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Hotel Mayflower


A new play

by Richard Byrne 

2019 Semifinalist, Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference


Bilingual Edition (English & German) coming in April 2024 from Moloko Print.

True story: In 1937, long before his fame as a writer, future Beat Generation icon William Burroughs (then 23 years-old) met a German Jewish woman named Ilse Herzfeld Klapper (who was 37 years old at the time) in Dubrovnik. A year later, they were married.


Ilse Burroughs received a visa from this marriage which allowed her to avoid repatriation from Yugoslavia to Nazi Germany. She arrived in New York in 1939 and was hired as a secretary by exiled anti-fascist German writer and activist Ernst Toller. 


Toller was a poet and World War I veteran who came to wider notice in 1919 as a leader of the short-lived Worker's Republic in Munich. As happened in a similar uprising in Berlin insigated by the Spartacists earlier in that same year (led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg),  Bavaria's revolutionary government was brutally suppressed in two months. 


Toller escaped execution and was sentenced to five years in prison. The plays and poems he wrote in jail -- including a play that prophesied the rise of Hitler -- made him an international literary and political luminary. 


Toller was public enemy number one to the Nazi regime when it took power in 1933. His apartment in Berlin was raided by the Nazis shortly after the Reichstag fire on February 27, 1933.  Toller was in Switzerland when the Nazis came for him. He never returned to Germany. His books were burned in the fires lit by Joseph Goebbels on Berlin's Opernplatz in May 1933.


As an exile, in Britain and the United States, Toller became a leading figure in the anti-fascist resistance. He gave speeches, wrote articles, raised money for the hungry in Spain. He even wrote film scripts in Hollywood.


Hotel Mayflower imagines a collision between these three travelers in a Manhattan hotel in 1939. It asks hard questions about the artist's role in politics. Can a writer change the world with words? Or should the author stand apart from levers of power?

The world of Hotel Mayflower is not far from our own. It's a landscape of political refugees and exiles, growing fascism, and relentless attempts to erase and rewrite history.

NOTE: Hotel Mayflower was initially titled  Three Suitcases. The play was submitted to the 2019 Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's  National Playwrights Conference and given three public readings under that title before 2023.

15. William Burroughs, 1989.jpg
Stage Write 1938 Pixlr.jpg
1. Ernst Toller 1930s.jpg
6. Postcard MS Vulcania.jpg



The Beat Generation was one of my obsessions in high school. So when I was offered an opportunity to interview William Burroughs in the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in 1989, I leapt at the chance. 


This encounter helped shape my journalism career. I started the interview with two dumb questions. Burroughs was prickly. Yet he was kind enough to give me a chance to ask better questions. When I did, Burroughs proved generous with his time and his thoughts. It was a powerful lesson for me on how to interview a prominent artist.  


Fast forward almost 26 years. As I worked on a play about the Luddites and the poets of that era, I discovered that Ernst Toller had written a play about them called The Machine Wreckers. Toller's biography fascinated me. Playwright. Poet. Revolutionary. Activist. Anti-fascist. How had I missed this? 


At this same time, I was temporarily between apartments, and staying with a friend who had a copy of the Burroughs anthology Word Virus. One night, I plucked it down from the shelf. As I read through a biographical section of the book , the name "Ilse Klapper" -- and Burroughs' marriage to her in 1937 -- leapt out at me from the page.  Was this the same "Ilse Herzfeld Klapper" who had been Toller's secretary in 1939?


It was. And I knew in that moment that I needed to write this play.


Toller and Burroughs are at opposite poles in their views about writing and politics. And the story of Ilse Herzfeld Klapper Burroughs -- polyglot, refugee, friend to the famous -- is utterly engimatic.

Hotel Mayflower was my opportunity to explore a tangle of key issues in our moment through the prism of a forgotten story of 1939 that should be better known. 



Meet Ilse Burroughs (an article written with Thomas Antonic).

Toller, the Bavarian Workers Republic, and his 1919 victory at Dachau. 



* Center for Jewish History / Leo Baeck Institute  (May 2019)


* Avant Bard's Scripts in Play Festival (February 2019)


* 920 Productions (August 2018) 

Photos: (1) Collection of Richard Byrne; (2) By permission of Michael DeFilippo; (3) Original image: NARA/U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; Enhanced image by Stage Write/Richard Byrne; (4 ) Courtesy of the Ernst Toller Gesellschaft, Neuberg an der Donau; (5)  Unknown photographer, 1919. (Public Domain.); (6) Photo by Richard Byrne; (7) Collection of Richard Byrne; (8) New York Times 

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