Expressionism

   The term Expressionism as it applies both to German theater and to drama was a manifestation of modernism by about 1910, though the rejection of illusionism on which Expressionism was primarily based had set in a decade earlier. As an artistic movement, it began as a rejection of Naturalism, fed by Sigmund Freud's (1856-1939) ideas of the subconscious. As a dramatic style, it embraced self-referentiality, meaning that a play constitutes a self-enclosed world. An Expressionist play, therefore, is simply what it is; just as an Expressionist painting did not claim to represent something external to itself, Expressionist plays were worlds that existed in and for themselves. Some of the original Expressionist playwrights were in fact painters, for example, Oskar Kokoschka and Vassily Kandin-sky (1866-1944), whose conception of character had little to do with motivation or dramatic action in the Aristotelian sense but rather as functions of a subjective experience. Other Expressionist playwrights shared Naturalism's partiality for social change, but most were concerned with innovations in dramatic structure. Many admired August Strindberg's later plays, which Max Reinhardt and others staged with unusual frequency after about 1912. They admired the self-conscious distortions Strindberg employed, creating characters who often existed largely in a self-enclosed environment.
   Many well-known Expressionist plays were written prior to World War I, though most remained unperformed or unpublished until after 1918. Nearly all employed discontinuity, combined with a penchant for the fragmented, the fractured, and the discordant—all modernist signals to official Wilhelmine culture, which preferred the harmonious and the complete. The paucity of Expressionist plays on German stages before 1918 was due to police censorship, which during the war intensified. Reinhardt nevertheless succeeded in presenting the world premiere of Reinhard Johannes Sorge's Der Bettler (The Beggar, subtitled A Dramatic Mission) in 1917, largely because Sorge had been awarded the Kleist Prize for it in 1912 and had died of wounds suffered in action on the Western Front in 1916. Most critics consider The Beggar the first Expressionist play of any significance in the German theater: it employed distortion at nearly every turn, featuring characters with only generic identities, speaking dialogue that was abrupt and condensed. The drab existence of the everyday disappeared in the swelling ecstasy of "essential experience," such as when the central character (known only as "the Poet") murders both his parents. Having done so, the Poet sloughs off all responsibility to society and is free to experience further ecstasies of his wholly personal and subjective "mission," per the play's subtitle. Playwrights subsequent to Sorge—chief among them Walter Hasenclever, Georg Kaiser, Ernst Barlach, Arnolt Bronnen, and Ernst Toller—employed similar devices and strategies, with uneven degrees of success. Kaiser was the most widely produced after World War I, Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (From Morn to Midnight) and Die Koralle (The Coral) the best known among them.
   In performance, Expressionism required acting that renounced realistic portrayals or psychological nuances that informed motivation. Ernst Deutsch was regarded in the early 1920s as the "high priest" of Expressionist acting, though Fritz Kortner, Werner Krauss, Agnes Straub, and Heinrich George were at the time likewise regarded as experts in the technique. Expressionist acting sometimes required actors to alternate shrieking and whispering their lines, to move across the stage rhythmically or mechanically, and sometimes to gesticulate in a nightmarish fashion. Deutsch was thought particularly adept at rolling his eyeballs, for example; Kortner had an admirable ability to "telegraph" speeches when required or to make obscene passages sound poetic. Jürgen Fehling was particularly gifted as a director of actors in the Expressionist style; he also fashioned innovative ways of employing "body speech" when moving large numbers of actors in crowd scenes.
   Expressionism in stage design and lighting influenced the work of directors such as Leopold Jessner in their productions of William Shakespeare, Heinrich von Kleist, or Friedrich Schiller. In the early 1920s, Jessner frequently outraged traditionalists who expected to hear familiar passages delivered in a familiar way, only to hear Kort-ner or Straub say things that were largely unintelligible. Scene design reflected the premium on distortion. Window frames and doorways narrowed upward, trees turned into skeletons, and shadows were painted on walls. Lighting was perhaps the most obvious use of the subjective viewpoint in Expressionism; spotlights often isolated characters in the throes of torment or transports of revelation. Lighting also served to provide abstract "stations" in plays which required them, such as Kaiser's From Morn to Midnight. The most intriguing use of Expressionist lighting took place in Jessner's 1919 production of Richard III; the blood-red light focused on Gloucester at the height of his power faded to a warm white glow by the time of his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field at the hands of Richmond.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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