Ever since his own time, no one has known quite what to make of Carl Sternheim or his work. Like his idol, Frank Wedekind—who was also the father of his third wife—Sternheim was dogged by battles with the censor and public opinion. His first play, The Panties, was banned by the Berlin police on grounds of “gross immorality,” and it was published and performed under a less offensive name. The Vienna production of The Strongbox (1920) was greeted by shocked audiences and scandalized feuilletons. One gets the feeling that Sternheim wanted it this way, as he wrote to congratulate the director and to “express my great joy over your fiasco.”
Sternheim seems to have served as a canary in the coal mine of Wilhelmine Germany, a Teutonic Cassandra sounding the alarm on a culture in moral crisis and a country sliding toward the political abyss. His three-play cycle, “Scenes from the Heroic Lives of the Middle Classes,” is still his best-known work, tracing three generations of the “Mask” family, each of whom has a fatal sickness. Like a dramaturgical Frankenstein’s monster, Sternheim’s trilogy combines the world-historical sweep of Aeschylean tragedy with the moral satire of Molière, the social problem play tradition of George Bernard Shaw with the clockwork construction of French farce, and all of them foreshadow the messianic energies of German Expressionism.
Did I mention these plays are funny?
The Panties (Die Hose) was Sternheim’s infamous first play, written around 1909 and a breakthrough to a new kind of nihilistic modern comedy. An irreverent mixture of sexual liberation and philosophical debate, the play reverses nearly every convention of the form. The play begins after a marriage instead of ending in one; the romantic poet-lover loses and the cuckolded husband wins; money beats out literature; animal instincts triumph over the life of the mind. It is built, however, exactly like boulevard entertainments from the previous century by Eugène Scribe (A Glass of Water, 1842) and Victorien Sardou (A Scrap of Paper, 1860). Like them, a titular Macguffin setting an escalating comic catastrophe in motion.
In this case, the play is about, well, it’s about the panties—a pair belonging to Louise Mask that fall down during a summer parade. Though the play is set in Wilhelmine Germany, Sternheim speeds up the pace, suggesting the mechanical dynamism of a new, industrial age, and he boils language down to an idiosyncratic syntax of heated arguments and excited shouts. Philosophical debates rage in the mouths of two Bildungsphilister (Educated Philistines) who come a-courting. Meanwhile husband Theo, the play’s middle-class “hero,” is a bourgeois materialist, a capitalist cog willing to do anything for the bottom line. The play is a comic version of Wedekind’s sex tragedies, a Lulu set in a middle-class household and cranked up to 11. Louise stands at the literal center of the action. Her sexual awakening and ensuing commodification remain enough to amusingly enrage (or enragingly amuse) today, more than one hundred years later.
If The Panties turns Eros into a Lustspiel, The Partner (or, Sternheim’s original title, The Snob) shows tradition degrading into materialism. Louise’s son, the ironically named Christian, worships at the altar of Mammon, and the play charts his pilgrim’s progress up the escalator of class. He eventually reaches the penthouse suite, at the mere cost of his personal morals and identity—and some light criminal fraud. “Sternheim was not only the herald of a more conscious, more ruthless form of late capitalism,” writes Ivan Nagel, “but the prophet of a barbarous, unchained fascism.” There is an eerie premonition of Nazism in the play, with Christian as the embodiment of very Germanic ideas—the Nietzschean will to power, the Social Darwinist struggle for natural supremacy, the Freudian competition between sex-drives and death-drives—that provided fertile intellectual soil for the rise of Hitler’s regime.
Sternheim liked to compare himself to Molière, who similarly fashioned plays around a central figure, providing a local habitation and a name to a particular vice. Unlike Alceste’s misanthropy or Orgon’s religious fanaticism, however, Christian’s snobbery is an all-encompassing modern disease, a vigorous and unashamed hostility to history, morality, and ultimately humanity itself. He is less a character than a mask, an envoy for the dawning age of industrial capitalism, which is not so different, it turns out, from our age of digital capitalism, a hundred years later. One gets the sense, despite all this, that Sternheim nonetheless admires Christian. True, he pretends to be something other than what he really is, but at least he doesn’t lie to himself about it.
The third play, The Profit—Sternheim’s title was 1913—completes the cycle’s progression toward Thanatos, the drive for consumption culminating in self-destruction, resulting in an apocalyptic vision of history’s end stages. Christian’s three grown-up children form an unholy trinity, inheritors of a landscape of munitions factories and industrial mass-production, the big business of the arms trade, a progenitor of World War I. Unlike the Scribean antics of The Panties or the Molièrean character study of The Partner, the structure here is Shavian debate, a study of arms and the man and the penny-pinching, individualistic, bourgeois mentality that set German society down this seemingly irreversible path.
After the war, during which Sternheim was arrested near his Brussels home and suffered a nervous breakdown, he would write essays rejecting Goethe and the metaphysical line of German literature in favor of writers such as Flaubert and Tolstoy, who engaged with “reality.” He would also become increasingly active with Die Aktion, one of two Expressionist magazines operative in Weimar Berlin and the one decidedly on the side of class politics and women’s liberation. He consistently attempted to reconcile his early comedies with this later political turn, even writing 1925’s Das Fossil as an appendix to the “Heroic Lives.” But it is the ambivalence of Sternheim’s early comedies that gives them their distinct and paradoxical Zugzwang—a German chess term for a position when any possible move will weaken a player’s position. In the “Heroic Lives,” Sternheim arrived at a unique mixture of repulsion and fascination. Each of his heroes is an amoral, materialistic monster.
Sternheim called the Masks “Cyclopean self-willed critters” and they are animated by an intense myopia as well as an animalistic joy in conflict that reveals their pathetic characterlessness. Sternheim’s most daring dramaturgical chess move is to celebrate these villain-monsters as heroes, daring the audience to purge their feelings of contempt and self-recognition by laughing at them. He almost never offers audiences the glib comforts of a simple solution, an easy antidote to this Wilhelminism of the mind. Unlike his fellow Expressionists, there is no utopian vision, no “New Man” or “Feminine Spirit” moving through the corridors of history. There are just the primal urges for sex, money and power laid bare, the new gods of a godless world.
In other words, if Sternheim’s plays are lesser known today, it is not merely because the Nazis banned them (although they did), nor is it due to their inferior quality or because the problems he diagnosed have gone away. Indeed, the opposite may be true. We don’t know quite what to make of Sternheim because we don’t want to. He shows us things about ourselves that we would rather not see.
In The Panties, The Partner and The Profit, David Ives ingeniously—and troublingly—transplants Sternheim’s epic cycle to America of the 1950s, 1980s and tomorrow. Let us whom the shoe fits wear it.