Ernst Toller was one of the best-known dramatists in the Germany of the Weimar Republic. In his lifetime, his reputation rested largely on five plays written between the years 1917 and 1927, half of which he spent behind bars. These plays, connected with his experiences as a revolutionary and a political prisoner, made Toller one of the most liked as well as one of the most hated artists of his time. His renown or notoriety was the result of the controversial topicality of his plays, of the innovative stagings they received at the hands of a series of first-rate directors, and of the playwright’s considerable talents, more lyric than dramatic, perhaps, but abetted by a keen and fantastic imagination.
When the Nazis came to power and suppressed “degenerate” literature, Toller, a socialist and a Jew, became a nonperson. After his death in exile in 1939, he remained relatively obscure until the middle 1960’s, when the thaw in the Cold War climate promoted during the Adenauer “restoration period” took effect. With the growth of the New Left, the politicizing of West German universities, and the rise of a counterculture, scholars and critics began to focus on those periods of German literature predating 1945, which had been neglected because this literature was politically uncomfortable. The result for Toller has been triple rediscovery, first as the representative dramatist of activist or political expressionism; second, as one of the more significant authors of neofactualism, the literary movement associated most closely with the Weimar culture; and finally, as one of the foremost spokespersons of German literature in exile. In addition, thanks in large measure to the liberalizing influence of Bertolt Brecht’s aesthetic theories, East German critics have come to regard Toller as a pioneer in the development of a socialist drama. Toller will in all likelihood prove to be the most enduring of the major expressionist playwrights and the only one to enjoy more than a provincial reputation.