A synopsis and analysis of the play by Herman Sudermann

This document was originally published in The Social Significance of the Modern Drama. Emma Goldman. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1914. pp. 71-80.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL SCHWARTZE, Magda's father, represents all the conventional and conservative notions of society.

SCHWARTZE: Modern ideas! Oh, pshaw! I know them. But come into the quiet homes where are bred brave soldiers and virtuous wives. There you'll hear no talk about heredity, no arguments about individuality, no scandalous gossip. There modern ideas have no foothold, for it is there that the life and strength of the Fatherland abide. Look at this home! There is no luxury -- hardly even what you call good taste -- faded rugs, birchen chairs, old pictrues; and yet when you see the beams of the western sun pour through the white curtains and lie with such a loving touch on the old room, does not something say to you, "Here dwells true happiness"?

The Colonel is a rigid military man. He is utterly blind to the modern conception of woman's place in life. He rules his family as the Kaiser rules the nation, with severe discipline, with terrorism and despotism. He chooses the man whom Magda is to marry, and when she refuses to accept his choice, he drives her out of the house.

At the age of eighteen Magda goes out into the world yearning for development; she longs for artistic expression and economic independence. Seventeen years later she returns to her native town, a celebrated singer. As Madelene dell' Orto she is invited to sing at the town's charity bazaar, and is acclaimed, after the performance, one of the greatest stars of the country.

Magda has not forgotten her home; especially does she long to see her father whom she loves passionately, and her sister, whom she had left a little child of eight. After the concert, Magda, the renowned artist, steals away from her admirers, with their flowers and presents, and goes out into the darkness of the night to catch a glimpse, through the window at least, of her father and her little sister.

Magda's father is scandalized at her mode of life: what will people say if the daughter of the distinguished officer stops at a hotel, associates with men without a chaperon, and is wined and dined away from her home? Magda is finally prevailed upon to remain with her parents. She consents on condition that they should not pry into her life, that they should not soil and besmirch her innermost being. But that is expecting the impossible from a provincial environment. It is not that her people really question; but they insinuate, they speak with looks and nods; burning curiosity to unearth Magda's life is in the very air.

SCHWARTZE: I implore you -- Come here, my child -- nearer -- so -- I implore you -- let me be happy in my dying hour. Tell me that you have remained pure in body and soul, and then go with my blessing on your way.
MAGDA: I have remained -- true to myself, dear father.
SCHWARTZE: How? In good or in ill?
MAGDA: In what -- for me -- was good.
SCHWARTZE: I love you with my whole heart, because I have sorrowed for you -- so long. But I must know who you are.

Among the townspeople who come to pay homage to Magda is Councillor von Keller. In his student days he belonged to the bohemian set and was full of advanced ideas. At that period he met Magda, young, beautiful, and inexperienced. A love affair developed. But when Von Keller finished his studies, he went home to the fold of his family, and forgot his sweetheart Magda. In due course he became an important pillar of society, a very influential citizen, admired, respected, and feared in the community.

When Magda returns home, Von Keller comes to pay her his respects. But she is no longer the insignificant little girl he had known; she is now a celebrity. What pillar of society is averse to basking in the glow of celebrities? Von Keller offers flowers and admiration. But Magda discovers in him the man who had robbed her of her faith and trust -- the father of her child.

Magda has become purified by her bitter struggle. It made her finer and bigger. She does not even reproach the man, because --

MAGDA: I've painted this meeting to myself a thousand times, and have been prepared for it for years. Something warned me, too, when I undertook this journey home -- though I must say I hardly expected just here to -- Yes, how is it that, after what has passed between us, you came into this house? It seems to me a little-- ... I can see it all. The effort to keep worthy of respect under such difficulties, with a bad conscience, is awkward. You look down from the height of pure atmosphere on your sinful youth -- for you are called a pillar, my dear friend.
VON KELLER: Well, I felt myself called to higher things. I thought -- Why should I undervalue my position? I have become Councillor, and that comparatively young. An ordinary ambition might take satisfaction in that. But one sits and waits at home, while others are called to the ministry. And this environment, conventionality, and narrowness, all is so gray -- gray! And the ladies here -- for one who cares at all about elegance -- I assure you something rejoiced within me when I read this morning that you were the famous singer -- you to whom I was tied by so many dear memories and--
MAGDA: And then you thought whether it might not be possible with the help of these dear memories to bring a little color into the gray background?
VON KELLER: Oh, pray don't--
MAGDA: Well, between old friends--
VON KELLER: Really, are we that, really?
MAGDA: Certainly, sans rancune. Oh, if I took it from the other standpoint, I should have to range the whole gamut -- liar, coward, traitor! But as I look at it, I owe you nothing but thanks, my friend.
VON KELLER: This is a view which--
MAGDA: Which is very convenient for you. But why should I not make it convenient for you? In the manner in which we met, you had no obligations towards me. I had left my home; I was young and innocent, hot-blooded and careless, and I lived as I saw others live. I gave myself to you because I loved you. I might perhaps have loved anyone who came in my way. That -- that seemed to be all over. And we were so happy -- weren't we? ... Yes, we were a merry set; and when the fun had lasted half a year, one day my lover vanished.
VON KELLER: An unlucky chance, I swear to you. My father was ill. I had to travel. I wrote everything to you.
MAGDA: H'm! I didn't reproach you. And now I will tell you why I owe you thanks. I was a stupid, unsuspecting thing, enjoying freedom like a runaway monkey. Through you I became a woman. For whatever I have done in my art, for whatever I have become in myself, I have you to thank. My soul was like -- yes, down below there, there used to be an Æolian harp which was left moldering because my father could not bear it. Such a silent harp was my soul; and through you it was given to the storm. And it sounded almost to breaking -- the whole scale of passions which bring us women to maturity -- love and hate and revenge and ambition, and need, need, need -- three times need -- and the highest, the strongest, the holiest of all, the mother's love! -- All I owe to you!
VON KELLER: My child!
MAGDA: Your child! Who calls it so? Yours? Ha, ha! Dare to claim portion in him and I'll kill you with these hands. 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 -- for my child who was crying for his bread!
VON KELLER: For Heaven's sake, hush! Someone's coming.
MAGDA: Let them come! To their faces I'll say what I think of you -- of you and your respectable society. Why should I be worse than you, that I must prolong my existence among you by a lie! Why should this gold upon my body, and the lustre which surrounds my name, only increase with infamy? Have I not worked early and late for ten long years? Have I not woven this dress with sleepless nights? Have I not built up my career step by step, like thousands of my kind? Why should I blush before anyone? I am myself, and through myself I have become what I am.

Magda's father learns about the affair and immediately demands that the Councillor marry his daughter, or fight a duel. Magda resents the preposterous idea. Von Keller is indeed glad to offer Magda his hand in marriage: she is so beautiful and fascinating; she will prove a great asset to his ambitions. But he stipulates that she give up her profession of singer, and that the existence of the child be kept secret. He tells Magda that later on, when they are happily married and firmly established in the world, they will bring their child to their home and adopt it; but for the present respectability must not know that it is theirs, born out of wedlock, without the sanction of the Church and the State.

That is more than Magda can endure. She is outraged that she, the mother, who had given up everything for the sake of her child, who had slaved, struggled and drudged in order to win a career and economic independence -- all for the sake of the child -- that she should forswear her right to motherhood, her right to be true to herself!

MAGDA: What -- what do you say?
VON KELLER: Why, it would ruin us. No, no, it is absurd to think of it. But we can make a little journey every year to wherever it is being educated. One can register under a false name; that is not unusual in foreign parts, and is hardly criminal. And when we are fifty years old, and other regular conditions have been fulfilled, that can be arranged, can't it? Then we can, under some pretext, adopt it, can't we?
MAGDA: I have humbled myself, I have surrendered my judgment, I have let myself be carried like a lamb to the slaughter. But my child I will not leave. Give up my child to save his career!

Magda orders Von Keller out of the house. But the old Colonel is unbending. He insists that his daughter become an honorable woman by marrying the man who had seduced her. Her refusal fires his wrath to wild rage.

SCHWARTZE: Either you swear to me now ... that you will become the honorable wife of your child's father, or -- neither of us two shall go out of this room alive.... You think ... because you are free and a great artist, that you can set at naught--
MAGDA: Leave art out of the question. Consider me nothing more than a seamstress or the servant-maid who seeks, among strangers, the little food and the little love she needs. See how much the family with its morality demand from us! It throws us on our own resources, it gives us neither shelter nor happiness, and yet, in our loneliness, we must live according to the laws which it has planned for itself alone. We must still crouch in the corner, and their wait patiently until a respectful wooer happens to come. Yes, wait. And meanwhile the war for existence of body and soul is consuming us. Ahead we see nothing but sorrow and despair, and yet shall we not once dare to give what we have of youth and strength to the man for whom our whole being cries? Gag us, stupefy us, shut us up in harems or in cloisters -- and that perhaps would be best. But if you give us our freedom, do not wonder if we take advantage of it.

But morality and the family never understand the Magdas. Least of all does the old Colonel understand his daughter. Rigid in his false notions and superstitions, wrought up with distress, he is about to carry out his threat, when a stroke of apoplexy overtakes him.

In Magda, Hermann Sudermann [gave] to the world a new picture of modern womanhood, a type of free motherhood. As such the play is of great revolutionary significance, not alone to Germany, but to the universal spirit of a newer day.

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