During the early 1890’s, Paul Ernst was editor of the Marxist Berliner Volkstribüne (Berlin people’s tribune), but he left politics and journalism in 1896 to pursue a career as a poet, philosopher, and literary critic. He was a prolific writer. In addition to drama, he wrote poetry, a number of novels—as well as a popular autobiography—a large corpus of epic verse, numerous short stories, and hundreds of essays on economic, philosophical, and literary issues.
Paul Ernst, like many thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was deeply troubled by the growing pessimism and cultural skepticism of his times. Worried that this spiritual malaise—in his eyes, the result of the dehumanizing effects of the modern industrial world—was draining Western civilization of its vital strength, Ernst felt compelled to take action. He turned first to politics. Soon disappointed by the failure of the German Social Democratic movement to effect any lasting change at the turn of the twentieth century, he then turned to theater. For him, drama—the “highest” form of all art—held the key to modern people’s spiritual rejuvenation because it, like all art, was in principle capable of rising above what he called the “tyrannies” of socioeconomic determination. Unlike other human institutions, drama thus enjoyed a certain autonomy, which, when cultivated, could present humanity with an inspiring vision of the ultimate value and freedom of the human spirit.
To this end, he strove to articulate a modern, “neoclassical,” form of drama that, contrary to the tastes of the time, harkened back to the strict form and structure of classical Greek drama to impart its timeless message about the heroic and idealistic human spirit. Because matters of plot and action were, however, ultimately subordinate to the dictates of refined form and dramatic conflict, Ernst’s exalted idealism failed to move audiences....
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Bucquet-Radczewski, Jutta. Die neuklassische Tragödie bei Paul Ernst (1900-1920). Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen & Neumann, 1993. An examination of the dramatic works of Ernst. In German. Bibliography.
Jelavich, Peter. “Paul Ernst.” In World Drama, compiled by Oscar G. Brocket and Mark Rape. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984. A concise overview of the life and works of Ernst.
Pierson, Stanley. Marxist Intellectuals and the Working-Class Mentality in Germany, 1887-1912. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. Contains a discussion of Ernst’s disillusionment with Marxism and subsequent pursuit of a better society through other means.