We have chosen to examine Hebbel’s principal plays from the point of view of their idea, for the reason that, as said above, it was primarily the idea which Hebbel found important in every individual phenomenon. He did not treat cases and conditions for the sake of merely representing life on the stage, but for the sake of exemplifying, in representations of life, the fundamental irreconcilability of the expansive and repressive forces which struggle in every individual. His characters are certainly persons, not abstract constructions; the action in his plays moves relentlessly forward, with no lack of inventiveness on his part or of sensuous impressiveness on the part of his inventions; he seldom fails to convince our understanding that in his dramatic debate each side is adequately represented, and that the side which at length prevails is the stronger under the presuppositions of time and place; it would be unfair, furthermore, to deny the appeal that he makes to our sympathy. But, on the other hand, he is not free from suggestions of artifice; his characters are abnormally introspective and self-explanatory, and they reveal a talent for logical exposition which belongs rather to Friedrich Hebbel than to men of like passions with ourselves. In the unsought, accidental, ingenuous details which ingratiate themselves in spite, or perhaps because of their insignificance, he is not to be compared with Grillparzer; nor, in the capacity to create a poetic atmosphere, with Otto Ludwig. His language is rugged and masculine; his style, frequently forensic. Taken as a whole, his work furnishes more abundant food for thought than objects of naive esthetic enjoyment; but, like Grillparzer’s, his plays were written for the stage; and proper enactment has seldom failed to produce with them an effect of power worthy of his powerful personality, which swam against the tide, knowing that the tide would turn and that the flood would bear him to the haven.
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