Ernst Toller: Requiem for an Idea (1999)


  • 25-30
  • Actor, Solo Cello

Score Excerpts

Program Notes

This work is a theatrical/musical reflection on the life and death of writer Ernst Toller. It should ideally be presented in a theatrical setting, with staging and lighting design. In the first production, the cellist sat slightly downstage centre, illuminated from directly overhead by a single light which was suspended by a long, black cord. The atmosphere was that of an interrogation. During the piece the actor, dressed in black, moved and spoke from areas in the vicinity of the cellist — on both sides, behind and in front. The actor was always lit peripherally, never clearly seen. Other stagings are of course possible.

Ernst Toller was born on 1st December 1893 – into a Jewish family in Samotschin in what at that time was the Prussian province of Posen. A typical child of his age, he joined the First World War as a belligerent patriot and returned from the trenches a pacifist. In the Bavarian Revolution, the 25-year-old was a member of the ‘braintrust’ of Kurt Eisner, who he had met in Berlin in 1917. In the course of the complex events in Bavaria, he was drawn into the phalanx of the revolutionaries.

Following the failure of the Räterepublik (a form of republic governed by commissars that existed in Bavaria in 1919), he was sentenced to five years imprisonment, which he spent in the prisons of Stadelheim, Eichstätt, Neuburg on the Danube and above all in Niederschönenfeld. It was here that he wrote his most significant works and gained his reputation as a dramatist. His plays were translated into 27 different languages and performed on the most important stages in the world.

After his release from prison, Toller invested all his energy into his humanitarian and socialist ideals. The political questions with which he concerned himself until his death are disturbingly topical today: the problem of the pacifism, which for him arose from the fact that under certain circumstances violence can be as inevitable as it is morally unacceptable; the protection of human rights, the rise of the radical right.

As early as the end of the twenties, Toller was already prophesying that Hitler would come to power, never to relinquish it. His comment in London on Hitler’s Olympic statement in 1936: “The dictator who praises the peace today, does so to prepare the war of tomorrow.”

In exile from 1933 onwards, Ernst Toller tried to reverse the splintering of political forces. In the USA he became the most-listened-to and celebrated representative of a different Germany. He used his popularity to serve gigantic aid projects for the suffering civilian population in Spain. Inevitably, Toller experienced the defeat of the Spanish Republic as one more betrayed revolution. He warned that for Hitler, the civil war in Spain was a dress rehearsal for a European war. His appeals for the western democracies to intervene went unheard. The recognition of Franco’s fascist dictatorship by the western powers shook Toller to be core because he himself was never willing to exclude ethical considerations from the political actions. The lack of conscience in politics drove Toller to despair. Everything that he had fought for in his literary and political life was lost.

On 19th May 1939, three days after Franco’s victory parade in Madrid, Ernst Toller took his own life in New York. Wolfgang Frühwald expressed the opinion that this ultimate demonstration of liberty illustrated – to a repressed world – to what act its freedom of action had meanwhile been reduced.

Writer Per Brask offers the following notes:

“It has not been my intention to give an account of the life and times of Ernst Toller — though that certainly would be an interesting project — nor to interrogate, as they say, his plays. Instead, I have wanted to ruminate along with him, to mourn the death of an idea, the idea of individualist socialism, anarchist communitarianism. For him this idea died in 1939 and he chose to die with it. For some of us maybe the idea died — or metamorphosed — in the 1980s, 90s?

Most of the poem is based on material found in Ernst Toller Gesammelte Werke Band 1-5, herausgegeben von John M. Spalek und Wolfgang Frühwald; München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1978. I must, however, warn you that I have been very free in my approach to translating Toller’s words, many of which I have purposefully mangled, twisted and turned to suit my own ends, in some cases well beyond recognition. Sentences have been removed from their contexts. Indeed, in some instances a phrase has been joined by a sub-clause from a very different work.. (Everything written within wide margins has been maltreated in one or more of these ways.) And all this to find — as an actor might put it — the Toller inside myself, to pay homage to Toller by means of appropriation — by using him as an archetype.”

The music for Ernst Toller — Requiem for an Idea was written with financial assistance from the Manitoba Arts Council, whose support is gratefully acknowledged. The world premier was given in Winnipeg at the Eckhardt Gramatté Theatre on May 1 and 2, 1999. Richard Fowler was Ernst Toller; the cellist was Paul Marleyn.