Playwright Heijermans on small businesses


This is a video of a rehearsal of a Herman Heijermans play, Ghetto, about Jews in late nineteenth century Amsterdam. It was played in English translation in both London and New York City.

The most famous play by early twentieth century Jewish Dutch socialist author Heijermans is Op Hoop van Zegen (The Good Hope) from 1900. In this work, Heijermans criticized capitalism by describing the conflict between capitalist shipowners and fisherfolk-workers in a coastal village.

One of his other works, De Opgaande Zon (The Rising Sun), written in 1908, criticizes a different side of capitalism: the destruction of small businesses by big business.

In 1931, the Flemish Roman Catholic daily De Standaard reviewed an Antwerp performance of this play. The reviewer “J.V.G.” said he had less objections to De Opgaande Zon than to other plays by Heijermans, as he thought Heijermans’ socialist ideas were less prominent here than in other writings.

In De Opgaande Zon the main theme of the play is not conflict between labour and capital. But this does not make the play less socialist. Socialists like Karl Marx in Das Kapital also discussed destruction of small businesses by big businesses. This is known in Marxist terminology by names like “centralisation of capital“, and “proletarization of petty bourgeois“.

As we shall see, contrary to the reviewer in De Standaard, De Opgaande Zon is not really milder in its criticism of capitalist social structures than the eight years older Op Hoop van Zegen.

In 1990, it was played in Edam.

This year, Toneelgroep Maastricht performs the play in various cities and towns in the Netherlands; including Heerenveen.

This is a video of De Opgaande Zon, as played in 2010 by Toneelgroep Maastricht in the Netherlands.

On 15 October, it was played at the LAK theater in Leiden.

Heijermans subtitled this work: “A play about small business”. The main character is Matthijs de Sterke, owner of a tiny mom and pop shop with just one wage worker. His opponent is the big department store De Opgaande Zon, represented by its CEO Mr Jensen. The play is not really simple as the dialogues contain much commercial jargon. Herman Heijermans knew this jargon from his own days as an unsuccessful businessman. Lack of family money had forced him into the rag trade, though he already as a teenager preferred writing to business. His fiancée then broke off the engagement because of the lack of money made in trade.

The play was translated into English as The Rising Sun in 1926 (or: in 1925), and performed in 1929. Matthijs de Sterke then was translated as Matthew Strong; and his daughter, Sonja in Dutch, as Sonia.

In 1939, a television version of the play, in the English of Christopher St. John (pen name of Christabel Marie Marshall), was made in Britain.

Things go badly for the shop; bankruptcy threatens. Then, teenage daughter Sonia (played by Jessie Wilms in the Toneelgroep Maastricht performance) suggests to her father (played by Jack Vecht) to start speculating in stock market shares. That only makes the situation worse. Matthew, usually so optimistic, has a moment of weakness when he considers suicide, during a long walk in a cold snowy night.

This greatly affects usually also optimistic Sonia. Then, something happens which breaks her spirit. While she is in the shop alone, CEO Jensen of De Opgaande Zon corporation arrives. He shows Sonia the IOU, signed by Sonia herself, for her disastrous stock market speculations. As Jensen has bought this IOU and now owns it, he uses it to blackmail her. He proposes that the De Sterke family should hand over their shop, so De Opgaande Zon can tear it down to expand their new department store building. Matthijs de Sterke then may become a worker at De Opgaande Zon. And Sonia, as Mr Jensen says in a patronizing and sexist tone, can become a clothes salesgirl, “as we need girls with pretty eyes in that department”. However, they will be exploited even more than other workers at De Opgaande Zon corporation, as their debts from Sonia’s stock market speculation will be subtracted from their wages.

Sonia indignantly refuses this proposal, though she is not sure whether her defense that she is a minor and her signature on the IOU may be invalid, will hold up in a court of law against the power of big capital.

She is devastated after the talk with Jensen. When Mr De Sterke finally arrives home in the evening, his family and the tenant family living upstairs have a merry party to celebrate. That just makes Sonia feel even more depressed. When she goes into the dark shop with a petrol lamp to fetch an extra glass, she slips. The lamp falls. The whole building catches fire; killing the epileptic daughter Margo of the family upstairs.

Sonia, in complete despair now, feels very guilty about Margo’s death. When she slipped and dropped the light, for just one second she could have grabbed the lamp to extinguish the starting fire. During that one moment, in her desperation, the split second idea of averting the bankrupcy by letting the fire destroy the building in order to get insurance money, haunted her. That prevented her from grabbing the lamp. That second turned out to be the difference between life and death for Margo.

Sonia confesses what she sees as her guilt. Which means that the insurance company (now represented by actress Anne Boeschoten, though in Heijermans’ time this was a male job) will not pay the money to save the small shop from bankruptcy. Sonia will probably have to go to jail.

Nevertheless, her father praises Sonia for her honesty. “There are no bad people” he says, “there are people who have been made bad by social circumstances”.

Matthijs de Sterke differs from other small shopkeepers. Some of them have noisy meetings against unfair competition by big department stores. Unlike them, Matthijs does not believe in fighting for survival as a small property owner against big capitalist onslaught. He does believe in fighting to survive as a decent human being. Heijermans wrote that Matthijs’ decency is “another rising sun”, more shiny than the big corporation’s name. There is a parallel in the lives between author Heijermans and character Matthew: both did not really want to become businessmen. Matthijs had to do it because his father’s shop went bankrupt and he had to break off his university studies.

A review of the Toneelgroep Maastricht performance by Wietske van der Want says that the play, though over a century old, is not outdated because of the present financial crisis.

A review by Vincent Kouters in Dutch daily De Volkskrant also praises the play, but for “purely artistic” reasons like the music added to the play, separating artistic form from social-political content, not mentioning the present economic crisis at all.

The director at the play, Arie de Mol, said to me that De Opgaande Zon “is very much connected to the present” of the crisis, where now millions of people who used to be homeowners, so considering themselves not really poor, lose their homes by foreclosures to bankers and other creditors. Where farmers lose their family farms. And where economic crisis forces small businesspeople into becoming workers; or becoming unemployed.

The social system has changed much since Heijermans wrote his play over a century ago. But the similarities between the defense of big business capitalism by Heijermans’ character Jensen and present day disciples of Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman are still conspicuous. And the play still makes clear that in a society where profit is king, innocent people like Margo will die again and again.

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1 thought on “Playwright Heijermans on small businesses

  1. Pingback: Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan on stage | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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