Expressionism is a modernist movement in drama and theatre that developed in Europe (principally Germany) in the early decades of the 20th century and later in the United States. It forms part of the broader movement of Expressionism in the arts.
Expressionism was a dominant influence on early 20th-century German theatre, of which Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller were the most famous playwrights. Other notable Expressionist dramatists included Reinhard Sorge, Walter Hasenclever, Hans Henny Jahnn, and Arnolt Bronnen. Important precursors were the Swedish playwright August Strindberg and German actor and dramatist Frank Wedekind. During the 1920s, Expressionism enjoyed a brief period of popularity in American theatre, including plays by Eugene O’Neill (The Hairy Ape, The Emperor Jones and The Great God Brown), Sophie Treadwell (Machinal) and Elmer Rice (The Adding Machine).
Expressionist plays often dramatise the spiritual awakening and sufferings of their protagonists. Some utilise an episodic dramatic structure and are known as Stationendramen (station plays), modeled on the presentation 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. These plays also often dramatise the struggle against bourgeois values and established authority, frequently personified by the Father. In Sorge’s The Beggar, (Der Bettler), for example, the young hero’s mentally ill father raves about the prospect of mining the riches of Mars and is finally poisoned by his son. In 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 either expansive and rhapsodic, or clipped and telegraphic. Director Leopold Jessner became famous for his expressionistic productions, often set on stark, steeply raked flights of stairs (having borrowed the idea from the Symbolist director and designer, Edward Gordon Craig). Staging was especially important in Expressionist drama, with directors forgoing the illusion of reality to block actors in as close to two-dimensional movement. Directors also made heavy use of lighting effects to create stark contrast and as another method to heavily emphasize emotion and convey the play or a scene’s message.
The expressionist drama focused on the description of the subjective experiences and experiences of the main character, often an alter ego of the author himself. The remaining figures were the background for his mental states and obsessions, were the products of his dreams and imaginations. The heroes of expressionist art were usually typical figures, symbolizing entire social groups or simply the personifications of these groups. In this way, the arts focused on the psychology of the masses, not individuals. Dialogue was characterized by a rotten style, filled with slogans and exclamations. A crowd (or a choir in its function) often appeared on the stage). The work sought to shape the modern ‘morality’. Expressionists expressed higher art through their art, often political (mostly leftist) or religious, sometimes radically doubtful (Hasenclever in the drama Der Sohn defended the thesis that freedom of expression of his personality could kill his own parents, and playwright Hans Johst became in the 1930s. supporter of Nazism).
Extensive acts, known to the viewer from traditional theater, in expressionistic art were replaced by sequences of short scenes. Realistic scenes were intertwined with fantastic ones. On the other hand, it was completely broken with a realistic set design, stylized cubic decorations appeared (geometrical solids, curtains, stairs, platforms). An important element was the lighting effects that created the mood on the stage (eg bright red or white light as a factor that stimulates the viewer’s emotions). The performers experimented with the use of modern techniques on stage, trying, for example, to include film sequences in the show.
The acting game was characterized by strong antipsychology. They were striving to achieve emotional transcendence. The actor’s movements were violent, the choreography strongly stylized, the dynamic game characterized by muscle tension and stiffness of the body. The voice was unnaturally modulated until it reached a hoarse staccato or turned into a scream.
There was a concentrated Expressionist movement in early 20th century German theatre of which Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller were the most famous playwrights. Other notable Expressionist dramatists included Reinhard Sorge, Walter Hasenclever, Hans Henny Jahnn, and Arnolt Bronnen. They looked back to Swedish playwright August Strindberg and German actor and dramatist Frank Wedekind as precursors of their dramaturgical experiments.
Oskar Kokoschka’s Murderer, the Hope of Women was the first fully Expressionist work for the theatre, which opened on 4 July 1909 in Vienna. In it, an unnamed man and woman struggle for dominance. The Man brands the woman; she stabs and imprisons him. He frees himself and she falls dead at his touch. As the play ends, he slaughters all around him (in the words of the text) “like mosquitoes.” The extreme simplification of characters to mythic types, choral effects, declamatory dialogue and heightened intensity would become characteristic of later Expressionist plays. The first full-length Expressionist play was The Son by Walter Hasenclever, which was published in 1914 and first performed in 1916.
In the 1920s, Expressionism enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the theatre of the United States, including plays by Eugene O’Neill (The Hairy Ape, The Emperor Jones and The Great God Brown), Sophie Treadwell (Machinal), Lajos Egri (Rapid Transit) and Elmer Rice (The Adding Machine).
In the expressionist theater, sexual and psychoanalytic themes predominated, perhaps by the influence of Freud, whose work The interpretation of dreams appeared in 1900. However, the protagonists used to be helpless, lonely, tortured, isolated from the world and stripped of all kinds of conventionalism and social appearance. Sex represented violence and frustration, life, suffering and angst.
Expressionist plays often dramatize the spiritual awakening and sufferings of their protagonists and are referred to as Stationendramen (station dramas), modeled on the episodic presentation 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). Early expressionism in particular testified to the failure of social values with a predilection for ecstasy and despair and hence a tendency towards the inflated and the grotesque; a mystical, even religious element with frequent apocalyptic overtones; an urgent sense of the here and now.
The plays often dramatise the struggle against bourgeois values and established authority, often personified in the figure of the Father. In Reinhard Sorge’s The Beggar (Der Bettler), the young hero’s mentally ill father raves about the prospect of mining the riches of Mars and is eventually poisoned by his son. 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.
The theater is an ideal medium for the emotional expression of expressionism for its multiartistic character, which combines the word with the image and action and movement. Not only different types of expression come together in a staging of a play, but the variety show, which includes musical numbers, poetry, dance, theater, circus, etc., becomes very important. Thus, in addition to the theater, cabarets of varieties proliferated at that time, such as the Die Fledermaus (The Bat) in Vienna; the Die Brillo (Dark Circles) in Berlin; and Die elf Scharfrichter (The Eleven Executioners) of Munich.
Expressionist theater in the world
After the wave of popularity of the expressionist theater in Germany, from 1923, the style spread to other European countries and went overseas.
In Poland, elements of the expressionist style can be found in the performances of Leon Schiller, in the decorations of Andrzej Pronaszko, Wincent Drabik and Szymon Syrkus. Theatrical experiments include the exhibition in 1927 in Vilnius in the theater of ” Reduta ” in the fully expressionistic Dream of Felicja Kruszewska, the debut play of director Edmund Wierciński. The Little Girl is dreaming a nightmare: she must reach the Prince through the night Warsaw with a warning about the approaching Black Army, her every step is followed by the sinister Green Clown who hung on the lamp.
In Britain, Seán O’Casey prepared the art of The Silver Tassie (Silver Cup, 1928) in the spirit of expressionism, which, however, was not appreciated and rejected by the decision makers of the Abbey Theater. Ashley Dukes also promoted expressionism, and in the avant-garde Gate Theater Studio in London, a German repertoire, and in the late 1930s he staged the parables of Wystan Hugh Auden and Christopher Isherwood in the style of the Poet Scene. At the end of the third decade, John Priestley’s expressionist Johnson over Jordan could be seen. In the field of decoration for expressionists, Terence Gray referred to his designs as isometric decorations. Gray used various combinations of monochromatic moving columns, stairs and landings for both staging ancient and modern pieces.
Also in France expressionism spread with resistance. The directors who used the achievements of this style can include Gaston Baty and Georges Pitoëff. This style was fully evident only in the performances of Jean-Louis Barrault.
In Russia, analogous to Expressionism, the direction in theater was constructivism, propagated by Vsevolod Meyerhold, it was a propaganda trend.
American playwrights who write expressionist art include such artists as Elmer Rice, Eugene O’Neill (The Hairy Ape, The Emperor Jones, The Great God Brown), Sophie Treadwell (Machinal), Lajos Egri (Rapid Transit). Paul Green Adaptation of the Adventures of Good Soldier Švejk to the Expressionist Musical entitled Johnny Johnson, Kurt Weill took care of the musical setting, the premiere took place in 1936.
German expressionist playwrights:
Georg Kaiser (1878)
Ernst Toller (1893–1939)
Hans Henny Jahnn (1894–1959)
Reinhard Sorge (1892–1916)
Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956)
Playwrights influenced by Expressionism:
Seán O’Casey (1880–1964)
Eugene O’Neill (1885–1953)
Elmer Rice (1892–1967)
Tennessee Williams (1911–83)
Arthur Miller (1915–2005)
Samuel Beckett (1906–89)
Source from Wikipedia