Die Schmetterlingsschlacht


Die Schmetterlingsschlacht
(The Battle of the Butterflies) by Hermann Sudermann.
   Premiered 1895. Widow Hergentheim has been left with three daughters and a small pension on which to live. They barely eke by, even though the widow takes in boarders and the daughters work in the Winkelmann dress shop as fan painters. Rosi, the youngest at 17, comes up with a design that portrays a battle of butterflies—hence the play's metaphorical title, symbolizing the battle between Rosi and her sisters for a suitable husband. The design becomes popular among Winkelmann's clientele and Rosi earns more than her sisters. The oldest sister Else at age 21 is already a widow, her husband having committed suicide in the wake of an embezzlement scandal.
   Else now is in line to marry Max, the Winkelmann son. Winkelmann père is a shady character, having driven his wife out of the house and forced her to raise their son Max in impecunious circumstances. Max has now been forced to return and work for his father. Winkelmann oppresses everybody he can, with the exception of his best traveling salesman, the sedulous Herr Kessler. Kessler is witty and pleasant to be around—but for him the old-fashioned virtues of honor and integrity belong to the past. He once boarded with the Hergentheims, but when he became Else's lover, Frau Hergentheim threw him out. Despite Else's engagement to Max Winkelmann, Kessler and Else maintain their illicit affair. Little sister Rosi acts as their go-between, naïvely believing that theirs is a true love. When Max discovers Else and Kessler together, they tell him that it is Rosi who is actually Kessler's girlfriend.
   Kessler quits his job at Winkelmann's and everyone supposes he will now marry Rosi. But Winkelmann does not want to lose his best workers. Then Max confesses that his engagement with Else is off because he is in love with Rosi; Rosi says she loves Max, and old Winkelmann sees an opportunity. He offers his son a promotion and Rosi a fixed salary. By the play's end, it appears that the play's nicest people will be rewarded with happier lives.
   This comedy fixes on the deceptiveness of appearances. It convincingly presents an unpleasant milieu, much in a Dickensian manner, and compensates "good" characters for their suffering while "bad" characters tend to reap the evil they have sown. Sudermann's sentimentality and acceptance of social conditions distinguish The Battle of the Butterflies from a Gerhart Hauptmann comedy; there is little implication that social conditions must change before the lives of good people like Rosi or Max can improve. Such characters accept social conditions as they are, unjust and exploitative though they may be. Injustice and exploitation strike bad characters equally hard, after all, and there is little inference that improved social conditions would change their behavior anyway. People like Max and Rosi must therefore make the best of a bad situation—which indeed they have already done, and their prospects are bright indeed.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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