A new play
by Richard Byrne
2019 Semifinalist, Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference
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.
Three Suitcases imagines a collision between these three travelers in the Mayflower 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 Three Suitcases 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.
WHY WRITE THREE SUITCASES?
The Beat Generation was one of my obsessions in high school. So when I was given an opportunity to meet and interview William Burroughs in the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in 1989 for The Riverfront Times, I leapt at the chance.
It was an encounter that helped shape my journalism career. I started off the interview with two dumb questions. Burroughs was prickly, but kind enough to give me a chance to right the ship. When I asked better questions, Burroughs was generous with his time and his thoughts. In an hour, he gave me a powerful lesson on how to interview a prominent artist.
Fast forward almost 26 years. As I worked on a still-unfinished play about the Luddites, I discovered that Ernst Toller had written a play about them called The Machine Wreckers. The play was much different than what I was aiming to do, but the details of Toller's biography fascinated me. Playwright. Poet. Revolutionary. Activist. Anti-fascist. How had I missed this? I started devouring everything I could find about Ernst Toller.
At roughly the same time, I was temporarily between apartments, and staying with a friend who had a copy of Word Virus -- the wonderful anthology of Burroughs' work, edited with such care and skill by James Grauerholz. One night, I plucked it down, and 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 on the page. Was it 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 view of the relationship between the writer and politics. And the story of Ilse Herzfeld Klapper Burroughs -- polyglot, refugee, friend to the famous -- is utterly engimatic.
Almost nothing is known about Ilse. She left no memoir. Even where there are details, they are sketchy -- and, at times, contradictory. The two extant biographies of Burroughs give some information. I found traces of Ilse in official records of her travel and emigration. (See the consular record of their wedding, above.) I also discovered a tantalizingly brief memoir of Ilse in German on the Internet, written by a niece, and confirming a previous connection with Toller back to the Munich revolution and Dubrovnik.
It was only when I had the privilege to meet and talk with John Spalek -- the great scholar of both Toller and the emigres from Nazi Germany -- that I was able to hold a letter actually written by Ilse in my hand. It was typed on onion paper, extraordinarily evasive in its content -- and, long after their divorce in 1946, the letter was still signed by Ilse as "I Burroughs."
Center for Jewish History / Leo Baeck Institute (May 2019)
Avant Bard's Scripts in Play Festival (February 2019)
60 % Lotus (Washington, DC) (August 2018)