Expressionism

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Plays

In the Jungle of Cities

Bertolt Brecht
Acts: 0. Scenes: 11. Roles: Male (12), Female (3), Neutral (0).

When lumber dealer Shlink meets book clerk George Garga, they immediately conceive an irrational hatred for each other and declare war between themselves. Their fighting engulfs and eventually destroys their families and the people around them. Depicting fraud, crime, and prostitution in an imagined version of Chicago, Brecht structured In the Jungle of Cities as a boxing match between two men who do not know why they are fighting.

Ever a revisionist, Brecht rewrote In the Jungle of Cities several times in the 1920s, finally settling on this version in 1927. When an earlier version premiered in Berlin, it was interrupted by Nazis in the audience throwing stink bombs and making noise. Brecht’s interest in the collision between the interests of capitalism and the good of the people is already evident in this early work.

Spring Awakening

Frank Wedekind
Acts: 3. Scenes: 19. Roles: Male (29), Female (7), Neutral (0).

Spring Awakening is a classic but still startling play, addressing adolescent sexuality at a time when sexual oppression and ignorance made puberty a confusing and terrifying mystery.

Notorious for its supposed pornographic content, the play addresses homosexuality, abuse, abortion, rape, suicide and sadism, with an acute and semi-lyrical directness astonishing for its time. A group of teenagers struggle with fear and curiosity about their growing sexual feelings, while the adults raise a wall of disgust and misinformation.

It is a mosaic of scenes, the mood shifting between comedy and alarm, the characters tense and fiercely etched: a seminal and vastly influential treatment of adolescence, education and generational conflict.

Edward Bond’s scrupulous translation first brought the play to English audiences when it premiered at the National Theatre in 1974; it is now considered to be the definitive English translation.

The term originally referred to painting. Used very occasionally during the nineteenth century, it 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 parallel movements of futurism and surrealism, expressionism was never a single school guided by an intellectual leader. Hence the work of very different artists, including playwrights, has been called expressionist – united by common characteristics rather than a strict programme.

In a narrow sense, expressionism was a specifically German phenomenon. Prefigured by Wedekind, its theatrical history was brief: from the (nonprofessional) performance in Vienna in 1909 of Oskar Kokoschka’s Murderer, Hope of Women to sometime in the early 1920s. Its reign was never unchallenged. Landmarks were productions in Prague and Dresden of Walter Hasenclever’s The Son (1916) and Reinhardt’s memorable staging of Reinhard Sorge’s The Beggar (1917) in Berlin. These and similar plays dramatized the conflict of the generations, violently rejecting the father figure and expressing a faith in youth in messianic terms.

Military defeat and the collapse of the old order in 1918 gave expressionist drama a more overtly political thrust, as in Fritz Von Unruh’s A Family and Ernst Toller’s Transfiguration, both first staged in 1919. Termed a Denkspieler or playwright of ideas, Georg Kaiser, who had satirized bourgeois life in From Morn to Midnight (written 1916, performed 1917), now forecast industrial society’s race to extinction in the Gas trilogy (written in 1912, published in 1916 and premiered in 1917).

Expressionist drama felt no commitment to the depiction of everyday reality; it was subjective and arbitrary. In the wake of Strindberg’s A Dream Play (1907), it often featured dream imagery. Action as well as language throbbed with nervous energy. The unities were discarded, the narrative line frequently being a series of ‘stations’ rather than a well-knit plot – an approach which, through the work of Piscator and Brecht, gave rise to epic theatre. Diction, too, became fragmented: grammar was violated and sentences collapsed; there were sudden lyrical outbursts; speech became a cry. These new demands called for a new acting style. The playwright Paul Kornfeld advised: ‘Let not the actor... behave as though the thoughts and words he has to express have 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 alien to the actor.’

Such plays could not be staged by conventional methods. A new approach to stage design revealed the close links between expressionism in drama and the visual arts. Sets became simplified, angled, distorted, fantasticated. The stage was conceived as a space rather than a picture. Spotlights – as in Jürgen Fehling’s notable production in 1921 of Toller’s Masses and Man created the acting areas and shifted the focus from one spot to another; some expressionist lighting techniques had an impact on the cinema of the period.

By the mid-1920s inflation was over and stability returned. The expressionist wave passed. The playwrights mentioned above, as well as Werfel, Wolf, Johst and others, adapted their style to a less ecstatic idiom. The nebulous unity of the expressionist camp fragmented into different ideologies. But expressionism in the wider sense – a technique rather than a specifically German sense of life – can be traced in other countries too. In the 1920s, American theatre was open 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 notable American exponent of expressionism – in some of his work – was Eugene O’Neill. In The Emperor Jones (1920) he put subjective visions on the stage; in The Hairy Ape (1922) he turned both oppressors and oppressed in a class society into puppets; in All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924) he portrayed racial conflict in boldly two-dimensional imagery.

English playwrights failed to respond to continental example, but some Irish writers took to it more readily. Denis Johnston’s The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ (1929) was – among other things – expressionistic. Seán O’Casey made the third act of The Silver Tassie (1929) 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 touched by it.

Political Theatre from the 1960s on rediscovered elements of expressionism and in the 1980s theatre design borrowed heavily from it. But its increasingly loose definition, while a tribute to its influence, made it a less and less useful term for critical debate.

from George Brandt, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).