Embodied Ideologies: Staging Constructions of Economic and Domestic Worlds Within Marie Eugenie delle Grazie’s Mutter

Greta Gebhard*


Austrian writer Marie Eugenie delle Grazie’s play, Mutter (1903), attempted to show audiences an unvarnished representation of the untenable position of bourgeois women around the turn to the twentieth century in Germanic society. Her characters show the tragedy of women expected to uphold domestic perfection without the power and authority to support themselves. Through examining the cult of domesticity and the ideologies that women used to build imagined communities and maintain aspects of cultural power in national discourse, I am able to open up insight into the ideal of domestic womanhood and establish that Germanic homelife is predicated off the backs of lower class and colonized subjects. Delle Grazie’s domestic scenes aren’t just about the domestic squabbles, they also highlight the entire economic system through the materials and bodies required for proper domestic aesthetics and disrupt the tranquility typically associated with domesticity. Including playwrights like delle Grazie in the Germanic canon not only reincorporates and validates women’s works and women’s lives as crucial for audience and academic attention, but also plays like Mutter reveal the problems in two of the most basic structures of Germanic society—the home and the nuclear family—both of which are fundamental building blocks for national culture and ideologies. Attending to “low-brow ladies literature” allows the canon to address the implicit gender bias of history and historians and gives credibility to the struggles, concerns, and critiques of women.

Keywords: domesticity, Naturalism, gender, colonialism, women playwrights, capitalism


The premier of Marie Eugenie delle Grazie’s cycle of one-acts, collectively called Zu Spät (Too Late), at the Burgtheater in Vienna, in 1903, was a rare honor for a woman dramatist. These one-acts, meant to be presented on the same playbill, address fundamental issues in women’s position in society, most especially the role of wife and mother. Delle Grazie uses her plays to challenge the sentimentality, sacrifice and domestic perfection associated with women’s role in the family and, instead, expose the dirty underbelly of a system that often forces women to choose between conforming precisely to lofty social morals or economic survival. This play emphasizes that the ideologies propagated by the cult of domesticity were founded on wishful thinking rather than material supports that could actually create a sustainable homelife for women.

Theatre Announcements from the Burgtheater. Photo: Library/Theatermuseum, Vienna

In this article, I will be focusing on the second play of the cycle, Mutter (Mother). This play was rehearsed alongside the other three one-acts but did not premier with them in March[1] because of its scandalous dramatic content. An examination of this play demonstrates delle Grazie’s incisive analysis of the moral and political economy of German gender by making present the untenable position of women in Germanic society. Delle Grazie crafts her story around a Marxist critique that also includes women within the problems of a capitalist economy. Through the character of Helene Hartung, delle Grazie uses an unsympathetic woman protagonist to force the audience to confront the economic realities that led her to abandon her daughter years before. I will examine the script, the staging practices from its premier and its critical reception to dig into the ways that delle Grazie’s plays subvert the expectations of the Germanic canon and allow audiences to glimpse the multiple forms of exploitation that take place within the Germanic home.

The Playwright

Marie Eugenie delle Grazie was well-known and celebrated during her lifetime as a poet, writer and dramatist. Born in Banat, a region that includes parts of modern-day Hungary, Romania and Serbia in 1864, delle Grazie grew up during a period of growing nationalism, colonization and capitalism. Delle Grazie’s father worked as a coal mine director, and his position informed her perspectives on economics and politics. Throughout her writings, delle Grazie distances herself from her father and his capitalist and multinational background, instead, choosing to identify with her mother’s Austrian-Germanic heritage (Schwartz 52).

Marie Eugenie delle Grazie. Photo: Web/Public domain

Winner of three literary prizes (Novak 55) and a member of the Verein der Schriftstellerinnen und Künstlerinnen in Wien (Society of Women Writers and Artists in Vienna) (Harriman 8), delle Grazie’s excellence as a writer and political thinker earned her national fame and recognition.[2] Her scripts utilize the public space of the stage to respond to the cultural expectations of women that remained in the “private sphere” of the home. She stages these home spaces to be familiar to audiences and, then, uses the stories of characters unable to achieve domestic perfection to question the current system. As an unmarried female artist, delle Grazie faced her own economic dilemmas, and she uses characters such as Helene to ask her audience to consider a world in which a woman is not forced to make a choice between dismal options because of economics.


Delle Grazie’s life and that of her characters resist the norms of Enlightenment femininity that sequestered middle-class European women into the domestic sphere and curbed them away from artistic and scholarly pursuits.[3] Believing the idea that domestic labor was a natural part of women’s identity, Germanic women came to claim cultural power through creating identity ideologies around housekeeping practices—practices often shared and recreated through women’s magazines in the late nineteenth century. Dozens of magazines were published, from monthly to daily publications, and they included details such as housekeeping and cleaning tips, recipes, child-rearing recommendations, comparisons to other “foreign” domesticities and even patterns for sewing clothing.[4] These women bound themselves together in a sociological group through moral values such as “diligence, self-discipline, conscientiousness, achievement, and thrift.” Importantly, the aesthetics speak to the thrift and diligence of the Hausfrau (housewife) as her hands have chosen, made or designed the items present (Das Blatt 1).

Examples of the countless women’s magazines published at the turn of the twentieth century. Photos: ANNO Historische Zeitungen und Zeitschriften

Naturalizing women’s sequestration within to the private sphere aided the belief in the inferiority of women, which is easily spotted in Germanic theatre traditions.[5] In his book Ästhetik, Hegel described theatre as “the highest level of poetry and art overall” (512) and, when discussing his theories of drama, assumed “dramatist” meant “male dramatist” (Colvin 4). In his philosophy, Hegel creates a hierarchy separating which forms each gender should engage in based on assumptions of the inferior intelligence of women. Writings attributed as “feminine,” like novels and poetry, were seen as lower caliber and consumed in private spaces by individuals; whereas the writings attributed as “masculine” were considered more challenging and consumed in public spaces like the stage.[6] Delle Grazie’s success on the stage subverts the ideas of her male contemporaries,[7] and she uses this culturally masculine art form to challenge such delineations of power and engender public discourse on the societal issues women faced.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel “creates a hierarchy separating which forms each gender should engage in based on assumptions of the inferior intelligence of women.” Portrait by Jakob Schlesinger, 1831. Photo: Web/Public domain
The Script

Mutter is a short, 40-page one-act that takes place entirely within Helene Hartung’s boudoir. The sickly Helene is attended to by her physician, Dr. Otto Marschner; a servant, Tini; and an employed companion, Berta Wilkens. Her husband, Wilhelm Hartung, is mostly preoccupied with his business ventures and his mistress. Before she dies, Helene wishes to be reunited with the child that she abandoned twenty years prior in order to marry Wilhelm in the first place. In the course of the play, Dr. Marschner discovers that the missing child is none other than Berta, but Berta refuses to acknowledge her birth mother until it is too late, and Helene dies at the end of the play before being reunited with her daughter.

The main conceit of this play’s plot revolves around moral and social expectations for women and their role as mothers. While love and marriage are common topics within the Germanic canon, actually examining motherhood through drama only really began after Ibsen’s A Doll’s House—a theme taken up by many women playwrights throughout Europe. Following in the naturalist movement initiated by Henrik Ibsen and Emil Zola that focused on creating realistic stories meant for scientific observation of human behavior (Esslin 69), women dramatists made use of unvarnished naturalism to address issues of gender in a public forum (Kelly 17).[8] Following in this movement style, delle Grazie’s play utilizes motives of shame, resentment and hopelessness in an attempt to help her audience observe the tragic reality of being bound within a system of economic exchange that forces a character to make such an immoral decision.


Helene’s internal shame and external self-flagellation is a microcosm of the societal structure that brings shame and rejection to women who make choices outside of the patriarchal structure of a nuclear family. She wonders aloud what kind of person and mother “das eigene Kind verleugnen und verlassen konnte” (“could deny and abandon her own child”) and exclaims: “Biegt immer an der Mutter die Schuld” (“the mother always gets the blame”) (delle Grazie 37, 39). Likewise, Dr. Marschner claims that the guilt and shame she carries over the choice to abandon her child acts as a kind of “Gift” (“poison”) (39), seeping into every part of her life. While delle Grazie doesn’t absolve Helene of her shame, she uses the character to emphasize the ways in which failure at motherhood invalidates any achievement, joy or goodness she created outside of it. Helene’s commentary on the appropriate behavior of mothers is a reflection of her ingrained belief that she has no other value beyond what she can offer to a child within a nuclear family framework.

However, Helene’s background before marriage already imbued her with social shame. Delle Grazie informs the audience that Helene “einmal Komödiantin war” (“once was a comedic actress”) (37). This small but significant detail indicates that Helene was never going to be on the path towards domestic bliss. Tilla Durieux, a famous actress from Vienna from that time, wrote in her autobiography that her mother slapped her when she announced that she was going to enroll in acting school. Durieux expands that: “if it was already a degradation in that time for a girl to take a career, how much more did the hopeful actress set herself outside the limits of the permitted and the conventional?” (Jackson 20). Like Durieux, Helene’s existence as an actress already placed her outside of respectable society. That her husband’s “Eltern waren schon der Komödiantin nicht gut” (“parents already found the actress lacking”) (delle Grazie 43) for their son is a further indication of the social respectability not extended to women like Helene. On top of her occupation, having a child outside of wedlock further places Helene outside the life described in housewife magazines.

Tilla Durieux (born Ottilie Godeffroy; 18 August 1880–21 February 1971) writes in her autobiography that her mother slapped her when she announced that she was going to enroll in acting school. Photo: Jacob Hilsdorf (1905), Web/Public domain

Helene’s character represents a whole group of working women who had to struggle to support themselves. Because society taught that bourgeois women belonged in the home, it came with the assumption that no woman needed to work, which restricted their access to public life except through a male relative. Helene saw a chance to escape her shameful position by marrying “diesen reichen Mann” (“this rich man”) (43) who would give her a life that wasn’t a constant hustle for survival or respect. Though the script and the characters seem to suggest a possibility where Helene could have chosen a life with her daughter, this scenario ignores the social realities of women in Austria at this time. When Helene suggests that she “[h]ätt´ also für mein Kind Sorge tragen können und – und müssen!” (“could—and would have—taken care of my child!”) (38), she speaks out of regret, rather than from a real possibility. Helene possibly could have supported herself and her child for a while, but the life and career of a single mother was precarious. Marriage was the ultimate form of stability for women, which she could not access with another man’s child. Attaining any kind of economic stability and social standing was nigh impossible with the shame already instilled in Helene’s early life.

Notwithstanding this background, both Helene and her audience condemn her for choosing herself over her child, despite both knowing that the child she abandoned years before would never have had the opportunity for a home as described in magazines. Adhering more closely to domestic ideologies would not have saved Helene from her fate or dilemma. By gradually revealing information on Helene’s background, delle Grazie shows the audience that Helene’s choice was the result of the economic and social structures in place in the Austro-Hungarian empire that did not support women, rather than being a symptom of amorality.


While Helene is portrayed through shame, delle Grazie contrasts this with Berta’s strong resentment and anger towards her biological mother to emphasize the economic need for motherhood within capitalism. Women’s free labor in childcare is necessary for the existence of the wage economy (Boydston 13), but Berta’s lack of a mother makes her a drain on that system. Dr. Marschner tempts Berta to put aside her resentment by pointing out the benefits that having “diese reiche Frau gerade Ihre Mutter” (“this rich woman now your mother”) (delle Grazie 54) would bring her. He ploys her with financial stability to rekindle this relationship, but his comment ignores the suffering that Berta has gone through as a poor orphan. Without her mother, Berta had no other systematic supports to turn to, and she was left to beg for charity. But Berta resists Dr. Marschner’s insistence that she love her mother asking if he truly expects her to, “eine Hand küssen, die mich . . . immer wiederum fortgestoßen hat?” (“kiss a hand that has pushed me away again and again”) (57). Not only has Helene cast her daughter away, she also attained great wealth while Berta lived in poverty. Berta’s resentment feels perfectly justified in a system where mothers are expected to put their children above all else. Helene has not supported Berta, so her daughter refuses in kind.

Delle Grazie uses Berta’s orphan status to magnify the economic expectations families placed on mothers. When Dr. Marschner asks her again to rekindle a loving mother/child relationship with Helene, Berta says:

Liebe! Und fragt jemand, wie oft ich die Hände danach gerungen habe? Wenn mich fremde Fäuste mißhandelten . . . wenn man mich hungern ließ und auf die Straße jagte . . . Oft mitten im Winter? Daß ich mir die Finger an fremden Türen wund klopfen mußte nach der Liebe, die für alle da war, nur nicht für mich?

(“Love! And does anyone ask how many times I’ve wrung my hands for it? When I was mistreated by foreign fists? . . . When I was starved and chased onto the streets . . . Often in the middle of winter? That I had to beat my fingers raw on someone else’s door after the love that was there for everyone but me?)

delle Grazie 56

Berta’s description of her life is one of suffering that came about from her mother’s choice. When Berta thinks of love, she doesn’t lead with the tenderness, lullabies or proclamations of love associated with an idyllic mother. She wishes she had food, a warm home and protection, all completely normal desires for human survival. But by equating these necessities to love, Berta shows that her perception of motherly love depends on the mother’s ability to provide such a life for her child. In Marx’s essay Estranged Labor, he theorizes that: “labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity” (1). In Berta’s eyes, the value of a mother/child relationship comes from the labor, the goods and the services that a mother should provide to her child. The mother’s labor commodifies her body for the benefit of her child. This understanding of love still revolves around the idea of exchange in a capitalist system that takes for granted women’s labor in the home (Boydston 9). Berta’s anger is justified within this system, especially after seeing the wealth her mother achieved by sacrificing Berta. But her resentment acts as a block to the reunification of mother and child. She has lived with her own shame as an orphan—a kind of shame that she couldn’t hide behind a beautifully adorned home.


At the end of the play, Helene’s vision goes dark, and in her confusion, she cries out, “Ich bin so ein – so ein armes – Weib!” (“I am such a—such a poor—woman!”) (delle Grazie 64). In calling herself Weib, which means both “woman” and “wife” in German, Helene captures all her relationships and responsibilities. “Woman” in her world is not simply a state of being but a state of obligations that she has been unable to fulfill. The word choice to call herself poor speaks to her failing health, her lackluster relationships and her hollow sense of self. And this word relates back to the economic system that has trapped her in a meaningless life. Despite all the wealth and proper furnishings around her, Helene still views herself worthless. This realization, that she will never achieve the familial ideal, causes Helene to collapse. Her assumed death is unsurprising but still a tragedy. Even in death, Helene has been unable to redeem herself from her choice. Helene lost all, her child, her self-respect and her life, to the pursuit of money, respectability and social standing.

Upon watching her mother collapse, Berta realizes her bitterness will not heal her past suffering, but compassion might redeem them both. Despite her prior resistance to the word, Berta cries out “Mutter!” (“Mother!”) (delle Grazie 64)—a final attempt to acknowledge Berta’s familial connection to Helene. Although this might feel like a sensationalized ending, delle Grazie uses this moment to open a possibility for Berta and Helene to build a relationship not based on transactions. Berta’s choice to forgive and acknowledge her mother forces her to give up on the material exchange she has come to expect from mothers, and it gives Helene the potential to renew her motherhood outside of the ideologies of the cult of domesticity. Berta chooses to claim her mother only after seeing how desperately Helene tried to claim her daughter back—a devotion worth honoring even within her initial tragic choice. Berta offers a familial bond outside of the capitalist exchange, which opens up possibilities for a new kind of support; this time with a structure connecting women already on the outskirts of the system. But this bond is not to be. The curtain falls with Helene, and Berta’s cry is swallowed up in the impossibilities. Both women are too late to save themselves and their relationship from the structures that depend on their exploitation.

The mother/child relationship seen between Helene and Berta opposes the fetishized version that both women believe in by focusing on the economic constraints placed on that relationship. Delle Grazie does not condemn Berta for her anger but uses the tension between mother and child to illuminate this lack of support for women. When faced with dismal options, Helene chose to sacrifice her daughter for stability, but her life was unfulfilled. Berta’s experience of poverty and desperation is made even more tragic by her young age. Even if Helene had made the choice to keep Berta, Helene wouldn’t have had access to the material necessities and comforts that Berta desires. Delle Grazie wants her audience to realize the impossibility of resolving this situation and, instead, begin to consider a system where no mother is forced to make such a choice for her own survival. She doesn’t want a society that claims to value family and children above all else but then abandons anyone who can’t keep up. Rather than focusing on the unrealistic expectations of domesticity, delle Grazie chooses to portray a familial relationship that needs more than empty promises hinged on performed familial happiness.

The Staging

By staging the domestic ideologies in aesthetic form, plays like Mutter give the bourgeois audience the opportunity to recognize their own homes in the set. Staging choices extend the economic and social dialectics limiting women to their homes beyond the problems of these characters on stage. Delle Grazie chooses to bring the complicated mess of motherhood, parental obligations and societal shame to the stage in the recognizable space of a bourgeois home, which emphasizes the relatability of Helene’s dilemma to the audience.

Mutter takes place in the most intimate setting of any of delle Grazie’s one acts—the private boudoir of Helene Hartung. Yet, the boudoir is still aestheticized for the presence of the husband. Unlike the kitchen, which was a space never meant to be seen by anyone but the Hausfrau and her servants, this boudoir must meet certain aesthetics meant to keep the husband happy (Meyer 92). Helene’s obvious marital unhappiness alerts the audience that her domestic efforts have been in vain. By beginning her play with such an ironic scene of aesthetic perfection, delle Grazie’s play allows us to visualize and engage with the spatial dialectics of the Germanic domestic world.

I argue that the embodiment of this private space on a public stage forces the audience to consider the true presence and consequences of these domestic spaces. In theorist Walter Benjamin’s words, “the true method of making things present is to represent them in our space (not to represent ourselves in their space)” (206). By presenting the domestic world on stage, delle Grazie brings its spatiality into a public world, a place where it didn’t belong. The naturalism of the set shows the everyday sadness within the setting of domestic perfection, which delle Grazie uses to remind her audience of the shallowness, emptiness and pain hidden behind the aesthetics. Delle Grazie defamiliarizes the domestic world through spatial dialectics to denaturalize the moral and political economy of gender, in all its devastating contradictions, that is sedimented in the material aesthetics of domesticity.

In order to make present the inner lives of women like Helene, embodying domestic ideologies is a crucial piece of the staging process. Within the archives of the Theatermuseum in Vienna, Austria, I was able to access the original director’s book from Hugo Thimig for the premier of Mutter. Inserted into the script are several pages of stage descriptions and a drawing for the stage set-up. The drawing is a bird’s-eye-view perspective of the stage, which includes shapes meticulously labeled with a matching note on the set dressings needed for each piece. Label “h” sits beside a hexagon. The matching description of this item on the next page says: “h.) ein persisches Tischchen, darauf eine Silbertasse mit Glascaraffe, 1 Wasserglas, 1 Tropffläschchen, 1 grüne Sezessions-Glasvase (Jugendstil A.K.) mit losen, weißen Chrysanthemen” (“h.) a Persian table, on it a silver cup with a glass carafe, 1 water glass, 1 dropper bottle, 1 green Secessionist glass vase (Art Nouveau) with loose white chrysanthemums”) (Thimig 3).[9] The details of ornamentation mirror the descriptions from women’s magazines, with the space covered in knick-knacks and flower arrangements.

Drawing from the Regie- od. Inspizienzbuch (Director’s or Stage Manager’s book). Photo: Library/Theatermuseum, Vienna

There is both a feeling of wealth and thrift evoked by the space, as the Hausfrau must present her husband’s social standing through the home’s aesthetics but spend as little of his money as possible in the process (Meyer 69). Item “d” describes “ein vergoldetes Tischchen mit Tischdecke, Arbeitskörbchen m.(it) Häkelarbeit” (“a gilded little table with tablecloth, work basket, (with) crochet work”) (Thimig 3). The placing of embroidered linens over tables was a common tactic used by Hausfrauen to refine a second-hand or worn piece of furniture (Meyer 38–39). The audience would have expected to see such hand-embroidered textiles throughout the set. The presence of the crochet work indicates that both the male director and delle Grazie are aware that the presence of objects of female labor is crucial to the aesthetics of domesticity. It is the woman’s job to labor over the home in order to achieve this beautiful space, and the crochet work exemplifies the personal labor that cannot be bought.

The characters of Berta Wilkens and Tini, both Helene’s employees, further emphasizes women’s labor in home spaces. As the character who picks up the crochet work from the stage descriptions (delle Grazie 49), Berta’s labor also feeds into the aesthetics of this home. In truth, the Hausfrau cannot complete all the domestic labor herself. Helene’s home’s aesthetics benefit from Berta’s crochet work and from Tini’s cooking skills. All three of these women are economically trapped by this home. Helene’s wealth does not enable her to live without labor as she must maintain her moral status through how she presents her home. As an unmarried woman, Berta has no possibilities for other vocational training beyond life as a companion or a school teacher (Harriman 4). And Tini most likely comes from a rural family, sent to Vienna to work in order to support their farm with her meager wage (Meyer 44).[10] Though Berta describes Helene as, “eine reiche Frau, die eine Gesellschafterin nötig hatte” (“a rich woman who needed a companion”) and herself as “ein armer Teufel, der eine Gesellschafterin machen muß” (“a poor devil who has to make a living as a companion”) (delle Grazie 54), both must labor for the benefit of the husband. As employees, Berta and Tini do not receive admiration or status from domesticity as Helene does. Their economic situation places them in survival mode, forever in a cycle of poverty and humiliation. And despite her husband’s wealth, one mistake from Helene could also condemn her to social ostracism.

Beyond the exploitation of white German women’s bodies at labor, domestic aesthetics also requires objects acquired through the exploitation and subjugation of colonies outside of Europe. Helene would have had complete control over the aesthetics of her home, and further descriptions from Hugo Thimig’s director’s book speak to the need to decorate using materials and finished goods from overseas colonies. The European colonial order imported raw materials and finished goods to European metropolises that shaped the intimate spaces of European families (Lowe 87). Imports present in Helene’s apartment include: “ein eleganter Purquet-Teppich mit einem Oval von Arabesquen und gemalten Blumengewinden” (“an elegant Purquet carpet with an oval of Arabesques and painted floral threads”), “ein vergoldeter Schreibtisch” (“a gilded desk”), and “eine weiß lackierte Etagère” (“a white lacquered shelf”) (Thimig 3). The proper aesthetics of domesticity required these kinds of materials and imports. Not displaying fine imports would make a Hausfrau look old-fashioned, out of date and very poor.

The colonial aesthetics presented in this domestic scene further speaks to the role of colonialism in the Hausfrau’s life. Also included in the stage descriptions is this section which says: “gelangt man über 2 von einem kleinen Perserteppich belegte Stufen in einen mit einem großen Perser belegten Alkoven-Erker mit rosa, von weißen Spitzen verkleideten Wänden” (“2 steps covered with a small Persian carpet leads to a Persian decorated alcove covered with pink walls clad with white lace”) (Thimig 2). The physical presence of items like the Persian carpet or a piece of “weiß lackierte” (“white lacquered”) furniture directly references colonial trade practices that bring finished goods to Europe. Here, Helene’s home “condense[s] violent subjection and bourgeois confinement” (Lowe 86) through the colonial imports and materials that aestheticize the violence, control and extraction implemented by European countries overseas.

Like the woman’s labor hidden behind the kitchen door, the labor of colonized subject is invisibilized within the aesthetics of the Germanic home. Though the characters and delle Grazie herself fail to recognize this violence, making visible and present the problematic structures of domesticity must include making visible the ways in which Austrian and German women benefited from colonial control, however far removed they might seem from that violence. Domesticity is deeply entwined with the colonization process, with evidence of it being used as a marker between “civilized” colonizers and “uncivilized” indigenous populations, forced indoctrination in German colonies and widespread concerns of mixed-race sexual relations.[11] The colonial mission functions as an extension of domestic patriarchy, with its ideologies of culture that are founded on exploiting women’s labor.

The open acknowledgement of Helene’s failure as a mother contrasted to the domestic bliss presented on stage subverts the ideologies of domesticity that promise happiness and morality from following colonial aesthetics. As the purpose of building a domestic refuge was to service and support the family, any woman who would give up her own child clearly does not belong to a moral community. Furthermore, when considering the objects of domestic aesthetics, it becomes even more clear that a community cannot claim moral superiority when it depends on the violence and exploitation that sustain colonialism to maintain its image.

Critical Reception

Amid the vitriol delle Grazie received for this cycle, much of the negativity came from a common practice of demeaning art about women’s problems. One magazine even called Mutter “Kolportageliteratur” (“trashy literature”) (Ostdeutsche Rundschau, May 13 10). When the delay in Mutter’s premiere was announced, one critic claimed this decision came:

[W]eil man es doch nicht wagte, auf die Bühne des Burgtheaters etwas als dichterisches Werk hinauszustellen, was sonst nur in Romanheften durch Türspalten . . . für empfindsame Stubenmädchen und Köchinnen als Volksliteratur eingeschmuggelt wird”

Because one wouldn’t dare put something on the Burgtheater stage and call it poetic, when otherwise it would only be smuggled into folk literature via novels through cracks in doors . . . for sensitive chambermaids and cooks.

Ostdeutsche Rundschau, March 20 7

This play cycle had a rocky critical reception precisely because its critique of gender read as low-brow ladies’ fiction due to the sentimental storyline. Rather than trusting a woman’s naturalist representation of homelife, critics jumped to the conclusion that this work plays emotions to the extreme, thus making it only suitable for uneducated women. Perhaps this reception helps to explain why delle Grazie’s works have been overlooked by subsequent literary and performance historians.

Countering the Critical Reception

Despite the common critiques, both the emotional plotline and the naturalist characters and aesthetics work together to support delle Grazie’s intervention to reshape the way that her society defined and condemned women. The Wiener Salonblatt described Mutter as “das Beste, weil tiefste von den vier kleinen Dramen” (“the best and deepest of the four little dramas”) because of the way “delle Grazie tief hineinleuchten will in die innersten und geheimsten Winkel der Weibseele und in der tat gelingt es ihr ganz prächtig” (“delle Grazie wants to shine a deep light into the inner and most secret corners of the woman’s soul and in fact she succeeded quite splendidly”) (Liebenwein 16). This one line from the Salonblatt’s review connects to the realities of women’s lives that delle Grazie tried to capture in this play. As naturalism wants audience members to observe the inner pieces of human nature (Esslin 69), this review suggests the only failure of the play was the audience’s inability to believe that the reality represented in front of them was true.

Wiener Salonblatt Review of Mutter. Photo: ANNO Historische Zeitungen und Zeitschriften

Though Hausfrau magazines portrayed a perfect ideology of family life, women’s naturalist dramas give space to the messy, imperfect, everyday living of Germanic women. Because theatre was seen as a masculine art form, delle Grazie’s dramatization of this story gave it a different place in public culture than if it were in a novel. The play’s critique of domestic practices as symptoms of national ideologies gives public significance to what had previously been considered only women’s problems. Thus, attending to women’s drama reveals important truths about the problems developing in the national culture that audiences preferred not to see. Mutter confronted audience members with the exploitative structure of Germanic patriarchy at home and abroad—a critique clearly not as easily ignored from the stage as from a novel. As seen by the majority of the published critiques on Mutter, audience members reacted strongly and negatively to this critical confrontation.

Leaving playwrights like delle Grazie outside of the German canon speaks first to the ways in which women’s works and women’s lives are still not considered interesting enough for audience or academic attention. However, these plays, like Mutter, do belong in canonic discourse because they reveal the problems in two of the most basic structures of Germanic society—the home and the nuclear family—both of which are fundamental building blocks for national culture and ideologies. Delle Grazie’s perspective doesn’t allow her to rationalize a happy ending for her characters but, rather, emphasizes the inescapable system of exploitation trapping her and other women within Austrian society. In delle Grazie’s critique of the economics of womanhood, the home becomes a microcosm of local and global economic practices of exploitation.

Furthermore, the lack of attention to stories that highlight women’s lives and experiences not only ignores a large portion of the Austrian population’s experience, it also fails to recognize the ways in which both white Germanic men and women upheld the exploitation of the colonial order. Examining domesticity and domestic spaces engages the most intimate parts of these families’ lives and allows scholars to recognize the multiple layers of oppression, extraction, and exploitation within Germanic life. Attending to “low-brow ladies literature” allows the canon to address the implicit gender bias of history and historians, and gives credibility to the struggles, concerns and critiques of women.


[1] Mutter opened for Die Stillen Stuben by Sven Lange on 15 May 1903.

[2] Of her eight published plays, at least five had productions in Vienna, with others in Salzburg, Berlin and Leipzig.

[3] As Susanna Kord explains, the twofold approach to the debate on women at the time was “(1) the increasing definition of women’s intellectual or public activities as contrary to their “nature” and exclusive vocation as wives and mothers, and (2) the idea of the voluntary subjection of woman” (Kord 95).

[4] Proper domestic life was crucial for middle-class families as white-collar workers like governmental civil servants could be demoted or fired if anything “irregular” (Reagin 60) was discovered in their homes.

[5] For those women who attempted to break out of this private sphere, philosophers like Otto Weiniger rationalized that successful intellectual or artistic women are partly male and that their success came from this hidden piece of masculinity (64–66). Weiniger even goes so far as to suggest if women’s writings had been published by a man, they wouldn’t be worth reading at all.

[6] As Sarah Colvin puts it, “[drama] figures, therefore, as a masculine genre, while poetry and the novel have tended to be seen as lower-status and feminine” (Colvin 4).

[7] Johannes Wiegand, in his 1903 book, argued against women’s ability to properly write dramas because drama requires control, dominance and mastery—masculine characteristics.

[8] See also Anne Charlotte Leffler Edgren, Amelia Rosselli, Else Bernstein and Clara Viebig to name a few other playwrights. For more info on their works, see Colvin (2003), Kord (1992) and Kelly (1996).

[9] German transcriptions of the director’s book are courtesy of Annelen Karge.

[10] Rural servants were paid and treated poorly—to continue the pursuit of thrift and to maintain the Hausfrau’s hierarchal position over the maid despite their laboring together (Meyer 44).

[11] See Wildenthal’s work on women in the colonial project (2001) and Reagin (2001).


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*Greta Gebhard is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota (UMN). She holds a BA in Theatre Arts and a BS in German Studies from Brigham Young University, and a MA in Theatre Arts from UMN. Greta’s primary research looks at the cult of domesticity in Germany and Austria during the nineteenth century and how those practices are represented by female German playwrights of that time period. She is especially interested in staging practices surrounding gender roles, antisemitism, and colonial rhetoric. Other interests include feminist knowledge production, women’s theatrical history and forms of surveillance.

Copyright © 2023 Greta Gebhard
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