Saturday, August 15, 2015


Ernst Toller (1893-1939) began writing his first play in 1917, after having served in the German army and then being discharged as “unfit for active service”.  In 1914 he enlisted in the First Bavarian Foot Artillery Regimen and he was a patriotic enthusiast of the war effort. He served on front-line duty, which he volunteered for, from March 1915 to May 1916. It was this experience that initially altered his political beliefs and led him to write Die Wandlung (Transformation), an anti-war drama.

Transformation is a unique antiwar drama, since it is a multi-topic play that goes beyond the issue of ceasing the senseless slaughter of mankind. This play begins with the traditional type of direct anti-war message.  The issue grows beyond the suffering inflicted by war until it condemns many forms of human suffering. Finally the play segues into improving human conditions by making a political commitment to Socialism.

During the time Toller was working on this play, he was also going through his own transformation. His transformation mirrors that of the play’s protagonist, Friedrich. In 1918 Toller strongly believed that a radical transformation of German society was about to occur. 

Toller stated in 1917 that he considered the early draft of Transformation as a political pamphlet. He said that before he even finished writing this play he handed out scene five, “The Hospital”, and scene six, “The Maimed”.  He also read these two scenes at strike meetings in Heidelberg and Berlin to help spread his anti-war activism. He continued to hand out “The Hospital” into the beginning of 1918.  His motivation was to continue working for peace and civil liberties.

Gustav Landauer’s manifesto, Call to Socialism, was published in 1911. Toller read this publication during the summer of 1917 and his political thinking began to expand beyond antiwar demonstrations. Landauer, (1870-1919) a significant German theorist on anarchism, believed that it was the duty of poets and thinkers to help the rest of the population understand the need for a new political reality. Landauer’s ideas were in harmony with those individuals connected to the Expressionism movement. Toller, who was already an advocate for Expressionism, readily accepted Landauer basic ideas. 

Toller’s physical participation into the burgeoning revolutionary movement came after meeting other revolutionaries. It was Kurt Eisner (1867-1919), a German politician and journalist, who convinced Toller to participate in the Munich munitions workers strike.  After Toller’s experience in Munich and while he was in prison for his strike related participation, he expanded the thesis of Transformation to embrace his new Socialistic ideology.

Cecil Davies in his book The Plays of Ernst Toller: A Revaluation discusses how Toller’s new political views are incorporated into the play’s progression. Toller presses his antiwar message through the first seven scenes of the play.  Scenes eight through ten focus on Friedrich becoming more human rather than serving merely as a symbol. The rest of the storyline, scenes eleven through thirteen, portrays Friedrich becoming a political speaker and motivator for others to implement social change.  Davies states that Toller’s “pattern by which social change takes place is that an unusually gifted individual undergoes some kind of personal ‘conversion’ which he transmits to the masses.”  This concept, Davies asserts, is derived directly from Landauer. So the reader/audience experiences Friedrich’s transformation as it occurs in the script. Therefore, Transformation, the antiwar play, is also drama as political action.

This play belongs to an additional theatre tradition. Toller divided his script into thirteen scenes.  Instead of having these scenes separated into acts, Toller used the medieval religious dramatic tradition of having the play divided into “Stations” for its major units of organization.  The term “Station” harkens back to The Stations of the Cross. The use of Station as a dramatic unit comes with various associations such as Christ connection to Station Drama. It is also connected to Christ’s progression towards an understanding of his earthly activities and his growth as a religious figure.  Transformation is divided into six Stations.  Each Station is designated by its number while each scene is also assigned a number and often a specific title such as “FIRST STATION, Second Scene, ‘Troop Trains’”.  So the reader/audience member sees Friedrich’s advancement toward his enlightenment and newly acquired activism as akin to a religious understanding.

There is one more organizational element related to the structure of the play to be considered. Transformation has “A Prologue, which can also be thought of as Epilogue.” This section is titled “Barracks of the Dead”.  The title makes sense once the characters are identified by name—War-Death, Peace-Death and Skeletons and the location is revealed. The time is Night and the location is a vast Military Graveyard. The character names, setting as well as time of night are common to German Expressionistic plays of this era. The time and setting are similar to the beginning of Fritz von Unruh’s play Ein Geschlecht (A Generation) that I discussed in Post 19.

 I plan to continue the discussion of Toller’s use of Expressionistic characteristics in my next Post.  There will also be information regarding the production history of Transformation.

NOTE: Die Wandlung was sometimes translated into English as Transfiguration; however, it is more commonly known today as Transformation.

Toller, Ernst. Plays One. Trans. & Ed. Alan Raphael Pearlman.
 London: Oberon Books, 2011.  
(The above citation relates to the copy of Transformation that I read.  The introduction to each one of the three plays is helpful as is the additional commentary following the script. Pearlman translated the German word Bild as “Picture” instead of Scene.  On page 35 he clearly explains his rationale.)

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