Friday, March 1, 2019


Ernst Toller (1893-1939) wrote his first draft of Masses Man (Masse Mensch) in October 1919. It was his second play and it took him two and a half days to complete the first draft, but it took another year of hard work to shape it into a script ready for theatrical production. During the time he worked on this script, he was incarcerated in Fortress Niederschonenfeld, a military prison, in the Bavarian area of Germany.

                                                                   ERNST TOLLER

Toller was quickly able to set his ideas to paper since this play reflected the second major experience of his adult life.  The first was fighting on the Western Front during World War One and the second was his leadership involvement in the Munich Revolution. During six days in April 1919, after the revolution was successful, Toller served as President of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. The violent events that were part of the revolution preyed heavily on Toller’s conscientious since he despised force and hated bloodshed.  Toller had not followed his ideals. The writing of Masses Man depicts Toller working through his idealistic conflict.

Masses Man is written in the style of Expressionism. Each section of the play is designated a “Picture.”  There is a total of seven Pictures. Three of the Pictures are labelled “Dream Picture.” Toller states that these three sections of the drama are “in the visionary beyond of a dream.”  

    FIRST PICTURE. “Indicated: Backroom of a workers’ tavern.                              
                                   On whitewashed walls pictures of veterans’ clubs and                                                                  portraits of heroes of the Masses. 
                                   In the middle a large and clumsy table around which                                                                   THE WOMAN and THE WORKERS sit.”

The play is set during World War One. The factory workers are planning to go on strike to force a peace settlement. They also want their actions to create a fairer society. The Woman’s Husband arrives to speak to her privately. The workers leave. HUSBAND works for the government and wants WOMAN to relinquish her present activities. WOMAN refuses even though she realizes her actions will end the marriage.

SECOND PICTURE (Dream Picture). “Indicated: Hall of the Stock Exchange.
                                   CLERK at the desk, around him BANKERS and BROKERS.                                                        CLERK: face of THE HUSBAND.

The Bankers are rejoicing over their war earnings.  Suddenly it is announced that the battle on the Western Front is lost. The characters go into a panic over their perceived financial losses. THE COMPANION enters.  His face bears a magic resemblance to THE WOMAN, who he leads into the room. THE WOMAN addresses the BANKERS as “human beings” and fades from the scene. The money men begin to discuss holding charitable events for human beings in need.

THIRD PICTURE. The stage remains dark during the CHORUSES OF THE MASSES.
                                Then the stage brightens to indicate THE GREAT HALL.
                                “On the platform a long narrow table. THE WOMAN sits left.
                                MEN and WOMEN WORKERS tightly packed in the hall.”

THE WOMAN advocates letting the factories “be the servants of a worthy life.”
                             Suddenly out of the crowd, THE NAMELESS hurries to the platform.
                             He stands to the right of the table.

THE NAMELESS calls for more than a strike.  He claims social justice can only be won by violent Revolution. Eventually even THE WOMAN is partially persuaded.

FOURTH PICTURE (Dream Picture). “Indicated: Prison yard surrounded by high walls.
                                   Night.  In the middle of the prison yard on the ground, a lantern
                                   which weeps a faint light.”
                                   From the corners of the courtyard WORKER-GUARDS appear.

The guards sing and suddenly THE NAMELESS quietly appears and stands beside the lantern. The guards dance as THE NAMELESS plays a concertina. THE CONDEMNED MAN, with a rope around his neck appears. More Condemned Men continue to join this dance of death. The scene grows to include HUSBAND. As everyone is converted to the thinking of the masses, THE WOMAN continues to maintain “Only Man counts.”

FIFTH PICTURE. Indicated: THE HALL. At long table THE WOMAN sits left.
                               THE NAMELESS sits right. WORKER-GUARDS at doors.
                               MEN and WOMEN WORKERS huddle at tables.

                                             SOLDIERS ARRIVE TO ARREST LEADER

OTHER WORKERS bring reports about the fighting that is taking place in the streets.  The MASSES are losing the battle. The Hall is suddenly surrounded by SOLDIERS. When they enter the hall, THE WOMAN is identified as leader and she is shackled.

SIXTH PICTURE (Dream Picture). “Boundless space. In its core, a cage, lit by
                               a flickering shaft of light. Inside crouching down, THE
                               SHACKLED PRISONER (face of THE WOMAN).
                               Next to the cage, THE COMPANION in the figure
                               of THE WARDER.”

THE SHACKLED PRISONER is taunted by SHADOWS and BANKERS until he declares his guilt. The SHACKLED is freed by the WARDER, who declares “You are healed.”

                                               Beginning moments of PICTURE 6

PICTURE SEVEN. Prison Cell.  THE WOMAN sits at table.

THE HUSBAND arrives to tell her that she has been found innocent of the shootings during the strike. They argue and he leaves. The NAMELESS arrives to free her.  They debate about the MASSES. He grows tired of her position and leaves without freeing her. THE PRIEST arrives to ease her final time before leading her out of the cell to her execution.  After a few seconds, two female PRISONERS enter the cell.  They take a few items left by THE WOMAN, but quickly put them back after they hear a gun volley from outside.

Toller’s sense of time and place are clearly delineated throughout the play. What my plot summary does not include is the emotional power of this play. Both THE WOMAN and THE NAMELESS are passionate about their positions and this heightened level of political emotion leaps off the page.

I originally knew this play by the title Man and the Masses. This title was given by Louis H. Untermeyer (1885-1977) who translated it in 1923 for American audiences. The original British translation is titled Masses and Man. Vera Mendel translated this version sometime during 1923-24. I prefer the title Masses Man as translated by Alan Raphael Pearlman and published in 2000. (This is the version I read for this post.) Masses Man makes a clearer statement about the play for me. It has been understood that the earlier two titles refer to THE WOMAN who wants the strike to win the peace while the masses are persuaded to turn to revolution for the future of a better society.  For me Masses Man refers to THE NAMELESS who persuades the masses to make their planned action into a violent revolution.

The first production of this play was staged on November 15, 1920 at the Nurnberg Stadttheater. The authorities had allowed a series of private performances for trade unionists. For the fourth performance on November 26th about one hundred tickets were offered at the door to non-unionists. Some of these tickets were purchased by individuals of different political beliefs and they staged disturbances during the performance. This event prohibited the theatre from presenting more performances in Nurembreg. Two more private performances of this production moved to the city of Furth in northern Bavaria. These events occurred prior to the play appearing in print.

In February 1921 an amateur production was staged by the Municipal Committee for Adult Education in Chemnitz located in eastern Germany.  

The second professional production opened on September 29, 1921 and it was staged by Jurgen Fehling (1885-1968) at the Berlin Volksbuhne--a major theatre in Europe at this time. This staged version of Masses Man became its most renown production. The set designer was Hans Strohbach (1891-1949) and Heinz Thiessen (1887-1971) composed the music. Mary Dietrich played THE WOMAN, Ferdinand Asper’s role was THE NAMELESS and Heinz Bernecker, HUSBAND.

A production opened in Moscow in 1923 at the Majakowski Theater. During the Spring of 1924 Masses Man was staged in both the United States and England. The American translation of the play was used for both productions. Man and the Masses opened in New York City on April 14, 1924 at the Garrick Theatre.  It was produced by the Theatre Guild and it ran for thirty-two performances. Lee Simonson (1885-1967) designed the scenery and staged this production. 

The London production opened May 1924 during the week of twentieth. It was produced by the Stage Society at the New Theatre. The initial performances were for private audiences, but it opened for the public later. Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976) played THE WOMAN and George Hayes (1888-1967) played THE NAMELESS. John Foulds (1880-1939) composed the music.

Masses Man has achieved the distinction world-wide of being the most well-known                 Expressionist play.

1.      Alan Raphael Pearlman. Ernest Toller PLAYS ONE. London: Oberon Books Ltd., 2000.
2.      THE WOMAN is also known in other translations as SONIA IRENE L.
3.      This blog also has posts on other plays by Toller: Transformation and Hinkemann.
4.      PHOTOS: Toller drawing by S. J. Woolf from Theatre Guild photo and it appeared in NEW YORK TIMES on August 12, 1923 (page 18).
      Production Pictures 5 & 6 are from the production directed by Jurgen Fehling. These
      photos appear in same book cited in number 1 Note.

1 comment:

  1. The woman's plight to express a new beginning in that creative air of perception is what is punished. Perception is a frightening thing to evoke the unknown with as with all new ideas. Good theme. Too bad the play hasn't been done recently so one can see it.