On this day…6 June

On 6 June 1946 the German writer Gerhart Hauptmann died.

Born in 1862 in Obersalzbrunn (now Szczawno-Zdrój in Poland), then part of German Silesia, Hauptmann studied art at Breslau and science and philosophy at the University of Jena before turning to literature in the 1880s. Best known now for his plays, Hauptmann was also a novelist and was considered one of the great writers of his time.

Hauptmann’s first play, Vor Sonnenaufgang (Before Dawn, 1889), is considered the beginning of naturalism in German drama and its controversial first performance brought him instant fame. He followed this with a series of naturalistic dramas on social themes using local Silesian dialect. Probably his most famous play is Die Weber (The Weavers, 1892) which is based on the events of a Silesian weavers’ uprising in 1844.

Hauptmann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1912 and the Goethe Prize in 1932. He remained in Germany after Hitler’s rise to power, and was at a health resort in Dresden when that city was bombed in 1945. He returned to his home in Agnetendorf (now Jagniątków in Poland) where he died on 6 June 1946. The local authorities would not allow him to be buried there and his body was taken to Hiddensee on the north German coast where he was buried on 28 July.

Joyce started reading Hauptmann’s works in 1900 believing them to be a progression from Ibsen. His copy of The Coming of Peace (a translation of Das Friedensfest – Ein Familienkatastrophe, 1890) is dated February 1900, and his copy of Hannele, A Dream Poem (Hanneles Himmelfahrt, translated into English by William Archer, Ibsen’s English translator) is dated August 1900.

While he was in Mullingar in the summer of 1901, Joyce completed a translation of Hauptmann’s Vor Sonnenaufgang after which he translated Michael Kramer, Hauptmann’s latest play. Joyce had not studied German formally and he found Hauptmann’s Silesian dialect hard to fathom, so there were passages that he was unable to translate. Joyce later submitted these translations to WB Yeats to be produced by the Irish Literary Theatre, but Yeats rejected them, partly because he realised they were badly translated, but also because he felt the Literary Theatre needed to concentrate on Irish works.

Joyce read Hauptmann’s Rosa Bernd (1903) in Rome in 1906 after which he criticised Hauptmann’s plays in a letter to his brother. Even so, Joyce had to admit that Hauptmann had written a few masterpieces, including The Weavers.

In 1928 Ezra Pound wrote to Joyce asking about his translations of Hauptmann’s plays which Yeats had told him about. At the time, Pound was living in Rapallo where Hauptmann was a frequent visitor, and he told Joyce that Hauptmann was reading Ulysses in the German translation. In late 1937, Joyce wrote to Pound asking if he could arrange for Hauptmann to sign his copy of Michael Kramer. Pound reluctantly agreed and Joyce got the signed book in January 1938.

Joyce left the copy books containing his translations of Hauptmann in Dublin when he left in 1904 and they were later sold. In December 1934 Joyce was contacted by John Hinsdale Thompson of Michigan who had obtained the translations and who now sought permission to publish Joyce’s translation of Vor Sonnenaufgang. Joyce refused.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. III, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

Pound, Ezra: Pound/Joyce – The Letters of Ezra Pound to James Joyce with Pound’s Essays on Joyce, edited with a commentary by Forrest Read, London: Faber & Faber, 1968


Information on Hauptmann museums in Germany and Poland

More on Joyce’s translation of Vor Sonnenaufgang