Expressionist Drama | Definition, Characteristics, Examples in Literature

Expressionist Drama | Definition, Characteristics, Examples in Literature

Expressionist Drama


The term ‘Expressionism‘ a German phenomenon, initially referred to painting. It was used occasionally during the nineteenth century and was popularized in 1901 by the French painter J. A. Hervé. The German art dealer and publicist Herwarth Walden took it up from 1910 onwards and applied it to the German revolt against academicism and naturalism in all the arts. But, unlike the equivalent movements of futurism and surrealism, expressionism was not a sole school guided by an cerebral leader. So, the work of very different artists, including playwrights, has been called expressionist – integrated by common characteristics rather than a strict programme.

What is Expressionist Drama?

In the early decades of the 20th century, there developed a modernist movement in drama and theatre in Europe (principally in Germany) that is known as Expressionism and later, this movement developed in the United States. This movement contains part of the broader movement of Expressionism in the arts. In early 20th century German theatre, there was a concentrated Expressionist movement in which Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller were the most famous playwrights. Through the expressionist theater, Expressionist writers visually enacted the scenes whatever they witnessed and the scenes they foresaw to narrate their vision to large audiences.

Ethan Mordden defines expressionism as “forms of composition and stagecraft through which the wishes, fears, and obsessions of the human psyche are made audible and visible.” Most of the writers took part in the theme of revolt against the mounting industrialization.

Gas as an Expressionist Drama

Gas by Georg Kaiser written in 1912, published in 1916 and premiered in 1917 is a good example of this theme. Georg Kaiser is one of the most influential playwrights who pioneered expressionism in Germany at the time of World War I. Gas is the story of a mill that is being run in a democratic way and by profit share methods that were revolutionary in itself at that time. Despite the owner’s good intentions, the mill (which produces gas that runs all the county’s machines) explodes and the owner the billionaire’s son) is faced with a moral dilemma. He, like the Expressionist artists, wishes change. The mill owner does not wish to rebuild the mill that has ruined so numerous lives and he is the only character who knows well the importance of a better life that is not ruled by machines. Despite the workers’ discontent with their lives when they were ruled by the mill, they know no other way of existence so they wish to rebuild the mill. It is this moral conflict of true happiness that depicts how industrialization was challenging not only for artists but for workers and humanity also.

Expressionist Drama Examples

Prefigured by Wedekind, the theatrical history of expressionist drama was shrinked from the (nonprofessional performance in Vienna in 1909 of Oskar Kokoschka’s Murderer, Hope of Women to sometime in the early 1920s. Its period of influence was never unchallenged. Walter Hasenclever’s The Son (1916) in Prague and Dresden and Reinhardt’s memorable staging of Reinhard Sorge’s The Beggar (1917) in Berlin were landmarks productions. These dramas dramatized the clash of the generations, which rejected the father figure and expressed a faith in youth in messianic terms. Military defeat and the collapse of the old order in 1918 offered expressionist drama a more overtly political force, as in Fritz Von Unruh’s A Family and Ernst Toller’s Transfiguration, which were first staged in 1919.

Eminent Expressionist Dramatists

Expressionist drama flourished more in Germany, in the work of Reinhard Johannes Sorge, Paul Kornfeld, Reinhard Johannes Sorge, Ernst Toller, Paul Kornfeld, Fritz von Unruh, Brecht and Piscator developed a form known as epic theatre. In the USA, a strong expressionist influence can be traced in the plays of Eugene O’Neill, Elmer Rice, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller.

Development of Expressionist Drama

In the mid of 1920s the stability in this genre returned and inflation came to an end. The playwrights mentioned above, as well as Werfel, Wolf, Johst and others, adopted their style to a less rapturous idiom. The unformulated unity of the expressionist camp split into different ideologies. In the 1920s, American theatre was opened to experimentation. Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1922) mocked the depersonalized drudges of capitalism. John Howard Lawson used expressionism for radical purposes in Roger Bloomer (1922) and Processional (1925). A late example of agitational expressionism was Irwin Shaw’s anti-militarist Bury the Dead (1937).

The most prominent American model of expressionism was Eugene O’Neill. In The Emperor Jones (1920), he has put the subjective visions on the stage; in The Hairy Ape (1922) he turned both oppressors and oppressed in a class society into puppets; in All Gods Chill Go Wings (1924) he portrayed racial conflict in boldly two dimensional imagery. English playwrights could not contribute much to continental example, but some Irish writers took it more seriously. Denis Johnston’s The Old Lady Soys ‘No!’ (1929) was expressionistic among several other things. Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie became one of the peak achievements of expressionist writing Within the Gates (1933) was still inspired by expressionism. Even some of his later plays — the third act of Red Roses for Me. (1942), or Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949) were also alighted by it.

Characteristics of Expressionist Drama

The Expressionist drama had no concern with the everyday life and its realities. It was a total subjective and arbitrary depiction of life. It often featured a dream imagery in which action and language throbbed with nervous energy. It shocked the audience by portraying characters with unrealistic conflicts. It contained no well knit plot and the unities of time place and action were totally discarded and through the work of Piscator and Brecht, it gave rise to epic theatre. Diction also became fragmented and the grammar was often violated and sentences distorted and at times, it also met with sudden lyrical outbursts and speech became a cry. So, a new style was needed there. The playwright Paul Kornfeld advised:

“Let not the actor… behave as though the thoughts and words he has to express has only arisen in him at the very moment in which he recites them… Let him dare to stretch his arms out wide and with a sense of soaring speak as he has never spoken in life; let him not be an imitator or seek his model in a world allow to the actor: “

These plays could not be staged by conventional methods and a new advancement to the stage design was exposed and this could be possible only due to the close links between expressionism in drama and the visual arts. The stage was considered as a space rather than a picture. The sets were set in a very simplified, angled, distorted, fantastic manner. Some lighting techniques of the expressionist gave an impact to the cinema of the period.

Style of Expressionist Drama

Expressionist drama often dramatizes the spiritual awakening and sufferings of its protagonists and is referred to as station dramas, which are modeled on the episodic appearance of the suffering and death of Jesus in the Stations of the Cross, August Strindberg had pioneered this form with his autobiographical trilogy To Damascus (1898-1904). The plays often dramatize the clash against bourgeois values and established authority, often personified in the figure of the Father. In Arnolt Bronnen’s Parricide (Vatermord), the son stabs his tyrannical father to death, only to have to fend off the frenzied sexual overtures of his mother.

In Expressionist drama, the speech is heightened, whether expansive and rhapsodic, or clipped and telegraphic. Director Leopold Jessner became famous for his Expressionistic productions, often unfolding on stark, steeply raked flights of stairs (an idea originally developed by Edward Gordon Craig), which quickly became his trademark.

Expressionism enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the theatre of the United States in the 1920s, including plays by Eugene O’Neill (The Hairy Ape, The Emperor Jones ), Sophie Treadwell (Machinal), Lajos Egri (Rapid Transit) and Elmer Rice (The Adding Machine)

Under the influence of political theater, the elements of expressionism bloomed in 1960s and in the 1980s theatre design borrowed heavily from it. However, its definition is now loosing grounds and it is no longer a subject of criticism.

Examples of Expressionist Drama in Literature

Expressionist Playwrights Expressionist Drama
August Strindberg A Dream Play,

To Damascus

Walter Hasenclever The Son
Georg Kaiser Gas
Franz Kafka The Warden of the Tomb
Reinhard Sorge The Beggar
Eugene O’Neill The Emperor Jones,

The Hairy Ape,

The Great God Brown,

All God’s Chillun Got Wings

Elmer Rice The Adding Machine
Denis Johnston The Old Lady Says ‘No!’
Irwin Shaw Bury the Dead
Ernst Toller Hoppla,

We’re Alive!

Sophie Treadwell Machinal
Oskar Kokoschka Murderer,

The Hope of Women

Lajos Egri Rapid Transit
Sean O’Casey  The Silver Tassie
Arnolt Bronnen Parricide


2 thoughts on “Expressionist Drama | Definition, Characteristics, Examples in Literature”

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