WHEN The Weavers first saw the light, pandemonium broke out in the "land of thinkers and poets." "What!" cried Philistia, "workingmen, dirty, emaciated and starved, to be placed on the stage! Poverty, in all its ugliness, to be presented as an after-dinner amusement? That is too much!"
Indeed it is too much for the self-satisfied bourgeoisie to be brought face to face with the horrors of the weaver's existence. It is too much, because of the truth and the reality that thunders in the placid ears of society a terrific J'accuse!
Gerhart Hauptmann [was] a child of the people; his grandfather was a weaver, and the only way his father could escape the fate of his parents was by leaving his trade and opening an inn. Little Gerhart's vivid and impressionable mind must have received many pictures from the stories told about the life of the weavers. Who knows but that the social panorama which Hauptmann subsequently gave to the world, had not slumbered in the soul of the child, gaining form and substance as he grew to manhood. At any rate, The Weavers, like the canvases of Millet and the heroic figures of Meunier, represent the epic of the age-long misery of labor, a profoundly stirring picture.
The background of The Weavers is the weaving district in Silesia, during the period of home industry -- a gruesome sight of human phantoms, dragging on their emaciated existence almost by superhuman effort. Life is a tenacious force that clings desperately even to the most meager chance in an endeavor to assert itself. But what is mirrored in The Weavers is so appalling, so dismally hopeless that it stamps the damning brand upon our civilization.
One man and his hirelings thrive on the sinew and bone, on the very blood, of an entire community. The manufacturer Dreissiger spends more for cigars in a day than an entire family earns in a week. Yet so brutalizing, so terrible is the effect of wealth that neither pale hunger nor black despair can move the master.
There is nothing in literature to equal the cruel reality of the scene in the office of Dreissiger, when the weavers bring the finished cloth. For hours they are kept waiting in the stuffy place, waiting the pleasure of the rich employer after they had walked miles on an empty stomach and little sleep. For as one of the men says, "What's to hinder a weaver waitin' for an hour, or for a day? What else is he there for?"
Indeed what else, except to be always waiting in humility, to be exploited and degraded, always at the mercy of the few pence thrown to them after an endless wait.
Necessity knows no law. Neither does it know pride. The weavers, driven by the whip of hunger, bend their backs, beg and cringe before their "superior."
WEAVER'S WIFE: No one can't call me idle, but I am not fit now for what I once was. I've twice had a miscarriage. As to John, he's but a poor creature. He's been to the shepherd at Zerlau, but he couldn't do him no good, and ... you can't do more than you've strength for.... We works as hard as ever we can. This many a week I've been at it till far into the night. An' we'll keep our heads above water right enough if I can just get a bit o' strength into me. But you must have pity on us, Mr. Pfeifer, sir. You'll please be so very kind as to let me have a few pence on the next job, sir? Only a few pence, to buy bread with. We can't get no more credit. We've a lot o' little ones.
"Suffer little children to come unto me." Christ loves the children of the poor. The more the better. Why, then, care if they starve? Why care if they faint away with hunger, like the little boy in Dreissiger's office? For "little Philip is one of nine and the tenth's coming, and the rain comes through their roof -- and the mother hasn't two shirts among the nine."
Who is to blame? Ask the Dreissigers. They will tell you, "The poor have too many children." Besides--
DREISSIGER: It was nothing serious. The boy is all right again. But all the same it's a disgrace. The child's so weak that a puff of wind would blow him over. How people, how any parents can be so thoughtless is what passes my comprehension. Loading him with two heavy pieces of fustian to carry six good miles! No one would believe it that hadn't seen it. It simply means that I shall have to make a rule that no goods brought by children will be taken over. I sincerely trust that such things will not occur again. Who gets all the blame for it? Why, of course the manufacturer. It's entirely our fault. If some poor little fellow sticks in the snow in winter and goes to sleep, a special correspondent arrives post-haste, and in two days we have a blood-curdling story served up in all the papers. Is any blame laid on the father, the parents, that send such a child? Not a bit of it. How should they be to blame? It's all the manufacturer's fault -- he's made the scapegoat. They flatter the weaver, and give the manufacturer nothing but abuse -- he's a cruel man, with a heart like a stone, a dangerous fellow, at whose calves every cur of a journalist may take a bite. He lives on the fat of the land, and pays the poor weavers starvation wages. In the flow of his eloquence the writer forgets to mention that such a man has his cares too and his sleepless nights; that he runs risks of which the workman never dreams; that he is often driven distracted by all the calculations he has to make, and all the different things he has to take into account; that he has to struggle for his very life against competition; and that no day passes without some annoyance or some loss. And think of the manufacturer's responsibilities, think of the numbers that depend on him, that look to him for their daily bread. No, No! none of you need wish yourselves in my shoes -- you would soon have enough of it. You all saw how that fellow, that scoundrel Becker, behaved. Now he'll go and spread about all sorts of tales of my hardheartedness, of how my weavers are turned off for a mere trifle, without a moment's notice. Is that true? Am I so very unmerciful?
The weavers are too starved, too subdued, too terror-stricken not to accept Dreissiger's plea in his own behalf. What would become of these living corpses were it not for the rebels like Becker, to put fire, spirit, and hope in them? Verily the Beckers are dangerous.
Appalling as the scene in the office of Dreissiger is, the life in the home of the old weaver Baumert is even more terrible. His decrepit old wife, his idiotic son August, who still has to wind spools, his two daughters weaving their youth and bloom into the cloth, and Ansorge, the broken remnant of a heroic type of man, bent over his baskets, all live in cramped quarters lit up only by two small windows. They are witing anxiously for the few pence old Baumert is to bring, that they may indulge in a long-missed meal. "What ... what ... what is to become of us if he don't come home?" laments Mother Baumert. "There is not so much as a handful o' salt in the house -- not a bite o' bread, nor a bit o' wood for the fire."
But old Baumert has not forgotten his family. He brings them a repast, the first "good meal" they have had in two years. It is the meat of their faithful little dog, whom Baumert could not kill himself because he loved him so. But hunger knows no choice; Baumert had his beloved dog killed, because "a nice little bit o' meat like that does you a lot o' good."
It did not do old Baumert much good. His stomach, tortured and abused so long, rebelled, and the old man had to "give up the precious dog." And all this wretchedness, all this horror almost within sight of the palatial home of Dreissiger, whose dogs are better fed than his human slaves.
Man's endurance is almost limitless. Almost, yet not quite. For there comes a time when the Baumerts, even like their stomachs, rise in rebellion, when they hurl themselves, even though in blind fury, against the pillars of their prison house. Such a moment comes to the weavers, the most patient, docile and subdued of humanity, when stirred to action by the powerful poem read to them by the Jaeger.
The justice to us weavers dealt
Is bloody, cruel, and hateful;
Our life's one torture, long drawn out:
For Lynch law we'd be grateful.
Stretched on the rack day after day,
Heart sick and bodies aching,
Our heavy sighs their witness bear
To spirit slowly breaking.
The Dreissigers true hangmen are,
Servants no whit behind them;
Masters and men with one accord
Set on the poor to grind them.
You villains all, you brood of hell...
You fiends in fashion human,
A curse will fall on all like you,
Who prey on man and woman.
The suppliant knows he asks in vain,
Vain every word that's spoken.
"If not content, then go and starve--
Our rules cannot be broken."
Then think of all our woe and want,
O ye, who hear this ditty!
Our struggle vain for daily bread
Hard hearts would move to pity.
But pity's what you've never known--
You'd take both skin and clothing,
You cannibals, whose cruel deeds
Fill all good men with loathing.
The Dreissigers, however, will take no heed. Arrogant and secure in the possession of their stolen wealth, supported by the mouthpieces of the Church and the State, they feel safe from the wrath of the people -- till it is too late. But when the storm breaks, they show the yellow streak and cravenly run to cover.
The weavers, roused at last by the poet's description of their condition, urged on by the inspiring enthusiasm of the Beckers and the Jaegers, become indifferent to the threats of the law and ignore the soft tongue of the dispenser of the pure word of God, -- "the God who provides shelter and food for the birds and clothes the lilies of the field." Too long they had believed in Him. No wonder Pastor Kittelhaus is now at a loss to understand the weavers, heretofore "so patient, so humble, so easily led." The Pastor has to pay the price for his stupidity: the weavers have outgrown even him.
The spirit of revolt sweeps their souls. It gives them courage and strength to attack the rotten structure, to drive the thieves out of the temple, aye, even to rout the soldiers who come to save the sacred institution of capitalism. The women, too, are imbued with the spirit of revolt and become an avenging force. Not even the devout faith of Old Hilse, who attempts to stem the tide with his blind belief in his Saviour, can stay them.
OLD HILSE: O Lord, we know not how to be thankful enough to Thee, for that Thou has spared us this night again in Thy goodness ... an' hast had pity on us ... an' has suffered us to take no harm. Thou art the All-merciful, an' we are poor, sinful children of men -- that bad that we are not worthy to be trampled under Thy feet. Yet Thou are our loving Father, an' Thou wilt look upon us an' accept us for the sake of Thy dear Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. "Jesus' blood and righteousness, Our covering is and glorious dress." An' if we're sometimes too sore cast down under Thy chastening -- when the fire of Thy purification burns too ragin' hot -- oh, lay it not to our charge; forgive us our sin. Give us patience, heavenly Father, that after all these sufferin's we may be made partakers of Thy eternal blessedness. Amen.
The tide is rushing on. Luise, Old Hilse's own daughter-in-law, is part of the tide.
LUISE: You an' your piety an' religion -- did they serve to keep the life in my poor children? In rags an' dirt they lay, all the four -- it didn't as much as keep 'em dry. Yes! I sets up to be a mother, that's what I do -- an' if you'd like to know it, that's why I'd send all the manufacturers to hell -- because I am a mother! Not one of the four could I keep in life! It was cryin' more than breathin' with me from the time each poor little thing came into the world till death took pity on it. The devil a bit you cared! You sat there prayin' and singin', and let me run about till my feet bled, tryin' to get one little drop o' skim milk. How many hundred nights has I lain an' racked my head to think what I could do to cheat the churchyard of my little one? What harm has a baby like that done that it must come to such a miserable end -- eh? An' over there at Dittrich's they're bathed in wine an' washed in milk. No! you may talk as you like, but if they begins here, ten horses won't hold me back. An' what's more -- if there's a rush on Dittrich's, you will see me in the forefront of it -- an' pity the man as tries to prevent me -- I've stood it long enough, so now you know it.
Thus the tide sweeps over Old Hilse, as it must sweep over every obstacle, every hindrance, once labor awakens to the consciousness of its solidaric power.
An epic of misery and revolt never before painted with such terrific force, such inclusive artistry. Hence its wide human appeal, its incontrovertible indictment and its ultra-revolutionary significance, not merely to Silesia or Germany, but to our whole pseudo-civilization built on the misery and exploitation of the wealth producers, of Labor. None greater, none more universal than this stirring, all-embracing message of the most humanly creative genius of [his day] -- Gerhart Hauptmann.
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