Hoppla, We’re Alive – Ernst Toller

Ernst Toller, a young German Jewish playwright, anarchist, and veteran of WWI, abruptly became president of the short-lived Bavarian Council Republic during the German Revolution of 1918. His presidency lasted a few days before being replaced by a Communist government, but it produced some hilarious diplomatic correspondence. Things went bad and Toller was, after the defeat of the Bavarian Council Republic, put on trial for his life, which was saved in part by Max Weber, who knew him and testified in his favor despite disapproving of his political activity.

After his release, he wrote this Expressionist play, about a young revolutionary arrested after a failed revolution suspiciously like the one Toller himself participated in. Karl Thomas goes insane when he thinks one of his comrades will be executed while the others are pardoned. Released from the asylum several years later, he finds his comrade not only alive, but in a position of high power.

His other friends have remained true to the cause, and are organizing against the government, but they counsel patience rather than immediate action. Not having shared their experiences, Karl Thomas can’t understand their choices. After a hilarious and maddening night as a waiter in a hotel, he decides to assassinate the comrade who has become a government minister. But a right-wing group is also plotting against the life of the minister, and things get confused…

Spoilers: he decides not to kill the minister, showing in the playwright’s view his maturation. Unfortunately, he’s mixed up with the real killer, one of the right-wingers, and kills himself in jail, though not before a conversation with a psychiatrist that shows that the line between madness and sanity is not always clear in an oppressive society.

One thing I noticed is that when Karl Thomas is threatened by the police, there is a veiled reference to the deaths of Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht during the revolution. The police first say Karl Thomas will be “shot trying to escape” if he resists–this was the official story of why Liebknecht was shot, later disproven–and then claim he should be grateful to them for protecting him from lynching–the official story of Luxemburg’s death, also disproven.

Toller isn’t a subtle writer most of the time, but his characterizations are clear and dramatic, his plot original, and his social commentary, though again not subtle, is powerful. I don’t agree with anarchism, but Toller’s anarchist beliefs enabled him to ruthlessly criticize his society in an illuminating way.  He also drew on his own dramatic experiences as a young man during the revolution to show the types of characters found in such upheavals, from cynics to idealists, while also showing how long-term strategic thought can be mistaken for cynicism when really it is the best way to resist.

Fiesco, or the Genoese Conspiracy: A Republican Tragedy – Friedrich Schiller

This is Schiller still in his younger throw-in-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink phase (cross-dressing, republicanism, oaths, assassination plots, adultery, betrayal, rebellion!), recounting the twists and turns of the titular “Genoese Conspiracy.” Highly entertaining, though I keep reading Schiller to find something that matches the brilliance of Don Carlos and yet again I was disappointed. Because the play has two different endings,  I was left guessing how it would end even though I basically knew the plot- this is the tragic ending and I liked it.

Fiesco’s motivations can be a bit hard to follow as at one point he says that to throw away a diadem is divine, planning not to make himself Duke, but then the next scene he’s changed his mind.

Verrina’s last line is one of those typical wham lines that end a Schiller play- “I go to join Andreas.” Wait! You were the most ideological republican of the conspirators, and now, after Fiesco’s betrayal, which you knew was coming and avenged, you go over to the side of the autocrat? How does that make sense? Verrina is a pain, especially in his melodramatic imprisonment of the innocent Bertha to manipulate the other conspirators, but his politics make sense until that last line. It sounds like I’m complaining about that line, but really it makes you think and has an emotional impact and I think it would work on stage. It’s just hard to make sense of.

The scene (one of two variants, and the better of the pair) in which Bertha cross-dresses and goes out into the streets, rescuing herself, is fantastic, and the tragic consequences of Leonora’s similar action have a sickening inevitability.

Andreas Doria is a fascinating character, a magnanimous tyrant who disarms Fiesco by his refusal to react to his treachery, leaving himself open to whatever Fiesco does. I like that the play argues that tyranny is a problem even when the tyrant is basically a good ruler (not that Andreas will or can rein in his horrible heir).

The character of the Moor (referenced in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate) is cheerfully villainous in a Richard III way, with the humor coming from his incompetence. Fiesco casually uses him until he no longer needs him, then disposes of him (thus the Grossman reference) but this is complicated by the Moor’s betrayal of Fiesco at one point and Fiesco’s mercy then.

Pretty sure this review makes no sense unless you have read/are familiar with the play, but whatever. In conclusion, everyone should read Don Carlos, but if you like The Robbers, this is for you as well. I think this would work pretty well on stage.