Ernst Toller’s Feuer aus den Kesseln was written in 1930, and a translation (as Draw the Fires) was performed in Manchester in 1935 (by the Theatre of Action company, directed by Joan Littlewood).
I’m something of a connoisseur of shot-at-dawn narratives, and what I find interesting about this one is that it is quite unlike any that was written in Britain at the time.
The play is about unrest in the German Navy. After a brief scene establishing a 1926 tribunal into a 1917 mutiny, a scene graphically shows stokers hard at work during the Battle of Jutland. We then see how shabbily they are treated by their officers – given maggotty fish and rotten potatoes to eat while the wardroom dines on Consommé Royale and steak. The officer we see is a pompous and insensitive 19-year old, totally failing to comprehend the men’s demands. The sailors are denied leave so that the officers can win a wager with another ship about who can load coal fastest. They try to take their grievances to Social Democrats in the Reichstag, but are palmed off with vague promises. When they organise meetings their group is infiltrated by agents provocateurs, they are arrested and subjected to a court-martial of blatant unfairness, and executed.
Come 1918, the example of these men inspires the Kiel mutiny, which led to the establishment of the short-lived Bavarian Socialist Republic (in which Toller himself took a leading part).
The play ends with the decisive action of the Kiel mutineers to act; there is no hint of the failure of the post-war German soviets.
As propaganda it is hard-hitting, but as a play it lacks any subtlety or complexity. The men exist only as innocent victims of a cruel system; every authority-figure is an absolute bastard. The court-martial is ludicrously unjust. Revolution is the only answer.
How very different this is from British shot-at-dawn narratives of the inter-war period. In books like Herbert’s The Secret Battle or Montague’s Rough Justice, the verdict may be unjust and the outcome deplorable, but the deserter is always shown as lacking, as failing to be a soldier. Military justice is condemned as insensitive to human weakness, but the issues are shown as complicated.
Toller’s play comes out of a different history. The British, having won the War at a great cost, interpreted it as essentially righteous, despite its horrors; plays like Journey’s End showed a common experience to which both soldiers and pacifists could seriously relate. The Germans were left with a more divisive legacy. Some (like Ernst Junger, and indeed Hitler) would glorify the war years as the expression of the best in German life, and want to renew the struggle. Others, like Toller, would want to completely reject the military system that supported a class-based tyranny.
The trouble with Toller’s play (for me at any rate) is that I can’t believe it. No navy could survive if the conditions were so ludicrously unjust as those displayed in this play. Like Eisenstein in Battleship Potemkin (which I suspect may have strongly influenced this play) he exaggerates for melodramatic effect, and to make his propagandist point.
It was not until the 1960s and 1970s (with texts like Days of Hope and The Monocled Mutineer) that British writers would interpret the Great War in this simplified class-war manner.
Joan Littlewood, who directed the first British production, may well have been influenced by the play’s ending when putting together ‘Oh What a Lovely War‘ . The original script (in the Lord Chamberlain’s archive) finishes by showing German soldiers and sailors forming soviets, and inviting the British to follow their example. This was later changed, so that the play finishes with a medley of songs.