Friday, August 21, 2015


Expressionism did not emerge in the theatre until the last two years of World War One and it closely followed the growth of the anti-war movement. Toller’s attraction to this emerging style of drama is not surprising given his background. He was young, educated and attracted to the latest political ideas. Expressionism was in rebellion against the established theatrical styles of realism and naturalism as well as conventional societal and political norms.  The young men against the war were expressing their thoughts in this new style and Toller’s theme for Transformation aligned perfectly. Also, he was an emotional person and the use of rhetorical language worked for him.

Transformation utilizes many of the characteristics that are part of the Expressionists’ signature, but there is another element in this play that I believe is important to mention.  The visual features required to tell the story in Transformation strike me as being an extremely powerful element in the play. The stage directions may be the work of either Karlheinz Martin, Director, or provided by Toller, but they made the play a memorable theatrical event. One striking example is Third Station, Sixth Scene, The Maimed:

      The MEDICAL ORDERLIES set up a square white screen. A MEDICAL
      ORDERLY gives a signal. Naked, seven of THE MAIMED step forward
      from somewhere like clockwork robots.  Their bodies are stumps.  Arms
      and legs are missing.  In their place are black artificial arms and legs
      which move in mechanical jerks.  In rank and file they march in front of
      the screen.

The Expressionists utilized startling visual images to shock audiences as well as to create a totally different type of theatre experience.  The visual imagery was an intrinsic element of the play that helped to deliver the message as much as the words did.

The first production of Transformation opened in Berlin on September 30, 1919 at Karlheinz Martin’s Tribune Theatre. This small theatre seated less than 300 audience members. It had a tiny stage and no act curtain to separate the world of the audience from the actors. Transformation was Martin’s first production in Berlin and he helped Expressionism to become an acceptable theatrical style. It quickly became a popular mode of theatre even though its themes usually revolved around political ideology.

Transformation played for 115 performances and it was enthusiastically received by its audiences.  The production was praised for its revolutionary staging techniques.  Martin’s staging of the actors who composed the ensemble was considered outstanding by the reviewers. Fritz Kortner played the role of Friedrich and even though he had been acting in Berlin since 1911, this role catapulted him to fame as one of Germany’s best-known actors. 

Toller was heralded as a genius and gained the status of the “artist as Messiah”.  But he did not see this production of his play.  After being released from prison in 1918, he became more actively engaged on behalf of the Socialist workers and their party.  He became an officer in the party.  As the result of his leadership role in establishing a Red Army and fomenting revolution, ten thousand marks were placed on his head. He was captured on June 6, 1919 and condemned for high treason.  Due to his reputation as a writer, he was not executed.  He was sentenced to prison and he spent most of his five year term in Niederschonenfeld prison.  During Toller’s years in prison he wrote several plays—Masse Mensch (Masses and Men, 1919), Die Rache des verhohnten Liebhabers (The Scorned Lover’s Revenge, 1920, a short puppet play), Die Maschinensturmer (The Machine Wreckers, 1920-21) Hinkemann (1921-22) and Der entfesselte Wotan (Wotan Unbound, 1923).  He was this productive despite having to spend 243 days without writing materials.  He never saw the initial production of any of these plays. He was released from prison in 1924.

Following its Berlin production, Transformation was later produced in other German cities: Hamburg and Stuttgart in 1920, Leipzig in 1924 and in Nuremberg (1926) there was an amateur production staged.  As of the late 1990’s there were translations of this play in seven languages; however, Cecil Davies mentioned there was no record of any non-German Transformation productions. Despite the lack of theatrical productions abroad, the play and the playwright generated a considerable amount of print in foreign newspapers particularly in the early years of the 1920s. 

Toller was well known throughout Great Britain and he visited many countries in Europe as well.  He traveled many miles and spend many hours speaking about his plays as well as political issues, particularly German writers who were incarcerated. Following the 1933 rise to power of Nazism, Toller’s books were among those publicly burned on May 10th. Since he was also Jewish and a proclaimed Socialist, on August 23, 1933 his German citizenship was revoked. He went to England.

Toller undertook a lecture tour in the United States and Canada during 1936-37.  He settled in New York. In 1939, he was suffering from a deep depression thought to be the result of hearing that his brother and sister were sent to a concentration camp as well as struggling himself with financial problems. However, there were individuals who believed that Toller’s suicide in May of 1939 was not merely the result of personal distress, but he was also seeing the collapse of the ideology of his youth: “Never again war!”

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