Ernst Toller in Translation

Hoppla, wir leben! erscheint in einer englischen Neuübersetzung im Berlinica Verlag

Der von Eva C. Schweitzer geführte, unabhängige Berlinica Verlag hat es sich zum Ziel gemacht, Berlin nach Amerika zu bringen. Berlinica Publishing LLC hat Büros in New York und Berlin und veröffentlicht Bücher aus Berlin, auf deutsch oder englisch, von Belletristik über Essays bis hin zu Fotobüchern, Reiseführern und vielem mehr. Nach der Veröffentlichung von Ernst Tollers Hinkemann in der Übersetzung von Peter Wortsman 2019 erscheint im März 2023 der zweite Band der Reihe „German Plays in Translation“. Es handelt sich dabei um eine Neuübersetzung von Hoppla, wir leben! durch Drew Lichtenberg.

Lichtenberg ist als Dramaturg, Bearbeiter und Übersetzer für verschiedene us-amerikanische und internationale Theater tätig und seit 2011 Resident Dramaturg an der Skaespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. Zum 100jährigen Bestehen der New School inszenierte er Hoppla! im La Mama Experimental Theater Club in New York City (wir berichteten in unserem Blog). Darüber, aber auch über seine Gedanken zum Stück und die dramaturgische Arbeit daran, über das Verhältnis Piscators zu Toller und vieles mehr erzählt Drew Lichtenberg in folgendem Text, den er uns dankenswerterweise zur Verfügung gestellt hat.

I was born in Philadelphia, into a theatrical family. My parents met as graduate students in the theater program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. My mother got her MFA in Dramaturgy from UMass in the 1970s; at the time, it was one of the few state-funded graduate programs in dramaturgy, where the field is much younger than in European theater, especially Germany. At the time I was born, my father was running the education department and directing plays at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre Company. He followed in her footsteps, making him one of the few multi-generational dramaturgs in America, where the field is younger than in European theater. 
I became fascinated by the plays of Ernst Toller, German Expressionism, and the theater of the Weimar Republic as an undergraduate. In the summer of 2011, while working on my doctorate, I visited Neuburg-an-der-Donau, staying with Dr. Dieter Distl, who generously invited me to a Midsummer Night’s feast at his home, showed me the medieval castle where Toller was imprisoned after his participation in the Bavarian Soviet Republic, and shared the materials from the Toller Archiv with me. In 2018, I completed this doctorate at the Yale School of Drama: a dramaturgical reconstruction of the season of 1927-8 at the Piscatorbühne, led by the iconoclastic director Erwin Piscator. Toller’s Hoppla, wir leben! was the first production.
When Hoppla! premiered on September 3, 1927, at Berlin’s Theater am Nollendorfplatz, it was the first salvo in a theater season that would revolutionize the modern theater. The collaboration was not an easy one. Piscator objected to what he called Toller’s “poetic lyricism” (Dichterisch-Lyrischen) and his debts to Expressionism. In characteristic fashion, the director altered the text in rehearsals and previews. He cut Toller’s lyrical, poetic speeches, much to the playwright’s frustration and despair. He inserted filmic montages of documentary materials. He used projections as title cards, introducing and interrupting scenes. He added a cabaret-style song with lyrics by Walter Mehring, music by Edmund Meisel, and choreography by Kate Kühl. He staged the play on designer Traugott Müller’s enormous set, consisting of multi-level steel scaffolding, which enabled him to change locations and cut between scenes with sudden changes of light and sound. Most of all, he objected to the play’s ending, in which the former revolutionary Karl Thomas commits suicide by hanging himself. Piscator rewrote the ending, with characters reacting to Karl Thomas’s death by damning the world that could lead such a man to despair and demanding it be changed.
Piscator’s radical style, as-yet unnamed, is now known as epic theater. (After Hoppla! premiered, Bertolt Brecht would work at the Piscatorbühne as a dramaturg.)
In 2019, I was approached by Zishan Ugurlu, the head of the theater program at Eugene Lang College at the New School. Years ago, Zishan invited me to teach at the New School, partially because of my interest in Toller and Piscator. We share in common a love of political and avant-garde theater. Zishan wanted to mount a production in honor of the New School’s 100th anniversary. We decided to stage Hoppla! at La Mama Experimental Theater Club. We could find no record of a New York production, so this was its New York premiere.
Piscator had founded the Dramatic Workshop at the New School as a home for German theater artists in exile, sailing to New York from Paris on December 24, 1938. One of the first things Piscator did was meet with his old collaborator Toller, also in exile, at his hotel room at the Mayflower Hotel, off Central Park. (The site is a stone’s throw from Trump International Hotel today.) Piscator hoped Toller could be one of his collaborators in America, perhaps on a new production of Hoppla. But he found him depressed, unable to find work, creatively blocked. On May 22, 1939, two weeks after Franco’s forces had won in Spain and one week after Hitler’s forces entered Prague, Toller would be found dead in the same room, from an apparent suicide.
In a 1965 remembrance, written one year before his own death, Piscator wrote the essay, “My Friend Toller” in a French pressing of Hop la, nous vivons!  Piscator wrote of this final act of suicidal despair by his friend, and how it cast Hoppla “in a totally different light”: 

Our criticism of Toller had always been that he was not “objective” enough, that he wrote too poetically, that he committed too much of himself to his characters. But now, Toller had made clear to us that it was life—or rather, the times—whose dramaturgy he felt imprisoned him, and that he could only escape their inexorable consequences by writing a horrible ending, once and for all.

The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has hailed the playas “one of the most impressive plays of the decade [the 1920s], saturated with the experience of the era and marked by the bitterest of growing-pains, but clear-eyed in its realism.” For our production, we wanted to be faithful to both Toller’s and Piscator’s visions, restoring the text to reflect the scope of their intimate, tempestuous collaboration. With Dr. Distl’s help, I consulted Toller’s four-act typewritten manuscript from 1926, the unpublished “Lotz Manuscript” of 1927, the Kiepenheuer Verlag version, and Piscator’s director’s promptbook (Regiebuch) in Berlin’s Akademie der Künste. I am eternally in his debt. The publication of this English-language translation is in part due to his help all those years ago. For much more on the relationship between Piscator and Toller, and the Piscatorbühne, see my book, The Piscatorbühne Century: Aesthetics and Politics in the Modern Theatre, which was published by Routledge in 2021.

Drew Lichtenberg

Weitere Informationen zu den Toller-Stücken im Berlinica Verlag finden Sie hier.