Ernst Toller


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German playwright and poet.

Born near Bromberg into a middle-class Jewish family, Toller was educated at the University of Grenoble. He was aware from an early age of the antisemitism that was increasing in Germany, but he welcomed the opportunity to volunteer in World War I. The experience of trench warfare, however, caused a breakdown and he was discharged from the army in 1916. This experience left him committed to pacifism and socialism. He moved to Munich, where he took part in literary life there and was also connected with the short-lived communist government (the Bavarian Socialist Republic) of 1918. In 1919 he was imprisoned for this for five years, during which period he wrote his most important work. In all Toller wrote thirteen plays, four books of poety, and seven volumes of prose works, which include his autobiography Eine Jugend in Deutschland (1933; translated as I Was a German, 1934). Forced to flee the country in 1933, Toller emigrated to America, but he became increasingly depressed at the growth of Nazism. He committed suicide in New York soon after the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Toller's first volume of verse, Gedichte der Gefangenen (1921), was followed by the expressionist dramas for which he is best known. The first to be successfully produced, and his masterpiece, was Masse-Mensch (published in 1921; translated as Masses and Man, 1923). Its angry message is typically presented in seven disconnected episodes, rather than in a logically developed plot, and deals with a revolution led by the one named character, Sonja, who is eventually submerged by violence and shot by the state as the revolution fails. The denunciation of violence, by whatever side in the political struggle, is also a theme in Die Maschinenstürmer (1922; translated as The Machine-Wreckers, 1923), a verse play about the Luddites (1812–15) inspired by Lord Byron's maiden speech in the House of Lords (1812). The workers' leader, Jimmy Cobbett, is killed as a traitor by his own class after opposing the wrecking of the steam loom. Toller's best-known realistic play, Der Deutsche Hinkemann (1923; translated as Brokenbrow, 1926), concerns the tragic predicament, common enough at the time, of a German veteran wounded in the war. In Das Schwalbenbuch (1924; translated as The Swallow Book), his finest book of verse, the swallows that nest in his prison cell are seen as emblems of the renewal of life.

Subjects: Literature — Theatre.

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