Paul Ernst’s dramatic work falls into three major periods: his early, naturalistic period; his late, redemption drama period; and his middle, neoclassical period, for which he is best known. Though his work underwent significant changes in theme and style, one aspect remained constant throughout his career: All his dramas depict humanity struggling for freedom—and, ultimately, ethical ideals—in an overpowering world of rigid necessities. In his early naturalistic plays Lumpenbagasch and Im Chambre séparée, which attempted to reflect in the crassest terms the sordid milieu of the degenerate and oppressed lower class, these necessities are manifest in the theme of social determinism. In the plays of his middle and late periods, beginning with his first neoclassical tragedy, Demetrios, Ernst moved from the explicitly social sphere to, in his view, the higher and more universally valid realm of fate. By reactivating and modernizing the classical Greek notion of an incomprehensible fate, which he saw as analogous to the bewilderingly complex and unintelligible socioeconomic forces at play in the modern industrial world, Ernst attempted to create dramatic situations that would reawaken people’s ethical and idealistic spirit.
With the exception of five one-act plays written during his early period, all of Ernst’s eighteen dramas are set in either a historical or a mythical past. This distance from the realities of the present, Ernst believed, was a necessary condition for presenting “eternally” valid dramatic conflict. In thereby avoiding the relativism of the naturalist milieu drama and the self-indulgent excesses of fin de siècle impressionism, Ernst hoped to free his drama from temporal and subjective limitations so that he could concentrate on what he called the objective “requirements of form.” For Ernst, successful drama—that is, drama capable of countering the pessimism of the times and of extolling the inherent value and dignity of humanity’s struggle for existence—could be produced only by an artist who willingly submitted to certain timeless principles. His five-act tragedy Demetrios, written in 1903 and 1904, was his first attempt to put into practice the universally valid principles of dramatic construction that he had painstakingly elaborated in his theoretical writings of the preceding six years. Demetrios is written in a somber and refined blank verse, a form that he perfected in his later work, but this stylistic virtuosity was perhaps unsuited to the turbulent crisis years of the early twentieth century.
The tragedy Demetrios is the closest Ernst ever came to putting his neoclassical theory into practice. In viewing the protagonist’s struggle with insurmountable sociopolitical forces—his inexorable fate—the audience was supposed to be inspired by his valiant but tragic demise. In Canossa, however, written only four years later, Ernst had already begun to deviate from his strict neoclassical theory of tragedy, and though the hero also suffers a defeat at the hands of political intrigue, the outcome of the play is less tragic: The malevolent antagonist, who is transformed by his opponent’s demise, promises to change his evil ways in the end. Written four years after Canossa, Ariadne auf Naxos—his most popular drama—marks the turning point in his career. No longer a tragedy, this redemption play ends with a—quite literally—deus ex machina resolution, in which the heros are rewarded for their suffering. Ernst’s missionary zeal and creative energy waned after Ariadne auf Naxos. Nevertheless, one of Ernst’s (dubiously) best-known works, the redemption drama Preussengeist, was written during this last period of productivity.
Though Ernst’s move from tragedy to redemption drama demonstrates an attempt to loosen his rigid neoclassical stance to convey his message about humanity’s ethical-idealistic being, he never succeeded in making the necessary connection with audiences. His overly formalistic conception of drama invariably yielded one-dimensional characters and improbable situations, which far too clearly bore the stamp of his abstract notions and thus failed to elicit the sympathy of the public. This failure was compounded by Ernst’s unabashed intellectual elitism, which effectively prevented the playwright from taking into account the pragmatic considerations of public reception. Rather than addressing the real needs and expectations of his audience, he became increasingly cynical, ultimately blaming the failure of his works on the modern public’s general ignorance and increasing preoccupation with the material concerns of daily life.
Inspired by a conversation with Wilhelm von Scholz, Ernst decided to take on the difficult Demetrios theme, which had defeated in the preceding century such renowned German dramatists as Friedrich Hebbel and Friedrich Schiller. Therefore, after a series of no fewer than fifteen failed attempts—if the playwright can be taken at his word—he finally succeeded in writing a classical drama whose tragic but idealistic hero was to serve weak-kneed modern human beings as a paragon of strength and ethical virtue. Culling from Hebbel’s fragment the story of the rise and fall of a pretender to the Russian throne, Ernst removed his drama from seventeenth century historical Russia to the mythical past of ancient Sparta.
Demetrios begins with a love triangle in which the slave Pytheus, hopelessly in love with his master’s daughter, kills her arrogantly aristocratic suitor. For this crime he must pay with his life. As Pytheus is about to be crucified, however, it is discovered that he has always worn the token of Apollo, a royal insignia. Pytheus, it turns out, is really Demetrios, the only surviving heir to the throne. His noble identity is then confirmed by Tritäa, the slave woman who reared him. She claims that, in the confusion of an insurrection through which the tyrant Nabis ascended to the throne, she had mistakenly saved the noble child instead of her own. Believing now that he is the rightful king, Demetrios, with the support of the Spartan nobility, overthrows Nabis and becomes the new ruler of the city-state. His reign, however, is neither long nor secure: He is forced by political realities to be as tyrannical as his predecessor, and unrest begins to mount among his subjects. To make matters worse, Demetrios now learns from Tritäa that he is really the former king’s illegitimate son and that she is, after all, his real mother. Half slave and half king, Demetrios-Pytheus stands tragically between two worlds—he is at once both tyrant and victim. Unable to conceal his illegitimacy from his plotting enemies, he is publicly accused of deception and given an ultimatum: Kill Tritäa, thereby proving that she is not his real mother or be killed. In noble exasperation, he cries out, “I am Pytheus, son of a slave,” and is struck down by a man who a short time before had helped him gain the throne. By confessing his humble slave side, he signs his own death warrant, but in so doing he also reveals that his true...
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