Ernst Toller Essay - Critical Essays


In summarizing the achievement of Ernest Toller as a synthesis of literature and life unmatched in the history of expressionism, literary historian Manfred Durzak wondered what critical categories can apply to a man who paid for the shattering of his ideal of the human community with his life.


Toller’s first play, Transfiguration, is the recapitulation of his spiritual journey from the parochialism of organized religion through the exclusiveness of nationalism to an all-embracing pacifism. It also epitomizes the search of the expressionist intellectual for the truly human community and captures the aspirations of millions of war-weary Germans for peace and some sort of radical transformation in the body politic as the natural issue of years of untold suffering and sacrifice for the fatherland.

The work is conceived on the lines of a Stationendrama, a structure that harks back to August Strindberg’s confessional Damascus trilogy (pb. 1898-1904) and derives its name from the Stations of the Cross. This type of play depicts the internal development of its hero to higher things in a series of loosely connected stations or steps. There is no real antagonist, and the individuals encountered along the protagonist’s path serve as his embodied obstacles or signposts or aspirations. In Toller’s play, the stations are divided into thirteen “pictures,” both “real” and “unreal.” The latter, called “dream pictures,” serve as projections of the hero’s subconscious or as counterparts to or commentaries on his development. The play opens with a surrealistic prologue in which the skeletons of dead soldiers rise up from their graves and line up smartly according to rank, the crosses in their hands taking the place of rifles and swords. The message is clear. The kaiser’s pronouncement at the outbreak of the war that he will recognize no distinctions, class or otherwise, among his Germans, is revealed in all its falsity. Even in death, the inhuman community rests on the principle of hierarchy.

Toller’s hero, Friedrich, is likened to Ahasuerus, the Jew, who, because he refused to help Christ on his way to Golgotha, was condemned to wander restlessly in his search for redemption until the return of the Savior. Friedrich’s quest for roots focuses on the nation-state in the first half of the play. In an effort to overcome his alienation as a Jew and an artist not at home in the middle-class world, he seizes the opportunity to serve in a colonial war and share in the white man’s burden to bring the blessings of civilization to the savages. Friedrich volunteers for a dangerous mission and is awarded the iron cross as a sign that he is now one of “them.” He has been severely rattled by the brutalities of war. The elation of a Red Cross nurse, a Sister of Mercy, on hearing the news that ten thousand natives have been butchered in a single battle, leaves its mark on Friedrich’s psyche. After his medical discharge, he tries hard to salvage what is left of his patriotic zeal by creating a huge sculpture symbolizing the “victory of the fatherland.” Friedrich smashes the statue to bits when it dawns on him that he has been creating a cover-up for inexcusable human suffering. The catalyst is a personal encounter with a crippled war veteran and his wife, riddled with venereal disease contracted through her husband. They reveal to the hero the social causes of the war.

In the second half of the play, Friedrich takes on the features of a secular Christ as he reaches out to the wider community of his fellow human beings. Descending to the depths and sharing in the sufferings of the poor in slums, factories, and prisons, he develops the sense of compassion that Ahasuerus lacked. He thwarts the urge to overthrow the old order by a violence commensurate with the violence inflicted on the poor by the forces of capitalism and militarism. Exuding charisma, Friedrich issues a successful summons to a revolution of the heart as a prerequisite for the classless society of human brotherhood. Because both the rich and the poor have been victimized and dehumanized by the “system” and because both are, deep down, equally human and equally good, the summons is all-inclusive. The transfiguration of humankind is accomplished without bloodshed.

The play has been praised for the power of its surrealistic war scenes and the haunting lyricism of some of its lines (a few critics have drawn a favorable comparison between the free verse in Transfiguration and that in The Swallow-book, Toller’s only major contribution to the poetry of expressionism). Transfiguration has been criticized for its excessive rhetoric, for padding, for disjointedness, and for sloppy motivation. Some commentators are particularly critical of the ending, which they regard as utterly unbelievable; the emphasis on a voluntaristic socialism based on Socratic rationalism (knowledge equals virtue), they contend, is both naïve and far-fetched. The historical apologia for the emphasis can be found in the opposition of the expressionists to the contention of their literary predecessors, the naturalists, that people are rather helpless and passive victims of their heredity and environment, without free will. Apart from this, the fact remains that, for a few relatively euphoric months, Toller’s revolution in Transfiguration became a spontaneous and bloodless reality of sorts, in the Democratic and Social Republic of Bavaria, where someone who was at the same time a playwright, a Jew, and an anarchistic socialist, was head of state of one of the most conservative regions of Germany. With its vision of a world “without misery, without war, and without hatred,” Toller’s play is as timelessly relevant or as foolish as the dream of a Martin Luther King, Jr. in its appeal to the finest instincts in humankind.

Masses and Man

Masses and Man, Toller’s second play, was written in a creative outburst of some three days duration in his first year of confinement for high treason. It was an attempt to come to grips with a seemingly insoluble problem that had haunted him ever since he, a socialist who despised force and hated bloodshed, had caused blood to be shed: the ultimate moral and tragic dilemma confronting the revolutionary as an ethical person, an individual striving for his own ideals in the ivory tower, and as a political person, a mass-man swept toward his goal by social impulses at the expense of these ideals. The main figure of Toller’s play, Sonja Irene L., is modeled on a professor’s wife who played an important role in the January, 1917, illegal strike for peace by the Munich munitions workers, and who (in actuality) committed suicide in prison. The strike, the real beginning of Toller’s revolutionary activities, marks the point in time at which Transfiguration ends and Masses and Man begins. The latter play is, at least outwardly, also a station drama, depicting as it does in a series of episodes, reinforced by dream projections, the painful spiritual odyssey of the inexperienced and naïve “good” person intent on alleviating human suffering through the excruciatingly real world of revolution in all of its phases, from peaceful demonstrations to revengeful retribution. When the leader of the masses, called the Nameless One (who resembles the Communist leader Eugen Leviné), argues, rather forcefully, that strikes may bring an end to the war but that they will not change a system that enslaves the workers and that only force will do this, Sonja Irene L. acquiesces in this policy. The momentary capitulation to violence is motivated by her total rejection of a status quo beyond redemption and is made absolutely clear in a brilliantly conceived dream picture depicting a group of capitalists doing a fox-trot around the desks of the stock exchange as they celebrate the enormous profits they are making out of war. As the situation of the revolutionaries becomes hopeless and they give vent to their years of pent-up misery by shooting hostages, Sonja protests vigorously, calling for the total repudiation of violence. The Nameless One demands a fight to the end in the conviction that the blood of martyrs is the seedbed for future revolutionaries. He carries the day. Sonja is branded a bourgeois intellectual and condemned to death. Before the sentence can be carried out, however, the revolutionary army is overrun. Sonja is taken prisoner and executed by the state.

The structural backbone of the play is a series of dialectical encounters between Sonja and her ideological antagonists; hence, the formal element that makes the play much more than a station drama also makes it an intensely exciting work. Each clash of ideas results in a crucial decision for the heroine and defines the course of future action. In the first three debates, she is the loser (once with her husband, a government official who tries to convince her to put charity before “justice” and with whom she returns home in a moment of existential weakness; twice with the Nameless One—when she tacitly assents to violence and when he convinces the workers that she is a counterrevolutionary). In the fourth debate, again with the Nameless One as he steals into her prison cell to help her escape, she scores her big victory. Like Toller in the real world, she refuses to escape because it can only be accomplished at the expense of a human life. In her final confrontation, with the priest sent to hear her last confession, she categorically rejects the doctrine of Original Sin and of the innate corruption of humankind, doctrines exploited by the Church to buttress an economic system whose prime mover is fear. Having reaffirmed her belief in human goodness, she goes to her death in witness of that belief. Two female inmates—and it is deliberately left uncertain whether they are political prisoners or common criminals—are inspired by her example and undergo a transfiguration.

Ethos, structure, and language (Toller actually improves on the telegram style popularized by Georg Kaiser) combine to make Masses and Man the best-known expressionist play throughout the world. Walter Sokel has astutely suggested that it comes closer than any other play of this literary movement to being a tragedy in the classical sense of the term. Sonja’s guilt is caused by a tragic flaw which is the result of her greatest virtue: active compassion for the downtrodden. Rejecting the offer of clemency proffered by the state because of her moderating influence on the revolutionaries, she goes to her death deliberately to atone for her “crime.” When Sonja...

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