Ernst Toller was one of the best known dramatists in the Germany of the Weimar Republic. He was also almost certainly the most widely translated. His reputation rested largely on five plays written between the years 1917 and 1927, half of which time he spent behind bars as a political prisoner. As soon as the Nazis came to power, Toller, a socialist, a failed revolutionary, and a Jew, became a non-person. He remained relatively obscure until the middle 1960's, when the thaw in the cold war set in. With the growth of the New Left and the politicizing of West German universities, critics began to focus on those aspects of German literature which had been politically uncomfortable. The result for Toller has been a four-fold rediscovery, first as the representative dramatist of activistic Expressionism, then as one of the most level-headed and realistic left-wing intellectuals of the republic, thirdly, as one of the more significant authors of Neo-Factualism, the literary movement associated most closely with Weimar culture, and fourthly, as the foremost spokesperson of German literature in exile until his suicide just before the outbreak of World War II. It is not unlikely that Toller will prove to be more perduring than the other major German Expressionist playwrights, Ernst Barlach, George Kaiser. and Carl Sternheim. What is indisputable is that he was virtually unique because he lived what he wrote to a far greater extent than any other Expressionist writer. He was considerably more than an armchair activist and his best plays have the stamp of historical authenticity. Their protagonists anticipate secular saints like Tarrou in Albert Camus' The Plague, or Spina in Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine. If anything, Toiler's plays have retained if not enhanced their relevance in the final quarter of the twentieth century when terms like "third world" and "liberation theology" have become household words. What follows, in light of this assertion, is a critical overview of the major plays associated with Toiler's imprisonment for high treason, all of them the result of sober reflection on the meaning of revolution by a revolutionary leader, in fact, by a head of state and a field general, who experienced the bitterness of failure.
"The Revolutionist as Poet: The Prison Plays of Ernst Toller,"
University of Dayton Review: Vol. 17:
3, Article 3.
Available at: https://ecommons.udayton.edu/udr/vol17/iss3/3