THE FIRES OF ST. JOHN

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. 80-6.

IN The Fires of St. John, Hermann Sudermann does not go as far as in Magda. Nevertheless the play deals with important truths. Life does not always draw the same conclusions; life is not always logical, not always consistent. The function of the artist is to portray Life -- only thus can he be true both to art and to life.

In this drama we witness the bondage of gratitude -- one of the most enslaving and paralyzing factors. Mr. Brauer, a landed proprietor, has a child, Gertrude, a beautiful girl, who has always lived the sheltered life of a hothouse plant. The Brauers also have an adopted daughter, Marie, whom they had picked up on the road, while travelling on a stormy night. They called her "the calamity child," because a great misfortune had befallen them shortly before. Mr. Brauer's younger brother, confronted with heavy losses, had shot himself, leaving behind his son George and a heavily mortgaged estate. The finding of the baby, under these circumstances, was considered by the Brauers an omen. They adopted it and brought it up as their own.

This involved the forcible separation of Marie from her gypsy mother, who as a pariah, an outcast beggar. She drank and stole in order to subsist. But with it all, her mother instinct was strong and it always drove her back to the place where her child lived. Marie had her first shock when, on her way home from confirmation, the ragged and brutalized woman threw herself before the young girl, crying, "Mamie, my child, my Mamie!" It was then that Marie realized her origin. Out of gratitude she consecrated her life to the Brauers.

Marie never forgot for a moment that she owed everything -- her education, her support and happiness -- to her adopted parents. She wrapped herself around them with all the intensity and passion of her nature. She became the very spirit of the house. She looked after the estate, and devoted herself to little Gertrude, as to her own sister.

Gertrude is engaged to marry her cousin George, and everything is beautiful and joyous in the household. No one suspects that Marie has been in love with the young man ever since her childhood. However, because of her gratitude to her benefactors, she stifles her nature, hardens her heart, and locks her feelings behind closed doors, as it were. And when Gertrude is about to marry George, Marie throws herself into the work of fixing up a home for the young people, to surround them with sunshine and joy in their new love life.

Accidentally Marie discovers a manuscript written by George, wherein he discloses his deep love for her. She learns that he, even as she, has no other thought, no other purpose in life than his love for her. But he is also bound by gratitude for his uncle Brauer who has saved the honor of his father and had rescued him from poverty. He feels it dishonorable to refuse to marry Gertrude.

GEORGE: All these years I have struggled and deprived myself with only one thing in view -- to be free -- free -- and yet I must bow -- I must bow. If it were not for the sake of this beautiful child, who is innocent of it all, I would be tempted to -- But the die is cast, the yoke is ready -- and so am I!... I, too, am a child of misery, a calamity child; but I am a subject of charity. I accept all they have to give.... Was I not picked up from the street, as my uncle so kindly informed me for the second time -- like yourself? Do I not belong to this house, and am I not smothered with the damnable charity of my benefactors, like yourself?

It is St. John's night. The entire family is gathered on the estate of the Brauers, while the peasants are making merry with song and dance at the lighted bonfires.

It is a glorious, dreamy night, suggestive of symbolic meaning. According to the servant Katie, it is written that "whoever shall give or receive their first kiss on St. John's eve, their love is sealed and they will be faithful unto death."

In the opinion of the Pastor, St. John's night represents a religious phase, too holy for flippant pagan joy.

PASTOR: On such a dreamy night, different emotions are aroused within us. We seem to be able to look into the future, and imagine ourselves able to fathom all mystery and heal all wounds. The common becomes elevated, our wishes become fate; and now we ask ourselves: What is it that causes all this within us -- all these desires and wishes? It is love, brotherly love, that has been planted in our souls, that fills our lives: and, it is life itself. Am I not right? And now, with one bound, I will come to the point. In the revelation you will find: "God is love." Yes, God is love; and that is the most beautiful trait of our religion -- that the best, the most beautiful within us, has been granted us by Him above. Then how could I, this very evening, so overcome with feeling for my fellow-man -- how could I pass Him by? Therefore, Mr. Bauer, no matter, whether pastor or layman, I must confess my inability to grant your wish, and decline to give you a genuine pagan toast--

But Christian symbolism having mostly descended from primitive pagan custom, George's view is perhaps the most significant.

GEORGE: Since the Pastor has so eloquently withdrawn, I will give you a toast. For, you see, my dear Pastor, something of the old pagan, a spark of heathenism, is still glowing somewhere within us all. It has outlived century after century, from the time of the old Teutons. Once every year that spark is fanned into flame -- it flames up high, and then it is called "The Fires of St. John." Once every year we have "free night." Then the witches ride upon their brooms -- the same brooms with which their witchcraft was once driven out of them -- with scornful laughter the wild hordes sweep across the tree-tops, up, up, high upon the Blocksberg! Then it is, when in our hearts awake those wild desires which our fates could not fulfill -- and, understand me well, dared not fulfill -- then, no matter what may be the name of the law that governs the world on that day, in order that one single wish may become a reality, by whose grace we prolong our miserable existence, thousand others must miserably perish, part because they were never attainable; but the others, yes, the others, because we allowed them to escape us like wild birds, which, though already in our hands, but too listless to profit by opportunity, we failed to grasp at the right moment. But no matter. Once every year we have "free night." And yonder tongues of fire shooting up towards the heavens -- do you know what they are? They are the spirits of our dead perished wishes! That is the red plumage of our birds of paradise we might have petted and nursed through our entire lives, but have escaped us! That is the old chaos, the heathenism within us; and though we be happy in sunshine and according to law, tonight is St. John's night. To its ancient pagan fires I empty this glass. Tonight they shall burn and flame up high -- high and again high!

George and Marie meet. They, too, have had their instinct locked away even from their own consciousness. And on this night they break loose with tremendous, primitive force. They are driven into each other's arms because they feel that they belong to each other; they know that if they had the strength they could take each other by the hand, face their benefactor and tell him the truth: tell him that it would be an unpardonable crime for George to marry Gertrude when he loves another woman.

Now they all but find courage and strength for it, when the pitiful plaint reaches them, "Oh, mine Mamie, mine daughter, mine child." And Marie is cast down from the sublime height of her love and passion, down to the realization that she also, like her pariah mother, must go out into the world to struggle, to fight, to become free from the bondage of gratitude, of charity and dependence.

Not so George. He goes to the altar, like many another man, with a lie upon his lips. He goes to swear that all his life long he will love, protect and shelter the woman who is to be his wife.

This play is rich in thought and revolutionary significance. For is it not true that we are all bound by gratitude, tied and fettered by what we think we owe to others? Are we not thus turned into weaklings and cowards, and do we not enter into new relationships with lies upon our lips? Do we not become a lie to ourselves and a lie to those we associate with? And whether we have the strength to be true to the dominant spirit, warmed into being by the fires of St. John; whether we have the courage to live up to it always or whether it manifests itself only on occasion, it is nevertheless true that there is the potentiality of freedom in the soul of every man and every woman; that there is the possibility of greatness and fineness in all beings, were they not bound and gagged by gratitude, by duty and shams -- a vicious network that enmeshes body and soul.

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