Thursday, January 19, 2017


Heinrich George in the Berlin premier on 11.4.1924 in the Volksbühne, Theatre on Bülowplatz.

Ernst Toller (1893-1939) was a prisoner in the Bavarian fortress of Niederschonefeld, serving a five year term, when he wrote Hinkemann during the year of 1921-1922. The four plays he wrote while in prison were staged throughout Europe, Russia, Great Britain and the United States during Tollers’s years of confinement.  He was an internationally recognized playwright when he was released from prison on July 16, 1924.

Hinkemann is a play about a World War One German soldier’s life after he was wounded. In order to save his life, the surgeon emasculated Adam Hinkemann. He returned to civilian life as a lost individual in a hostile environment.  Hinkemann is faced with his fear of losing his young wife’s love and consideration while being confronted with poverty and political turmoil. 

Hinkemann is unusual in several ways. The drama combines some traits of expressionism with a modified realistic style. The genre of the play was in question until Dorothea Klein’s study in 1968-69 made the definitive case for its classification as a tragedy.

This three-act play is divided into scenes only in acts two and three. Toller’s wanted the scenery to “suggest” the locations of each scene rather than realistically representing them. Act One suggests a working-class kitchen-living room. Hinkemann, a kind and caring man, struggles to establish a relationship with his wife Greta. He does not want her to stay with him out of pity. He fears that she will ridicule him due to his condition. Their friend Paul comes to visit. When Hinkemann leaves to find work, Paul seeks Greta's affection.

Act Two, Scene 1 suggests the outside of a caravan for a traveling side-show. Hinklemann, is hired by the Showman who plans to use him in a repulsive, bloody side-show routine.  Scene 2 displays Greta disloyalty to Hinkemann.  Scene 3 suggests the noisy side-show. Hinkemann  stands on the platform wearing flesh-colored tights while his act is touted by the Showman.  Unbeknownst to Hinkemann, Greta sees him and laughs. Scene 4 suggests a small working-class bar.  Hinkemann learns that Greta saw him at the side-show and laughed. This information crushes Hinkemann.

Act Three, Scene 1 places a distraught Hinkemann on a street that same evening. He sees himself surrounded by a world of insensitive and cruel individuals. Scene 2 has a feverish Hinkemann return home. He waits for Greta. When she appears, she claims to regret her previous reaction. This play ends in death for the protagonist and his spouse.
Hinkemann addresses how ridicule can isolate a man in a world where no one cares about another individual.  Toller depicted Germany after World War One as a cruel environment. The character of Hinkemann reflects some of Toller's own disillusionment with human beings. This was a daring play for its time.

The first production of Hinkemann was staged at the Old Theater/Altes Theater in Leipzig. The play’s title was Hinkemann, the German (Der deutsche Hinkemann) and it opened on September 19, 1923. This production was staged by Alwin Kronacher (1880-1951) a significant theatre personality who staged new expressionistic plays.  Toller’s play drew rave reviews for the play and the playwright. The production ran for about fifty performances. It was a success and there was no comment about the play’s subject-matter being inappropriate.
At least three other productions were staged in German cities during 1923—Altenberg, Karlsruhe and Glauchaud.  Several Russian productions were also mounted—Moscow during autumn of 1923 and Leningrad in December, 1923 are two of the major ones. Toller’s script was translated into Russian in 1923 by Adrian Piotrovski (1898-1937) and it was published in Petrograd.

On January 17, 1924 a production of Hinkemann opened in Dresden, Germany. This date marked a turning point for the critical acceptance of this play. The play was suddenly considered to be a political statement against the current government.  Rioters disrupted the play's performance    The Dresden reviews concentrated primarily upon the disturbance and barely focused on the play itself.  However, this event called the “Dresden Scandal” changed the favorable reception of the play in Germany, but it did not stop additional productions. Cecil Davies mentions in his book The Plays of Ernst Toller (1996) that there were eleven German productions of Hinkemann in the year 1924. 

When Toller was released from prison, he went to Berlin to attend a special performance of Hinkemann played in his honor. It was the first time he saw one of the four plays he wrote while in prison performed on a stage. The Berlin production with Heinrich George (1893-1946) playing the role of Hinkemann opened to the public on November 4, 1924. The production was a success and Heinrich George became known for the role of Hinkemann.

During the rest of the 1920's, many of the innovative German theatre directors of the time produced Hinkemann. Edwin Piscator (1893-1966) who founded the Piscator-Buhne Theatre in Berlin, staged a production of Hinkemann.  It opened in March of 1928. Hinkemann continued to resonate for many German theatre practitioners and audience members despite the negative criticism it received from many critics. However, Hinkemann was not produced again in Germany after all of Toller's plays were publically burned by followers of Hitler during spring of 1933.

Hinkemann was first produced in England on June 6, 1924 at the Prince of Wales Theatre. It was titled Red Laughter (Der Deutsche Hinkemann; or Brokenbrow). The production was mounted by the Yiddish Art Theatre of America who was on a tour of Europe. The play was performed as a cockney English version. Maurice Schwartz (1889-1960) founder of the Yiddish Art Theatre in New York City, also produced a Yiddish version on Broadway at the Forth-ninth Street Theatre in December of 1931. For this production he used the title Bloody Laughter (Hinkemann) and it ran for thirty-five performances.

The first production of Hinkemann created by a company of British actors was presented at the Gate Theatre in London. This theatre group was established in 1925 and the founder was Peter Godfrey (1899-1970) who was committed to presenting contemporary and classic foreign plays. Hinkemann opened on May 24, 1926.  The English translation of the script was done by Vera Mendel.  This company presented the play again on February 3, 1933. Peter Godfrey played the role of Hinkemann.

Hinkemann has sporadically continued to be staged. Two relatively recent productions that I read about were staged by the Slovenian National Theatre in Ljubijana, Slovenia and the Grand Theater Company in Paris, France.  There is a short YouTube video dated September 24, 2014 that features the moments from the Slovenian National Theatre’s production. The Grand Theatre production was adapted and directed by Christine Letailleur. It was presented in Rennes, France in October, 2014 and in Paris during March/April, 2015 at La Colline-National Theatre.

          1.     The original script in German is different from the English translation by
           J. M.Ritchie that I read. This version is included in German Expressionism, a series
           edited by J.M. Ritchie titled Vision & Aftermath: Four Expressionist War Plays 
           and published in 1969.

2.   If you are interested in reading about another World War One play by Toller,
     please see my August 15, 2015 post titled TRANSFORMATION by

3. Image source:

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