Tankred Dorst was born on December 19, 1925, in Oberlind near Sonneberg in Thuringia. His father was an engineer and manufacturer. As a teenager, Dorst became fascinated with the theater and dreamed of becoming a theater dramaturge. In 1942, as a seventeen-year-old high school student, he was drafted into the army. He was taken prisoner of war and placed in various English and American camps in Belgium, Great Britain, and the United States. Released in 1947, he finished his interrupted high school studies (Abitur) in 1950 and then studied literature, art history, and drama at the Universities of Bamberg and Munich, without getting a degree. After 1952, he resided in Munich.
Dorst went through his theater apprenticeship while working with a students’ puppet theater (Das kleine Spiel, the little play) in Schwabing, a bohemian section in Munich. He detailed his experiences there in a collection of essays, Geheimnis der Marionette (1957; the secret of the puppet), and in Auf kleiner Bühne: Versuche mit Marionetten (1959; on a small stage: experiments with puppets).
Soon, however, Dorst was acclaimed as a new talent in the German postwar theater, first gaining attention through a prize given by the city of Mannheim for his draft of Gesellschaft im Herbst and then by having the play produced almost simultaneously in several German theaters. Even more successful were his one-act plays: Freedom for Clemens, The Curve, and Great Tirade at the Town-Wall, all three performed in more than 150 theaters as well as translated into various languages. His new versions of some old plays (Ludwig Tieck’s Der gestiefelte Kater, 1797, pr. 1844; Puss-in-Boots, 1913-1914) and legends such as the old French love story of Aucassin and Nicolette (Die Mohrin) gave Dorst an opportunity to display his mastery of the stage by intermingling the most diverse theatrical techniques and devices, from play-within-a-play to masks and variety-show sketches and interludes. Die Mohrin (the Saracen girl) he also revised as a libretto for an opera.
In 1967, at the time of widespread student unrest in Germany and elsewhere, Dorst became a center of controversy with his new play, Toller: Szenen aus einer deutschen Revolution (Toller: scenes from a German revolution). Ernst Toller (1893-1939), a great German poet and dramatist of expressionism, took part in a short-lived but violent revolution at the end of World War I and was elected president of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, which was soon suppressed by the right-wing militarists. Condemned to prison for a relatively short term (unlike other revolutionaries, who were summarily executed), Toller, after the rise of the Nazis, became a refugee in the United States, where he committed suicide in 1939. Based partly on Toller’s autobiographical memoirs, Dorst portrays Toller as a sincere but muddle-headed idealist who plays a role of a revolutionary as if he were an actor on the stage; with such a leader, the revolution was bound to fail. The widow of another prominent revolutionary presented in the play accused Dorst of having falsified the facts to suit his...
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