Monday, June 1, 2015


Fritz von Unruh (1885-1970), a Prussian officer and son of a general, was with his regiment in the village of Merles, France in 1916, when he began to write the anti-war play titled Ein Geschlecht or A Generation also translated as One Race or A Family. This one-act tragedy was completed later that year, while he was on a furlough to attend the burial of his brother, who died in battle.  A Generation was Unruh’s third play.

The drama is created in the German Expressionism style, which was at that time, embarking on its golden age (1916-25).  Many of the ideas supported by the Expressionists are evident in the play.  Prior to the declaration of World War One, many young educated people of Germany and other areas of  Europe wanted change from old oppressive traditions as well as the societal conventions that bound them.  The Expressionists understood and supported the inclination for mankind to make a fresh start.  They believed that soldering on the battlefields of war would bring about the desired purification for society. Once many of the Expressionistic idealists became involved in an actual war, they were quickly disillusioned by the destructive, meaningless realities of warfare.  These authors realized that war was not a purifying process, since it could not result in the desired regeneration of man.  Many Expressionists altered their position to embrace pacifism as the means to establish a new order for society.

A Generation illustrates the moral and physical struggles that one family endures during this horrific period of war.  It dramatizes the parental expectation for sons to fulfill in order to honor the Fatherland: sons were to submit to a standard of heroism that may ultimately end in death during battle.  Each one of the four sons in A Generation exhibits a different outcome: Deceased Son followed the expected choice of battlefield heroism, resulting in his death prior to the opening of the play, while the other three sons move away from this course of action.  Cowardly Son’s fears lead him toward a spiritual death; Eldest Son’s excessive warrior zeal unleashes primitive impulses and acts; while Youngest Son acquires a burning new vision for mankind built on a foundation of revering life and creating a lasting spirit for peace. As verbal battles among the family members rage on stage, the action is orchestrated in part by the Mother. The familial disagreements engulf the Daughter and drive her mad; her emotions ranging from lust to fear to self-destruction. 

The play is set in a mountain-top cemetery.  The action begins during the late hours of night and moves into the break of dawn. As in his previous work, the play expresses the horror of violent and useless deaths, the unleashing of wonton destruction and the pointless acts of brute force that were the living reality for Unruh’s generation. But with A Generation, the central theme for much of Unruh’s later writings also emerges: man’s spiritual rebirth based on his love and respect of human dignity and his striving to ensure international peace and harmony.

Max Reinhardt acquired the rights to produce this play.  He planned to stage it despite the ban imposed by imperial censor regulations.  The play received a private performance in Frankfurt, but its renown was spread by German students and young soldiers.  Alvin Kronacher mentions in his monograph titled Friz von Unruh (1946): “A Generation circulated among students after they made handwritten copies of it in the trenches of the Argonnes, Champagne and at Verdun, . . .” 

After the war ended, the play was performed in major German cities: Frankfurt in 1918, Berlin in 1918 and Dusseldorf in 1920, to cite a few of its documented performance sites. Thirteen editions of the script were published in Germany between 1916 and 1922.  Unruh was awarded two prizes for A Generation: the Das Junge Deutschland Prize in 1920, and the Grillparzer Prize in January, 1923. The former award was given by the Expressionist Association in Berlin. The latter award, in the name of Franz Grillparzer, a nineteenth century Austrian dramatist, was presented by the Austrian Academy of Science located in Vienna. This prize was awarded every three years to “the comparatively best dramatic work in the German language, which has been performed in the course of the past three years on a renowned stage. . . .”  Obviously, A Generation was regarded by many individuals as having cultural and political significance during World War One as well as throughout much of the 1920s.

Unruh was recognized as one of Germany’s gifted young dramatic poets during the era of World War One and he was a prominent writer and speaker during the years of the Weimar Republic. Unruh’s works from the late 1920s into the early 1930s clearly reflect his strong opposition to the emerging National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

Unruh and his wife, actress Friederike Schaffer, fled in 1940 to the United States.  When his home in Atlantic City was destroyed in 1962 by a hurricane, he returned to live in Germany, in near obscurity, until his death in 1970.  

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