell -- as Ibsen did in Peer Gynt -- he has had recourse to a more primitive procedure: he places side by side scenes of everyday realism and scenes of fairy romance; much as Shakespeare did in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Whether Hauptmann purposely adopted this method or whether he was unable to attain the white heat necessary for that complete welding, is not easy to determine, nor very much worth while discussing.

The eternal question of "What is a play?" again arises in connection with The Sunken Bell. Certain critics of the first rank declare that this play is good poetry but poor drama, others that it is good drama, as well as good poetry. It has been pointed out ... that standards are changing so rapidly nowadays that there is no criterion whereby to judge of the technical validity of a play. Mr. Clayton Hamilton states that "A play is a story devised to be presented by actors on a stage before an audience." The same critic also declares (speaking of Browning's Pippa Passes and Hauptmann's The Sunken Bell) that "These poems are not plays; and the innocent spectator, being told that they are, is made to believe that poetic drama must be necessarily a soporific thing." And yet, The Sunken Bell is "a story devised to be presented by actors on a stage before an audience." We must conclude, then, that although it is a play, it is not a good play; or else that the definition above quoted is not sufficiently inclusive. The Sunken Bell is not a good play in the sense that Sardou's Divorçons is a good play -- a pièce bien faite: -- it lacks unity, the story is not well developed, it wants swiftness of action, and clarity. Nor is it a good play in the sense that Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman -- a work which is not a "well-made play" -- is good. Hauptmann's play is good because of a combination of qualities -- some of which may indeed be unnecessary -- psychological interest, some dramatic poetry, as distinguished from purely lyrical, a fairly well-constructed plot, and the bodying forth of the truth in concrete form that the artist must ally himself with and understand Nature if he is to realize what is best in himself.

The Sunken Bell is, among other things, a study in temperament, the so-called "artistic temperament." In this play, the poet is chiefly interested in the psychological development of the artist, Heinrich. We are told that he is a great artist, but the fact is not made clear to us. A German critic takes Hauptmann to task because Heinrich does nothing to prove that he is what he is claimed to be. He aptly remarks that the more and the better Heinrich speaks the less are we inclined to believe in him, for most true artists express themselves best through the medium of their chosen art. In the drama we must believe what we are told. A dramatist of necessity asks his audience to take certain things for granted -- such as the lapse of time and the resultant fore-shortening of events -- and the audience, having accepted these premises, is ready to give credence to what follows. In The Sunken Bell, we must firmly believe that Heinrich is a true artist -- otherwise the author has failed. This is a question which the student must answer for himself.

Among the numerous studies in temperament, compare those in D'Annunzio's Gioconda, Bataille's La Femme Nue, Hauptmann's Michael Kramer, Georges de Porto-Riche's La Chance de Françoise, and Hermann Bahr's Das Konzert. How do these authors make their artists "live"?

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