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Editor: Ira Mark Milne
Date: 2009
Document Type: Topic overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Brief biography
Pages: 28
Content Level: (Level 5)

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About this Person
Born: July 03, 1883 in Prague, Austria-Hungary
Died: June 03, 1924 in Kierling, Austria
Nationality: Czechoslovak
Occupation: Writer
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c. 1900

Expressionism arose in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a response to bourgeois complacency and the increasing mechanization and urbanization of society. At their most popular between 1910 and 1925, just before and just after World War I, expressionist writers distorted objective features of the sensory world using Symbolism and dream-like elements in their works illustrating alienating and often emotionally overwhelmed sensibilities. Painters such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Edvard Munch helped to lay the foundation for Expressionism in their use of distorted figures and vibrant color schemes to depict raw and powerfully emotional states of mind. Munch's The Scream (1894), for example, a lithograph depicting a figure with a contorted face screaming in horror, epitomized the tone of much expressionist art. In literature, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche emphasized cultivating individual will-power and transcending conventional notions of reasoning and morality. His Thus Spake Zarathustra (1885), a philosophic prose poem about the "New Man," had a profound influence on expressionist thought. In France, symbolist poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire wrote visionary poems exploring dark and ecstatic emotional landscapes.

In Germany in the twentieth century, poets such as Georg Trakl and Gottfried Benn practiced what became known as Expressionism by abandoning meter, narrative, and conventional
Expressionism Page 254  |  Top of Articlesyntax, instead organizing their poems around symbolic imagery. In fiction, Franz Kafka embodied expressionist themes and styles in stories such as The Metamorphosis (1915), which tells of a traveling salesman who wakes to find himself transformed into a giant insect. Expressionist dramatists include Georg Kaiser, Frank Wedekind, Ernst Toller, and August Strindberg, often referred to as the "Father of Expressionism." Some critics claim Strindberg's play To Damascus (1902) is the first true expressionist drama; others argue that it is Reinhard Johannes Sorge's The Beggar, performed in 1917; and still others claim it is Oskar Kokoschka's Murderer, the Women's Hope, written in 1907. The discrepancy underscores the question as to whether a coherent literary movement called Expressionism with a common set of features ever really existed or whether it is more an attitude towards art and society. In the early 1930s, the Nazi regime, which considered the movement decadent, banned its practitioners from publishing their work or producing their plays.


Federico García Lorca (1898-1936)

Federico García Lorca was born June 5, 1898, in the Andalusian region of Spain to a wealthy family of landowners. As a young man, he became involved in the art scene of the city of Granada, publishing his first book in 1918. In 1919, García Lorca moved to Madrid where he immersed himself in the theater and began writing plays; however, his avant-garde work was not appreciated by audiences. Although he continued to write plays, García Lorca next focused on poetry. His most famous collection of verse is Gypsy Ballads (1928), which made him a literary success. García Lorca was homosexual and had many relationships with other men, most of them ending badly, which contributed to the young man's depression. From 1930 to 1936, García Lorca was director of a student theater company that toured rural Spain and performed classic works with modern interpretations. During this time, he wrote his expressionistic play, Blood Wedding (1933). Civil war broke out in Spain in July of 1936; García Lorca was arrested and shot by the Nationalist militia on August 19, 1936, for unknown reasons. Critic Denis Mac-Shane, like others, suspects it was for his leftist
August Strindberg August Strindberg(Painting by Richard Bergh. © Bettmann / Corbis) politics and homosexuality. His body was dumped in an unmarked grave.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Born on July 3, 1883, in Prague, Bohemia (later Czechoslovakia), Franz Kafka was an introverted, sickly, and shy boy who struggled to meet the expectations of a demanding father. After receiving a law degree in 1906, Kafka began writing in earnest, publishing his stories in the literary magazine of his good friend, Max Brod. Kafka died of tuberculosis on June 3, 1924, in Austria. Kafka had directed Brod to burn all of his manuscripts. Brod ignored Kafka's wish and, over the next few decades, edited and published all of the author's unfinished stories.

Like many of the expressionists, Kafka was influenced by Nietzsche and Strindberg. His writings, primarily novels and stories, depict an absurdist view of the world, which he describes in paradoxically lucid terms. In the use of symbols and types, his stories often resemble parables. Like Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of The Metamorphosis, Kafka's characters often find themselves in the midst of an incomprehensible world, consumed with guilt and alienated from Page 255  |  Top of Articlethose they love. The Trial, for example, a novel unfinished at the time of Kafka's death, concerns a bank clerk who is arrested but never told the charges. He futilely attempts to negotiate a Byzantine legal system to find the answer, but never does, and is finally killed "like a dog." In modern times, the term "Kafkaesque" is used as an adjective suggesting something possessing a complex, inscrutable, or bizarre quality.

Georg Kaiser (1878-1945)

Widely acknowledged as the leader of the expressionist movement in theater, Georg Kaiser was born November 25, 1878, in Magdeburg, Germany. Kaiser's father, an insurance agent, was frequently away on business, and his mother, who schooled her six children at home, raised Kaiser. Like many of the characters in his plays, Kaiser was a traveler, venturing to Argentina for a time and throughout Europe. As business did not temperamentally suit him, he had difficulty making a living. However, his family financed his travels until 1908, when he married the wealthy Margarethe Habenicht. In plays such as The Citizens of Calais (1917) and From Morn to Midnight (1917), Kaiser juxtaposed fantasy and reality, used rapidly shifting scenes, and gave his characters generic names to underscore their symbolic and universal significance. Kaiser's plays typically feature a questing protagonist who searches everywhere for meaning but finds none. These characters often commit suicide. Kaiser's famous trilogy of plays-Coral (1917), Gas I (1918), and Gas 2 (1920)-are as relevant in the early 2000s as they were in the 1920s in their indictment of mindless and mechanized labor and the selfishness of big business.

Kaiser's influence on the development of European drama cannot be overstated. Along with Strindberg and Toller, he changed the direction of twentieth-century drama by opening it to other dramatic possibilities. Critics consider Kaiser and Bertolt Brecht, who also used expressionist techniques, the two leading German playwrights of the twentieth century. Kaiser's plays were banned when the Nazis came to power in 1933. At the beginning of World War II, the writer fled to Switzerland, where he died of an embolism on June 4, 1945.

Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953)

Born in New York City on October 16, 1888, Eugene O'Neill spent the first years of his life traveling around the country with his family while his father performed. Family dysfunction became a staple theme of his plays and is a recurring theme of expressionist theater. O'Neill read Strindberg and Wedekind while recuperating from tuberculosis in 1912 and began writing plays incorporating expressionist techniques and style. Not only was O'Neill the first American to write expressionist plays, but he was the first American playwright to receive international acclaim for his work. Beyond the Horizon (1920), O'Neill's first full-length play, received the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1936 the literary community showed its approval by awarding O'Neill the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is the first American playwright to have won the award. Literary historians point to his 1920 play, The Emperor Jones as an example of American expressionist theater, as well as The Great God Brown (1926). In these plays, O'Neill uses ghosts, music, lighting, and stage sets to externalize the inner life of his characters. Other O'Neill plays include Desire under the Elms (1924), The Iceman Cometh (1939), and Long Day's Journey into Night (1939-1941). After a long illness, O'Neill died of pneumonia on November 27, 1953, in Boston, Massachusetts.

August Strindberg (1849-1912)

Often referred to by literary historians as the "Father of Expressionism," (Johan) August Strindberg was born January 22, 1849, in Stockholm, Sweden. His father, though well intentioned, was a strict disciplinarian whose expectations the writer labored under and rebelled against. Strindberg's lifelong difficulty with women both frustrated him and fueled his creative energies. Strindberg was opposed to the idea of a liberated woman, yet he was also attracted to women who refused to be limited to the role of mother and wife. This conflict contributed to three divorces and a string of failed romances. A novelist and essayist as well as a playwright, Strindberg had his first play produced when he was 21. However, for much of his life he struggled financially, working as a librarian, newsletter editor, tutor, and journalist. His controversial ideas often landed him in trouble, and in 1884 he was tried-yet acquitted-for blasphemy for stories he wrote that belittled women and criticized conventional religious practices. Toward the end of his life, Strindberg achieved critical as well as financial success, and his plays were performed throughout Europe. In 1912, he was awarded the "anti-Nobel Prize" in recognition for the way in which his writing challenged conventions and authority. He died in May of that year from stomach cancer.

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Strindberg's early plays, written in a naturalistic vein, address historical matters using realistic dialogue as the primary means of communication. He developed his expressionist style, which he referred to as "dreamplay," in his later work. In plays such as The Road to Damascus (1898-1904), The Dream Play (1901), and The Ghost Sonata (1907), Strindberg uses "types" instead of fully developed characters and incorporates visual elements and music into the action to symbolize humanity's unconscious desires. In his dream sequences, Strindberg frequently represents humanity's misery and search for meaning and redemption.

Georg Trakl (1887-1914)

Georg Trakl was born February 3, 1887, in Salz-burg, Austria, into the middle-class Austrian family of an artistic but emotionally unstable mother. Trakl developed emotional problems as an adolescent. His reading of gloomy writers such as Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Arthur Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Baudelaire only added to his despair, as did his liberal use of various opiates. Trakl wrote frequently but only began to publish regularly after he met Ludwig von Ficker, editor of the journal Der Brenner, who nurtured his talent and provided Trakl with a vehicle for his poetry. Trakl's emotional health deteriorated during World War I, when, as a dispensing chemist, he had to care for a large number of wounded men. Seeing the obscene wounds of soldiers and witnessing their unrelenting pain compounded Trakl's own misery, and he was hospitalized for depression. In Krakow, Poland, on November 3, 1914, Trakl overdosed on cocaine.

Trakl's poems use symbolic imagery and have a dream-like structure. He frequently strings images that on the surface appear unrelated, but on a deeper level are tonally coherent. In this way, his poems are close to musical compositions in their structure. Although they are frequently about decay, death, and despair, Trakl's poems such as "All Souls," "A Romance to Night," "Mankind," and "Trumpets" often embody a kind of spiritual longing, characteristic of much expressionist verse. American poet Robert Bly helped to renew interest in Trakl's poetry during the 1970s by translating his work and linking it with "deep image" poetry.

Frank Wedekind (1864-1918)

Born Benjamin Franklin Wedekind in Hanover, Germany, on July 24, 1864, Wedekind became one of the first playwrights in Germany to experiment with expressionist techniques. The son of a doctor and an actress, Wedekind studied law before dropping out of school to lead a bohemian life. Wedekind made his contempt of middle-class society evident in his plays, which attack hypocrisy and repressive sexual mores. In plays such as Pandora's Box (1904) and Spring's Awakening (1906), Wedekind graphically depicts themes of sexual repression in an effort to force audiences to change their behavior. He is perhaps best known for Lulu (1905), in which the protagonist, a femme fatale with a monstrous sexuality, is murdered by Jack the Ripper, a character based on the historical serial killer who terrorized London's streets at the end of the nineteenth century. Wedekind's didactic approach to theater includes using heavily stylized dialogue, bizarre characters and plots, and a loosely knit episodic structure to jar audiences out of their complacency. Bertolt Brecht praised his work and followed Wedekind's example in his own plays. Wedekind died of pneumonia in Munich, Germany, on March 9, 1918.


Blood Wedding

Blood Wedding premiered in 1933 and is the first in a trilogy of rural plays by García Lorca, which includes Yerma (1934) and The House of Bernarda Alba (1936). A Bride and Groom are preparing to be married even as their union stirs up old hurts and relationships. At the reception, the Bride rides off on horseback with an old lover. The Groom chases the two into the forest. When he finds them, the two men fight and kill each other, leaving the Bride alone and her white dress bloodied. García Lorca has also included hyper-realistic, expressionistic elements such as characters who personify the Moon and Death. Blood Wedding is one of García Lorca's best-known plays.

The Citizens of Calais

The Citizens of Calais catapulted Kaiser into the literary limelight virtually overnight in 1917. Opening just as World War I was coming to a close, the play spoke to the sense of sheer exhaustion felt by the German populace and carried the message of conciliation. For his plot, Kaiser drew on a famous incident that allegedly occurred

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  • The 2000 film Pollock, starring Ed Harris, is a portrait of artist Jackson Pollock, a leader of the abstract expressionist painters popular during the 1940s and 1950s. The film is based on the biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.
  • Mai Zetterling's 1981 documentary Stockholm presents a portrait of the Swedish city, its people, and their leaders. The film also includes a historical introduction to the works of Strindberg.
  • Actor Paul Robeson starred in the 1933 adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play The Emperor Jones.
  • The Norwegian Film Institute distributed director Unni Straume's film, Dreamplay,an adaptation of Strindberg's play of the same name.

in 1347 during the Hundred Years' War between England and France. Faced with the destruction of Calais, Eustache, a wealthy merchant, sacrifices himself by committing suicide in an attempt to convince others of the significance of free will and the need for courage. The play is important to expressionist thought for its depiction of the "Neuer Mensch" (New Man), a modern human being who salvages meaning from the world through taking responsibility for his actions and setting an example for others. Many of Kaiser's plays include a Christ-like protagonist who fits this "New Man" profile, and who would lead society into a new age of brotherhood through example.

A Dream Play

Strindberg's 1901 A Dream Play foreshadows many expressionist techniques and themes in its presentation of the unconscious. The plot concerns the daughter of an Indian god who adopts human form and discovers, through encounters
Frank Wedekind Frank Wedekind(© Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis-Bettmann) with symbolic characters, the meaninglessness of human existence. With the obvious exception that the protagonist is female, the action parallels the story of Christ's life. The play itself—presented in sixteen scenes that flash backward and forward in time—takes the form of a dream with symbols such as a growing castle, a chrysanthemum, and a shawl signifying aspects of the dreamer's life such as the imprisoned or struggling soul and the accumulation of human pain. The characters are also symbolic. Victoria, for example, represents the ideal, yet unattainable, woman. The play has become a staple of European theater and continued to be performed into the early 2000s.

The Emperor Jones

Eugene O'Neill wrote and staged The Emperor Jones in 1920. It was the first American play to use expressionist techniques and the most successful of O'Neill's early work. By using lights, sound, and sets, as well as actors' gestures, symbolically, O'Neill shows the audience his protagonist's psyche. As Brutus Jones, a black American who is tricked into becoming emperor of an island in the West Indies, runs through the jungle chased by rebellious natives, he has a series of encounters Page 258  |  Top of Articlethat symbolize not only events from his personal history but from his racial heritage as well. In this way, Jones is more a type representing all black men than a unique individual. The play ran for 204 performances and gave the playwright confidence to continue experimenting with expressionist techniques. Such experiments include the use of masks in The Great God Brown, with spoken thoughts in Strange Interlude (1928) and Dynamo (1929), and with a chorus in Lazarus Laughed (1928).

The Metamorphosis

Kafka's 1915 Metamorphosis is arguably the best known of his stories and novels and the most anthologized. The plot revolves around Gregor Samsa, a salesman who wakes up to discover he has turned into a giant insect. Samsa is locked in his room and ignored by his family until he dies. Critics point to Kafka's heavy-handed use of symbolism in the story, a primary feature of Expressionism, and some read Samsa's transformation as representative of Kafka's own feeling of inadequacy in relation to his overbearing father. Stylistically and thematically, the story speaks to the experience of many expressionist artists and writers, who sought to find ways to express their sense of alienation from society and family and their quest to find meaning in a meaningless world.


Poems, published in 1913, is the only volume Trakl published during his life. In the introduction to Autumn Sonata: Selected Poems of Georg Trakl, Carolyn Forche calls Trakl "the first poet of German Expressionism," and notes that Trakl, like fellow expressionists Karl Kraus, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, was intensely alienated from the order of German industrial society. Trakl's poems embody this alienation: they are fragments, nightmarish images of a world choked with chaos, and of a tenuous and battered self attempting to function in that world. The logic connecting the images is associative, rather than linear. These lines are from A Romance to Night:

    The murderer laughs until he grows pale in the wine,
    Horror of death consumes the afflicted.
    Naked and wounded, a nun prays
    Before the Savior's agony on the cross.

Critics debate Trakl's status as a Christian poet, but they came to pay more attention to his work than any other German expressionist poet. Studies such as Francis Michael Sharp's The Poet's Madness: A Reading of Georg Trakl (1981), Richard Detsch's Georg Trakl's Poetry: Toward a Union of Opposites (1983), and a number of subsequent translations of his poems attest to his growing influence on contemporary poetry and his importance to understanding Expressionism poetry.

Right You Are (If You Think You Are)

Pirandello's play Right You Are (If You Think You Are) was published in 1917 and is a short, expressionistic play about a family—a husband, wife, and the son's mother-in-law—that moves to a new town after their town is destroyed by an earthquake. The wife never leaves the house, which the husband and the mother-in-law explain with very different reasons. She says her daughter is distraught because her husband thinks she is someone else. The husband says the mother-inlaw is deluded and will not accept that her daughter is dead and he has remarried. Because the earthquake destroyed all evidence, there is no way to determine the truth. In this drama, Pirandello comments on the elusive nature of truth and the relationships within a family.

Spring's Awakening

Wedekind's Spring's Awakening, published in 1891 but not performed until 1906, explores the theme of adolescent sexuality in a distinctly modern and expressionistic manner. In nineteen episodic scenes, Wedekind presents the stories of a few teenagers as they struggle through sexual maturity because of the ignorance of their teachers and parents who themselves are sexually repressed. Wedekind's Expressionism is evident in his use of heavily stylized dialogue, which mixes lyrical and cutting irony with prosaic speech to create a seriocomic tone. He also has a character return from the dead, something that could not happen in naturalistic theater. A satirical indictment of the hypocrisy and prudery of middle-class German society, Wedekind's play was heavily censored, though it was also one of the playwright's most successful works.



The defining event of the expressionist movement is World War I. After the war, much expressionist

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  • After studying the expressionist paintings of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky, compose a poster in the expressionist style for Strindberg's A Dreamplay or O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. Present the poster to your class and describe its expressionist features.
  • With at least three other classmates, brainstorm a list of images for the following emotions and ideas: fear of death, journey of the soul, betrayal of a friend, unrequited love, rebelling against authority. What differences do you notice between your images and those of your classmates? Write a short essay accounting for these differences.
  • Research German expressionist director Fritz Lang's movies M and Metropolis, and present your research to the class. Then show one of the movies and hold a discussion of whether or not Expressionism is successful as an approach for film.
  • Edvard Munch's lithograph The Scream is often cited as being one of the earliest and most representative of expressionist paintings. It is also one of the most heavily marketed images of the twentieth century. Write a short essay explaining why this is so.
  • Read Citizens of Calais by Georg Kaiser, poems from Georg Trakl's collection Poems, and Kafka's story The Hunger Artist,and then compose a list of what is similar about all of these works.

writing portrayed the attempt to forge a new future for Germany. Writing from this time champions the birth of the "New Man," the "new vision," and the "new society." Toller's play The Transformation typifies one strain of early post-war expressionist drama, as it shows how one man's spiritual renewal is linked to his country's regeneration. Written as a stationendrama, The Transformation follows the central character's spiritual progress through a series of episodes, connected only through the character's experience. The protagonist, Friedrich, a young Jewish sculptor, transforms himself from an alienated and wandering artist into a friend of the proletariat who finally finds a cause to believe in and die for. At the end of the play, Friedrich implores the masses to create a society based upon compassion and justice, and to throw off the yoke of capitalist oppression.

Human Condition

Expressionist literature is defined by protagonists and speakers who passionately seek meaning in their lives. They often discover that the life they have been living is a sham, and through a sign or circumstance, or dint of sheer will, attempt to change their lot. Kaiser's dramas, for example, feature protagonists who struggle to make difficult choices in recapturing a sense of authenticity. His play The Burghers of Calais, for example, details the action of a central character that kills himself so that fellow townspeople might survive. Another Kaiser play, From Morn till Midnight (1917), also concerns a protagonist who seeks regeneration through martyrdom. In much expressionist literature, it is the journey, rather than the goal, which is most important.


Part of the expressionist drive to represent truth involved tackling what expressionists saw as the hypocrisy of society's attitude towards sex and sexuality. Strindberg, Reinhard, and especially Wedekind all explicitly addressed the ways in which society sapped humanity's life force by either ignoring or repressing the sexual drive. More than any other expressionist, Wedekind, who derived many of his ideas from Strindberg and Nietzsche, attacked bourgeois morality in his dramas. In Spring's Awakening, he represents institutions such as the German school system as agents of deceit and mindless evil in their attempts to keep students ignorant of their own sexuality. His "Lulu" plays glorify sexuality, as his main character asserts her desire to live passionately. Perhaps no other expressionist writer embraces Nietzsche's call for humanity to embrace life and energy in all of its animalism.

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Before World War I, the alienation portrayed in expressionist literature was often related to the family and society in more general, some might say adolescent, ways. After the war, alienation was more directly related to the state. For example, Kafka's protagonists, such as Gregor Samsa, are ostracized by their families because they do not conform to familial expectations. Most expressionist writers came from middle-class families who embodied the very hypocrisy they sought to expose in their writing. Later dramatists such as Kaiser and Toller wrote about the alienation experienced by workers. Kaiser's Gas trilogy graphically depicts the injustice of Wilhelmian capitalism towards the working class, underscoring the inherent corruptness of a system in which owners are pitted against employees, who have no claim to the things they produce. Director Fritz Lang adapted the trilogy into his popular 1927 film, Metropolis, underscoring the inhumanity of a society that lets technology grow unchecked.



For expressionists, abstraction is the distillation of reality into its essence. Expressionists are not interested in presenting the world as human beings might see it or apprehend it through any of the senses, but rather as they emotionally and psychologically experience it. In drama, abstraction means that a play is conceptual rather than concrete, and it means that plots and characters are frequently symbolic and allegorical. For instance, a character might simply be called "Father," as in Strindberg's play The Father, or "Cashier," rather than, say, Mrs. Jones, as in a realistic play. The idea is to show the universality of human experience rather than its particularity. In poetry, writers such as Trakl attempt to represent the psychological depth and texture of the human experience through a series of fragmented and disjointed symbolic images, rather than relying on narrative or a speaker with a coherent identity.


Monologues are speeches by a single person, and they are especially prevalent in expressionist theater. Partly, this is due to the didactic nature of much expressionist theater, and partly it is because Expressionism often champions the individual and his vision of the world. When characters speak to themselves, which they often do in expressionist plays, the monologues are called soliloquies. Strindberg, Kaiser, and Toller all made extensive use of monologues and soliloquies in their plays.


Many expressionists had the idea that art could not be separated into categories such as plays, poetry, or fiction. Instead, they experimented with mixing genres. Plays often contained dance, music, and sets that resembled art galleries, and characters would periodically launch into verse. Expressionists such as Wassily Kandinsky, a painter, poet, and dramatist, practiced this form of "total art" in productions such as The Yellow Sound, in which he uses color, music, and characters with names such as "Five Giants," "Indistinct Creatures," and "People in Tights" to abstractly represent the human condition.


Abstract Expressionism

With its roots in the expressionist movement of the early part of the century, abstract expressionism, also known as the "New York school," was developed in New York City and Eastern Long Island in the mid-1940s. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, and others focused on the materiality of painting, often using oversized canvases, incorporating accidents that occurred during composition into the painting, and experimenting with color and space to express the painter's vision. One of the most controversial of the group, Pollock, would lay down huge canvasses, and then drip, throw, and splash paint on it, often using sticks and trowels instead of brushes. The resulting "painting," sometimes a mixture of paint, sand, and glass, embodied the artist's own turbulent creative processes. Because abstract expressionist art was nonrepresentational and because the subject of many of the compositions was the making of the work itself, a large part of the public did not take it seriously at first. However, critics such as Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, who coined the term "Action Painting," worked hard to popularize it. Robert Coates was the first to use Page 261  |  Top of Articlethe term "abstract expressionism," in the New Yorker in 1936.


Expressionist techniques were used extensively in film in the 1920s, as German directors such as F. W. Murnau, G. W. Pabst, and Robert Wiene adapted techniques from art and theater for the wide screen. The first truly expressionist film is Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), which used exaggerated camera angles, painted scenery, and the lighting of individual actors to create a nightmarish atmosphere. Film historians also consider The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to be the first horror film. In the 1940s, directors such as Billy Wilder, Michael Curtiz, and Otto Preminger used the bizarre perspectives and lighting techniques of expressionist film to create what some critics claim is a distinctly American style: film noir. Films such as Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) feature cynical, disillusioned male protagonists stuck battling an existential crisis while searching for the answer to some inscrutable or ill-defined problem, usually concerning a dangerously sexy woman. Many of the noir screenplays from the 1940s are derived from the hard-boiled detective novels of writers such as James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. Film noir is filmed in black-and-white and characterized by gritty urban settings, witty banter, flashbacks, and voice-overs. They do not end happily.

Early Twentieth-Century Painting

Expressionist painting, like literary Expressionism, sought to depict emotional and psychological intensity and, like its literary cousin, formed a response to Realism. One group of expression-ists was the Fauves (i.e., wild beasts), represented best by Frenchmen Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault. Like many expressionists, these two were inspired by the painterly innovations of van Gogh and Gauguin, particularly their liberal use of bold colors and distorted shapes to signify raw emotion. Matisse arranged line and color to express the essence of subjects, and is known more for what he leaves out of his paintings than what he puts in. Rouault used violent brush strokes in his portraits of noble figures like Christ to reveal his own inner passion. In Dresden, Germany, a group of artists calling themselves "The Bridge" (Die Brücke) practiced a darker style of Expressionism. They drew inspiration from van Gogh and Gauguin as well, but also from Munch, the Norwegian painter famous for his 1894 lithograph, The Scream. Painters including Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, and Kokoschka put brush to canvas to explore a passionate, yet often angst-ridden view of the world and themselves. They often painted street scenes of Berlin, emphasizing the hostile, alienating quality of modern urban life. In Munich, "The Blue Rider" (Der Blaue Reiter), a group of artists headed by the Russian, Kandinsky, practiced an even more abstract style of Expressionism. Kandinsky and fellow "rider" Franz Marc abandoned all pretenses toward objectivity, composing pictures purely of line and color, with no resemblance to the physical world. Marc's color symbolism and Kandinsky's geometric abstraction were attempts to embody the spiritual dimension of humanity, itself an unseen entity.


Pre-World War I Germany

Expressionism blossomed in Germany in the early part of the twentieth century during the reign of William II. Germany was a relatively prosperous country under Wilhelm, with an established middle class, and it is the very complacency of this middle class, its order, efficiency, and obsession with social conventions, against which many writers and artists rebelled. In particular, expressionists saw hypocrisy in German society's repressive and repressed attitudes towards sex and the simultaneous popularity of prostitution. In Literary Life in German Expressionism and the Berlin Circles, literary historian Roy Allen notes, "The flourishing of prostitution in the Wilhelminian era, as the expressionist viewed it, most sharply gave the lie to the effectiveness of the Wilhelminian approach to morality, particularly to sexual conduct." Wedekind's plays underscore this hypocrisy. In Spring's Awakening, for example, he singles out German schools for their part in keeping children ignorant about their own bodies and sexuality. Sigmund Freud's theories on infantile sexuality and the unconscious during this time had a profound effect on expressionist thinking. In 1900, Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, followed in 1901 by The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and in

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  • 1910-1920: Largely as a result of the introduction of new weapons such as tanks, poison gas, and airplanes, more than ten million people die in World War I, creating an atmosphere of pervasive disillusionment and despair.

    Today: Technological advances make it easier for countries and individuals to develop nuclear and biological weapons, increasing the potential for worldwide catastrophe.

  • 1910-1920: In Russia, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, seize power and proclaim Russia a Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.

    Today: Having largely abandoned communism, Russia makes steps towards a full-fledged democracy and market economy.

  • 1910-1920: Expressionist literature, drama, and art dominate the avant-garde in Europe, shocking audiences and viewers in its departure from Realism.

    Today: The capacity of art and literature to shock is largely gone, and no one movement or approach dominates. Instead of shock, readers and viewers often feel boredom in response to artists' and writers' experimentations.

1905 by Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. For expressionists, the sexual instinct provided humanity with its drive and creative force. A society that stifles that drive by either ignoring it or demonizing it, produces citizens who could never wholly be themselves.

However, most expressionists during this time were not political activists, at least not in any substantial way. Instead of taking to the streets, as revolutionaries were doing in Russia, they met in coffee houses and cafes in Berlin and Munich and published their work in journals they often started themselves, after established presses rejected their writing. Herwarth Walden of Der Sturm and Franz Pfemfert of Die Aktion were two editors who left big publishing houses to start their own magazines dedicated to expressionist writings. Allen characterizes those who were part of the cafe circle of writers and artists as a historical type: "In many respects, the expression-ists in these circles exhibit features commonly associated with the bohemian artist as he has appeared in societies dominated by the middle class in the last approximate century and a half."

War Years and After

For many Germans, the start of World War I was a surprise. Some were quickly politicized and voiced their opposition to the war, some fled to Switzerland, and others joined the military and died in battle. Many journals ceased publishing altogether, as military authorities began censoring them for antiwar sentiment. The publication of new journals was banned, without the permission of military authorities. Antiwar or anti-establishment plays were also routinely banned, but at least one director and theater manager, Max Reinhardt, circumvented public censorship by producing "invitation only" plays. After the war, while Germans struggled for direction and purpose, many expressionists joined the Communist Party and fought for the Revolution. They poured back into the cafes, with a new sense of urgency, their art now wedded to a political ideal. Kaiser, Toller, and Carl Sternheim produced plays espousing pacifism and universal brotherhood, while various political factions fought for control of the government. Toller's play The Transformation, produced in 1919, captures the spirit of postwar enthusiasm for new beginnings, as does A Man's Struggles, written while Toller was imprisoned during the last two years of the war. The former features Friedrich, an example of expressionist drama's "New Man"—a Christlike figure with none of the baggage of being Page 263  |  Top of Article
Egon Schieles expressionist style Self-Portrait with Black Clay Vase and Spread Fingers Egon Schiele's expressionist style Self-Portrait with Black Clay Vase and Spread Fingers(Imagno / Hulton Archive / Getty Images) God—who undergoes a series of nightmarish trials and tribulations only to overcome them in the end and lead the masses into a new and glorious future.


Critics and literary historians do not agree on what constitutes literary Expressionism, or even if it was a movement. For example, in his book Expressionism, R. S. Furness acknowledges the attempts others have made to trace the origin of the movement back to the eighteenth century's Sturm and Drang but claims, "It can also be argued that Expressionism is simply the name given to that form which modernism took in Germany." Roy Allen calls the problem faced by literary historians in trying to define literary Expressionism a "bugbear." Other critics and literary historians are more confident in their assessment. Ernst Toller, who is considered one of the leading postwar expressionist playwrights, writes of the movement, as embodied in drama: "Expressionism wanted to be a product of the time and react to it. And that much it certainly succeeded in doing." Mark Ritter points out, in "The Unfinished Legacy of Early Expressionist Poetry," that early literary Expressionism is particularly difficult to pin down and agrees with Allen that perhaps, "One does much better to conceive of early Expressionism as a number of loosely connected circles, primarily in Berlin." In German Expressionist Drama, literary historian Renate Benson argues that Expressionism originally emerged in the fine arts, initiated by the Paris exhibition of Fauvist painters and that literary Expressionism followed. Benson laments the fact that Page 264  |  Top of Articlethe Nazis banned expressionist drama when Hitler came to power: "It is a tragic irony . . . that young German audiences after 1945 only became acquainted with Expressionism through the works of foreign writers . . . who themselves had been so powerfully influenced by German Expressionists." John Walker extends Expressionism's reach to include the American detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, arguing that his noir, expressionistic novels were influenced by the urban expressionism of Bertolt Brecht's Jungle of Cities.


Chris Semansky

Semansky holds a Ph.D. in English from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and he is an instructor of literature and writing whose essays, poems, stories, and reviews appear in publications such as College English, Mississippi Review, New York Tribune, The Oregonian, and American Letters & Commentary. His books include Death, But at a Good Price (1991) and Blindsided (1998). In this essay, Semansky explores the idea of Expressionism as a literary movement.

Critics struggle over whether or not there ever was a coherent expressionist movement, or if it is merely a label of convenience for literary historians seeking to characterize a wide range of writing practices in Western Europe in the early twentieth century. What can be said is that Expressionism was both part of a larger set of practices and attitudes that come under the umbrella of Modernism, and that it was a response to realistic modes of representation.

Modernism, as it applies to literature, is a term broadly used to denote certain features of form, style, and subject matter in writing in the early decades of the twentieth century. Thinkers influential to modernist literature include Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Karl Marx, all of who challenged status quo ideas about the nature of humanity, morality, society, and writing itself. World War I furthered the adoption of Modernism, as writers such as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot experimented with stream of consciousness, fragmentation, and other nonlinear modes of narration to represent a world whose foundations had been shaken to its roots.

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  • Siegfried Kracauer's study of early German film (1910-1940), From Caligari to Hitler, provides insight into Expressionism's influence on German cinema.
  • Giles MacDonogh's 2001 biography, The Last Kaiser: The Life of Wilhelm II, tackles three important issues in the ruler's life: his personality, his relationship with his parents, and his role in the outbreak of World War I. Wilhelm II ruled Germany during the peak of Expressionism.
  • Bernard S. Myers's book The German Expressionists: A Generation in Revolt (1957) surveys expressionist painters and painting in the 1920s and 1930s.
  • Roy Pascal's study From Naturalism to Expressionism: German Literature and Society, published in 1973, traces the roots of Expressionism to the late nineteenth century, examining its relationship to Naturalism and Realism.
  • In 1986, Christopher Waller published Expressionist Poetry and Its Critics, a study of how writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, and Robert Musil would critically approach representative expressionist poets.
  • Ulrich Weisstein's essay "German Literary Expressionism: An Anatomy," in the May 1981 issue of German Quarterly, explores how difficult it is to find common features for works that are often lumped under the category "German Literary Expressionism."

Expressionism undoubtedly was a part of Modernism, but was it a movement?

In his study of Expressionism in Berlin, Roy Allen defines the idea of a "literary movement" as "the concerted activities of an organized group or group of individuals work[ing] or tend[ing] towards some goal in behalf

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of . . . literature." Allen historicizes Expressionism by focusing on those writers who regularly met in cafes in Berlin and published one another's work. However helpful this definition might be for the historian interested in the details of small communities of writers with plans to change the order of things, it is of little use to the student trying to grasp the larger context from which Expressionism springs. Understanding the mind of the writer, as well as stylistic features and themes of what is commonly referred to as Expressionism, provides a more helpful introduction to the phenomenon.

Most critics, historians, and literature handbooks note Expressionism's response to Realism as a mode of representation. In literature, Realism refers to a historical period and a particular approach to writing. As practiced by novelists in the nineteenth century, Realism referred to descriptive writing that was plausible and that represented the ordinary in familiar ways. It attempted to reproduce the world as it was seen. Readers could believe what they read because their own experience confirmed that such stories could, in fact, happen. Instead of some far-flung romantic plot about exotic people in distant places, the realist writer focused on the everyday, describing the mundane and the local. Realists used language as a mirror held up to the world, and were interested in portraying the "thingness" of life. The more "realist" the description, the more it matched the experience of the reader. Wilhelm Raabe, for example, a German Realist writer, described the everyday life of Berliners in his 1857 novel.

Expressionists responded to Realistic writing and art not only because it embodied what for them was a life-denying way of being in the world, but because they believed that the Realists, in attempting to portray truth, in fact were perverting it. The society that Realists portrayed in all of its middle-class frumpiness and injustices was the same one that expressionists believed was sapping their very lifeblood. Austrian author Hermann Bahr sums up the expressionist attitude best in his 1916 study, Expressionismus: "Man screams from the depths of his soul, the whole age becomes one single, piercing shriek. Art screams too, into the deep darkness, screams for help, for the spirit. That is expressionism." The scream, then, a response to the sudden recognition that the self is at root alone and without intrinsic meaning, is the defining image of Expressionism. In this way, expressionist writers anticipated the Existentialists who came to dominate the literary establishment after World War II.

By its nature, a scream distorts the face, denaturalizes it. A quick look at Munch's 1894 lithograph by the same name will attest to this. This is what the expressionists desired—to show the horror of everyday life, not its ordinariness. Poets such as Georg Heym and Jakob van Hoddis displayed this horror in their apocalyptic visions. The latter's poem, End of the World provides one early example of expressionist verse:

    The bourgeois' hat flies off his pointed head,
    the air reechoes with a screaming sound.
    Tilers plunge from roofs and hit the ground,
    and seas are rising round the coast (you read).
    The storm is here, crushed dams no longer hold,
    the savage seas come inland with a hop.
    The greater part of a people have a cold.
    Off bridges everywhere the railroads drop.

Juxtaposing mundane statements such as "The greater part of people have a cold" with sensational images of trains dropping from bridges is a feature of much expressionist poetry, as is associative logic in general, but these features do not cut across all expressionist verse. Another side of literary Expressionism is its revolutionary strivings. Apart from all the doom and gloom, many writers, especially after World War I, worked for social change. Expressionist chronicler Walter H. Sokel points out the difficulty of this endeavor in his study The Writer in Extremis: "German Expressionism sought to be two things in one: a revolution of poetic form and vision, and a reformation of human life. These two aims were hardly compatible." Sokel notes that by eschewing Realism as the stylistic base of their idealism, expressionist writers were not able to wed their desires for Page 266  |  Top of Article
Paul Robeson as Brutus Jones from the film The Emperor Jones, written by Eugene ONeill Paul Robeson as Brutus Jones from the film The Emperor Jones, written by Eugene O'Neill(© Underwood & Underwood / Corbis) social change with their penchant for artistic experimentation. In other words, by limiting the accessibility of their work to the initiated and the educated, they also limited their potential influence. Some, like Franz Werfel, a Czech, and Hanns Johst adapted. Sokel writes of this group:

What all of them gained was success in personal terms, a mass audience, the triumph of personal integration and power in the world. What they lost was success in aesthetic terms— the permanence and long-range effectiveness of their works.

In an essay for Victor Miesel's Voices of German Expressionism, Gottfried Benn, a leading expressionist writer, goes as far as to call Expressionism "a new form of historical existence" that was European at root, not German. Benn notes that between the years 1910-25 in Europe, "There was hardly another style except an anti-naturalistic style." Ulrich Weisstein, in exploring whether Expressionism is a style or a view of the world, points out that the word "Expressionism" was first used by French painter Julien-Auguste Hervé in 1901 to Page 267  |  Top of Articledistinguish the work of Matisse and other painters from their impressionist predecessors, but did not find general acceptance until 1911 when art critics began to use it more liberally to describe Fauvist paintings. It was not until 1915 or so that the term was even used in reference to literature. Underscoring Expressionism's broader philosophical claims, Weisstein writes:

Luckily . . . [Expressionism's] socio-political aspect can be subsumed under the term Activism. If, excluding this aspect, one defines the term broadly enough to include man's attitude toward himself, his fellow beings and the world at large, one can defend the use of Weltanschauung [i.e., worldview] in the sense of a sharp rejection of previously embraced views on the part of an entire generation.

Considered in this light, Expressionism could be seen as a generational conflict born out of younger artists' disgust with the inadequacies—aesthetic, political, and social—of the previous generation. Combined with the desire not to reproduce the world, but to capture its essence in all of its chaos and rage, the expressionist literary movement was not limited to Germany. Rather, it spread across Europe and the United States, where writers held similar attitudes and were engaged in like literary enterprises. This is more true for poetry and fiction, less so for drama.

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on Expressionism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

John Walker

In this essay, Walker argues that jungle like cityscapes, which objectify the humanity of characters placed in such settings, resonate with and draw from expressionist literature. The author compares expressionism and noir fiction.

The subject of expressionism, that tortured mutilation of congealed panic and anxiety, emanates its strongest contours when cast against the background of the modern urban landscape. The noisy and unpredictable machinery of the metropolis confronts the subject as an alien force that continuously threatens any vestige of individual autonomy. The harsh juxtaposition of wounded subjectivity with the chaos of commerce, the cacophony of technologies, and the utterly inhuman industrial backgrounds exhibits the dissolution of social community into scattered and disconnected fragments. In the midst of the most developed concentration of the

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forces of technological achievement and civilized social organization, the isolated and alienated character of the modern subject comes most prominently to the surface.

The urban zone of expressionism is a monolithic entity that antagonizes and annihilates the isolated energies of the subject. Walter Benjamin refers to "the impenetrable obscurity of mass existence" (Baudelaire 64) in which the individual is dissolved into the mob. The city itself figures as the anthropomorphic subject of many modernist endeavors, from Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Alexander Döblin's quasi-expressionist Berlin Alexanderplatz, which depicts a protagonist entirely constructed from the assembled rhythms, ideologies, and fragments of information imposed on subjectivity by the monolith metropolis. In the cityscapes of George Grosz and Otto Dix, the geography of the city resembles the infernal regions of Hieronymous Bosch, where each individual is consigned to a particular torment and compelled to replicate mechanically a specific and pointless task in utter isolation from the swarming multitudes on all sides.

Modern literatures unite the paradoxical vision of the urban landscape as technological anti-utopia with the metaphor of the primeval jungle. Metropolitan technologies contribute to an atmosphere of noise, light, and sudden violence whose obscure origins and unpredictable concatenations conjure visions of jungle environments. The arbitrary violence and apparent lawlessness of city life create an atmosphere of anarchy that recalls social configurations of tribal warfare. Economic imperatives that set individuals in hostile competition replicate Page 268  |  Top of Articleprimeval conditions where survival is based on a straggle against all others.

The conflation of city and jungle corresponds to a similar conflation of machine and animal. The total mechanization of activity and the subsequent death of inner life experienced by the subject of modern labor is represented by analogies to inanimate mechanical processes or to the unreflective instinctual violence of the savage beast. The absence of civilized responses of sympathy and social conscience, made obsolete by market imperatives of total competition, engender a sense of identity with the amoral extravagances of the animal kingdom.

American gangster and detective literatures fully incorporate the urban mythos of expressionism; the noir genre is based on the exploration of the underside and the unconscious of the city and its geography. Noir film and the detective story of the 1920s and 30s do not merely adopt the landscape of the expressionist scene, but further assimilate and develop expressionist atmospheres, techniques, and theoretical orientations. These genres intersect most prominently in films like Fritz Lang's M and the works of German emigrant Otto Preminger. The expressionist resonances in Dashiell Hammett's work are so pronounced that direct citations from the movement can be clearly identified.

The urban jungle mythos that serves as the background for expressionism and noir is elaborated in Bertolt Brecht's Jungle of Cities, composed in 1924. Brecht constructs a gigantic Chicago of mythic proportions, a metaphysical projection of Chicago in its distorted and trans-figured essence in which the audience is instructed to concentrate on the expressionist agon: "concern yourself with the human element, evaluate the antagonists' fighting spirit impartially and concentrate your interest on the showdown."

While Brecht was careful to distance himself theoretically from expressionism, the aesthetic resonances of the movement abound in his work. Jungle of Cities dramatizes a vast retinue of expressionist styles and techniques: Hyper-bole, distortion, caricature, and mechanization all modulate characteristic expressionist themes of domestic conflict and a revolt against reification and economic determination.

Brecht utilizes the telegraphic fragments of speech and compacted phrases of expressionist dialogue. His protagonist, in the midst of conflict and apropos of nothing, suddenly gazes idly out the window and intones, "Ninety-four degrees in the shade. Traffic, noise from the Milwaukee bridge. A morning, like any other." The Salvation Army Officer recites an inventory of commodities as if a section from a menu had been cut out and pasted into the dialogue: "Cherry Flip, Cherry Brandy, Gin Fizz, Whiskey Sour, Golden Slipper, Manhattan Cocktail . . . and, the specialty of this bar: Eggnog. This alone consists of the following . . . " These montaged fragments of discourse are mixed with blunt colloquialisms punctuated by extended lyrical monologues.

Brecht's arrangements of scenes recall the stationendrama model of expressionist theater. Certain scenes are arranged as a series of vignettes from isolated stage areas where self-sufficient minidramas or parables are enacted. Scene 5 alternates between the separate dramas going on in a bedroom, a hallway, and a saloon. These seemingly arbitrary arrangements undermine conventional aesthetic models of harmonious transition and organic totality, and instead exhibit an organizational principle based on mechanization and dissonance.

The pronounced mechanization of character and discourse is exemplified by the sudden appearance and staccato monologue of The Man in scene 8:

I've got three minutes to give you some information, and you've got two minutes to act on it. This is it: half an hour ago, Police Headquarters received a letter from one of the state prisons. It is signed by a certain George Garga, and he incriminates you on several counts. The patrol wagon will be here in five minutes. You owe me a thousand bucks.

He is paid and immediately disappears in the manner of an automaton. He comes from nowhere and vanishes into nowhere. His totally disinterested attitude, his prefabricated speech and its precise price tag testify to the administrative zeal and bureaucratic efficiency that not only dictate business affairs and legal relations but thoroughly permeate the consciousness and experience of the economic subject in the modern urban environment.

This expressionist trademark of objectification of character by function can be seen in the list of cast members, which includes The Worm, The Baboon, and The Snubnose. These characters are the magnified perversion of their economic functions; the mutilations imposed on the Page 269  |  Top of Articlepersonality are externalized and projected in the form of caricature.

Expressionist distortions of nature or the urban landscape are precipitated by the projection of wounded subjectivity onto the external world. The assault of urban conditions on the senses of the individual is often characterized by the experience of claustrophobia. Hence Marie complains of the intrusive pressure of the sky against her body. On the shores of Lake Michigan, the only scene outside of the city in the drama, she fails to experience a sense of comfort from the pastoral scene, and instead observes, "Those trees—they look as if they were covered with human shit. . . . And the sky's so close you could touch it, and what do I care for it." Her projected anxiety transforms her environment into a sinister and oppressive monstrosity.

The antagonist Shlink embodies the fully dehumanized being. From poor migrant beginnings, he rose to the position of owner of a timber industry, and the economic exploitations entailed in that rise have reduced him to an empty and dehumanized replicant. He explains, "don't expect any words out of my mouth. All I have in my mouth is teeth." His lack of words testifies to the absence of any modicum of humanity capable of expression; there is nothing left of him but material. Shlink's understanding of his condition is based on a corporealization of interiority: He projects his inner state onto his skin and thereby recognizes it as part of his own displaced body. He explains to Marie:

my body's gone numb, it affects even my skin. You know, in its natural state human skin is too thin for this world. So men take care to see it grows thicker. There would be nothing wrong with the method, if only you could stop it from growing.

The dehumanization necessitated by economic objectification colonizes all other spheres of personal life as well, and the doomed attempt to mediate between objectifying economic activity and human emotional relations reconfigures subjectivity as a form of schizophrenia.

Shlink tells Marie about his skin to explain why he is incapable of love. He has no emotional surplus to give her, and the only value she can have for him is market value. Her exclamation "They're selling me!" demonstrates the painful awareness of her own objectification in a capitalist economy where prostitution is universalized and desire is bought and sold on the market. Her only consolation for this awareness is in a masochistic identification with her commodity function as prostitute, and she thereby demands to be paid for love from Shlink.

The stake wagered on the metaphysical battle of Shlink and Garga is whether or not there is any way out of reification. When Garga refuses to sell his opinion in the opening scene, he affirms that there is some sphere of his existence that remains self-determined and is therefore not for sale. Shlink's response that "Your opinion is immaterial too—except that I want to buy it" refutes the prospect of a sphere of existence that is not reducible to quantifiable exchange value.

As Shlink demonstrates the power of his position by buying off Garga's family, mistress, and job, Garga revolts by stripping off his clothes and running amok. This archetypically expressionistic response to moral conflict is reminiscent of the Cashier in From Morning to Midnight, who performs a similar flight from signifying systems. Intoxicated by the heat of conflict and the suspense of his sudden catastrophic awakening, Garga quotes Rimbaud and raves expressionistically: "And that—is freedom....I have no knowledge of metaphysics, I do not understand the laws, I have no moral sense, I am an animal." He equates his freedom with the abolition of his inherited civilization and a renewed identification with the primeval beast. He responds to the challenge of urban economic demands by abandoning morality and culture, and reverting to animal instincts. Karl Marx refers to the alienation of labor as a process whereby "What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal." Garga embodies this transposition through a reversion to the uninhibited instinctual activity of the wild beast.

Shlink circumvents this strategy by converting Garga into an exploiter and thus reintegrating him into economic determinations. In order to wage conflict, Garga must objectify himself; as an object he in turn objectifies others and thereby enters into complicity with cycles of reification. Confronted with the apparent ubiquity of these cycles, he expresses his awareness to his mother in terms that do not permit a satisfactory resolution:

We aren't free. It starts with coffee in the morning, and blows for being such a bad monkey, and mother's tears are salt to season the children's meal: and she washes their little shirts in Page 270  |  Top of Articleher sweat, and you are all taken care of and safe, safe, until the Ice Age comes, while the root grows right through your heart. And when he's grown up, and wants to do something, wants to go the whole hog, what does he find out? He'll find he's already been consecrated, paid for, stamped and sold at a good price, so he isn't even free to go and drown himself!

Family life and the maternal relation, ideologically conceived as zones of refuge from economic determinations, are here represented as thoroughly permeated by the paralyzing processes of reification. Even suicide is figured as a prefabricated gesture already inscribed within these ubiquitous cycles.

Yet human beings cannot be entirely obliterated: The individual retains a ghost of vanquished humanity even in urban environments of totalizing objectification. The Salvation Army Officer's lament—"People are too durable, that's their main trouble....they last too long"—is confirmed by his failure to die even after shooting himself in the head. These remnants of humanity, distorted beyond recognition by economic dehumanization, come to the surface and reemerge in immeasurably disfigured forms: Love and affection are thereby transformed into sadism and masochism. This is the psychological mechanism implied by the frontier code that motivates the love/hate ambivalence in Shlink and Garga's relations. The objective impossibility of benevolent human contact in an atmosphere of total alienation compels them to seek contact through hatred, conflict, and antagonism.

The tableau for the staging of their final showdown is in the gravel pits on the edge of town. The industrial wasteland thus replaces the prairie as the site for the isolated male confrontation in the new world. Shlink concedes the inevitable stalemate of their attempt at engagement by emphasizing the impossibility of transversing the utter isolation that separates human beings:

I've been watching animals: and love, or the warmth given off by bodies moving in close to each other, that is the only mercy shown to us in the darkness. But the coupling of organs is all, it doesn't make up for the divisions caused by speech. . . . And the generations stare coldly into each other's eyes. If you cram a ship's hold full of human bodies, so it almost bursts—there will be such loneliness in that ship that they'll all freeze to death.

Spatial proximity is described as a condition that paradoxically increases spiritual separation, and the metaphor of the ship's hold suggests an analogy to the claustrophobic conditions of modern urban arrangements. Shlink proceeds to invoke the vision of the primeval jungle as a utopian counterpart to the emotional death of the subject of civilization: "The forest! That's where mankind comes from, from right here. Hairy, with ape's mouths, good animals who knew how to live. It was all so easy. They just tore each other to pieces." Far from the cheerful pastoral utopias of harmony with nature envisioned by the Enlightenment, Shlink projects a utopia of anarchic and bestial violence. Characteristic of expressionist reverie, the deepest desire of wounded subjectivity is found in atavistic frenzies of destruction; existence is validated exclusively by moments of highest passion and fiercest energy.

The detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett reproduces the model of human relations exhibited in expressionist drama and developed in Brecht's Jungle: The antagonists are stripped of individual characteristics and reduced to a deformed though imperishable human essence. Against the backdrop of a bleak and brutal chaos ruled by utterly immoral forces, they face each other in their respective moral isolation, locked in deadly opposition.

The urban zone of the crime novel appropriates the jungle metaphor of the expressionist metropolis by representing the modern city as an arena of anarchic violence where individuals are set against each other in hostile conflict. George Grella observes that "the gangster novel (like many American detective stories) seems a kind of urban pastoral." The gangster novel functions as a meditation on the landscape of the modern city.

The mythic vision of the American landscape, both urban and rural, has always held a great fascination for European projections of absolute alienation and moral solitude. Brecht and Kafka, among many others, utilized this mythic territory as the background for their modernist fictions. André Gide remarks that "the American cities and countryside must offer a foretaste of hell" (qtd. in Madden xxvi). In the proportions of mythic America, one confronts the realities of Europe by gazing on them in magnified form. Hammett's work performs this same optical demonstration for the natives: By defamiliarizing conditions that have become ideologically obscured by Page 271  |  Top of Articleprocesses of habituation, the horror of those conditions is made manifest.

Hammett's Red Harvest presents the modern city as a zone of tribal warfare where legally justified structures of authority cannot be distinguished from illegal hierarchies of gang rule. These anarchic conditions are indicated as the direct result of the antagonistic competition imposed on social relations by capitalist economies. The protagonist's client, Elihu Willsson, has exercised the iron rule of capital over the town for 40 years as baron of the banks and newspapers. This perfect collusion of the interests of capital and the production of ideology does not prevent a mass uprising of the mine workers, and Willsson hires armed mobs to bust the labor unions. By the beginning of the novel, the mobs have shattered the unions and are fighting among themselves to divide up the town, compelling Willsson to call on the Continental Detective Agency to secure his interests.

In Carl Freedman and Christopher Kendrick's article, "Forms of Labor in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest," the resulting social conditions in the town are described as an analogy to fascist Italy in terms of a "feudalization of illicit power." With reference to Benjamin, they observe that "The individualism of the gangster power structure makes for a permanent state of anarchic emergency." The ceaseless cycles of violent retribution among conflicting gangs are assimilated by the populace as the normalized environment of urban life, and economic survival is predicated on a strategic alliance with superior firepower.

Hammett's town, with characteristic lack of subtlety, is appropriately named "Personville" (pronounced by the locals as "Poisonville"), an almost direct citation of expressionist abstraction of place into general category. Hammett's description of the town could serve as stage directions for the backdrop of the expressionist metropolis:

the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelter's stacks.

Nature is hereby reified as a waste product of labor, and the claustrophobia imposed by this industrial sky contrasts to the metaphorical transposition of the jungle onto the activity within the city.

With characteristic expressionist condensation, Hammett's protagonist is named "the Op": a two-letter abbreviation of his economic function as Continental Operative. After noting the infernal character of Personville, the Op spots three caricatures of policemen, unshaved, unbut-toned, and smoking cigars while directing traffic, and he immediately deciphers the absence of legitimized authority in the town. "Don't kid yourselves that there's any law in Poisonville," he explains later to his recently arrived assistants.

The Op internalizes and absorbs the anarchy of the urban environment and embarks on a strategy based on the provocation of violence and antagonisms among rival gangs in the effort to have them destroy each other in the process. He explains to his ally, the junky-prostitute Dinah Brand, that he could have accomplished his ends through legal means, "But it's easier to have them killed off, easier and surer, and, now that I'm feeling this way, more satisfying." He derives sadistic pleasure from the replication of the cycles of violence, and he describes his desensitized condition with the same corporealization of interiority as Brecht's Shlink: "I've got hard skin all over what's left of my soul." He identifies the encroaching metropolis as the source of the violent fever that penetrates his subjectivity like a disease: "It's this damned town. Poisonville is right. It's poisoned me." The smothered condition of his soul seeks cathartic release in violent agitation, and he refers to the pleasure experienced from this release as an intoxication.

The Op internalizes and replicates the violence of his environment in the manner of a machine, yet his delirium precipitates a regression to animal instincts. This paradoxical conflation of machine and animal serves as the principle of characterization that motivates the inhabitants of the urban pastoral. In "The Poetics of the Private-Eye," Robert Edenbaum observes that in Hammett's novels, "Action is determined mechanistically—or animalistically." The apparent ease with which Edenbaum equates mechanical and animal determinations reflects the instability of these categories in Hammett's narration.

In The Rebel, Albert Camus reads the American crime narrative as an aesthetic that operates "as if men were entirely defined by their daily Page 272  |  Top of Articleautomatisms. On this mechanical level men, in fact, seem exactly alike, which explains this peculiar universe in which all the characters appear interchangeable, even down to their physical peculiarities." Camus refers to these characters as "the symbol of the despairing world in which wretched automatons live in a machine-ridden universe." The totalizing mechanization of behavior in the crime narrative testifies to the violence done to subjectivity by the encroaching technologies of modern urban conditions.

Despite Camus's disparaging view of the crime novel, he perceives what most commentators on the genre have missed: "This technique is called realistic only owing to a misapprehension....It is born of a mutilation, and of a voluntary mutilation, performed on reality." The conventional circumscription of Hammett's fiction within a tradition of American realism totally disregards all characteristic components of his style and theoretical orientation. Hammett's use of abstraction, mechanization, and caricature dismantle realist conventions by mutilating the subject of representation into defamiliarized form.

The perfectly prefabricated automatisms of Hammett's subjects contrasts to a reified animation of the technological object. Automobiles dart about and weapons discharge as if operating according to their own independent volition. The cigarette ashes on Sam Spade's desk come to life and twitch and crawl about in the breeze. These anthropomorphisms testify to the fetishized character of objects in an urban environment of totalizing reification.

Hammett's generally sparse descriptions are based on a rigorous condensation of the subject, which is reconfigured as congealed abstraction. In "The Farewell Murder," the Op describes a house in terms of a mutilated conglomeration of geometric figures; the intensely asymmetrical arrangement of converging diagonal lines reads like a stage setting for Caligari:

Take a flock of squat cones of various sizes, round off the points bluntly, mash them together with the largest one somewhere near the center, the others grouped around it in not too strict accordance with their sizes, adjust the whole collection to agree with the slopes of a hilltop, and you would have a model of the Kavalov house.

The Op's observations disdain attention to referential detail. Instead they enact a narrative compression of the scene that approximates an expressionist model of prose: His subject is transformed into a generic abstraction that is consequently mutilated into idiosyncratic form. Hammett's prose here undermines realist conventions by emphasizing the discursive construction of the image and directing attention towards the artificiality of the descriptive act.

Hammett's narration reduces the subject to economic function or idiosyncratic trait, and then distorts and magnifies this feature to subsume the entire individual. Physical characteristics are contorted into cartoon proportions and arranged surrealist configurations. In "The Golden Horseshoe" the Op spots a stranger in the bar and describes him as "A tall, rawboned man with wide shoulders, out of which a long, skinny, yellow neck rose to support a little round head. His eyes were black shoe-buttons stuck close together at the top of a little mashed nose." This absurd collage of distorted features and incongruous objects has more in common with dada caricature than realism.

The description of Willsson in Red Harvest could refer to one of Grosz's sinister portraits: "The short-clipped hair on his round pink skull was like silver in the light....His mouth and chin were horizontal lines." Hammett's characters are drawn with a mark and a dash: reduced to compact visual signifiers and geometries of abstracted essence. The description of Sam Spade that opens The Maltese Falcon evokes a similar geometry of personal characteristics:

Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.

The alphabetical figure is stamped on Spade's face like a typographical collage; individuality is dissolved into typology. Hammett's relentless abstraction of character responds to the increasingly abstract conditions imposed by pervasive modern bureaucracies, which are inscribed as a visual signifier on the subject's body.

The nickname, partially necessitated to maintain anonymity in the city crowd, reconfigures subjectivity as caricature. Hammett's novels are populated by characters identified according Page 273  |  Top of Articleto the conspicuously deformed physical characteristic: the Thin Man, the Fat Man, Big Chin, or Chinless Jerry. In Red Harvest, the villains Whisper and the Voice are named according to their discursive capacities. The Dis an' Dat Kid and the Whosis Kid are reduced to cartoon parodies of their namelessness. The Op's boss is simply the Old Man, an abstract typology that suggests the presence of authority in the colloquial reference to the father.

The notoriously compact prose for which the crime novel is famous necessitates a narrative contraction of action into brief staccato segments. These segments tend to focus on the sharply delineated visual image, and the action unfolds like a montage of snapshots.

A curtain whipped loose in the rain.

Out of the opening came pale fire-streaks. The bitter voice of a small-caliber pistol. Seven times.

The Whosis Kid's wet hat floated off his head—a slow balloon-like rising.

Hammett substitutes the empty hat in the place of the Kid, which defies gravity and floats off as if under its own power. The intense objectification of images recalls expressionist contractions of the subject, and the fragmented pace of the unfolding scene imitates expressionist rhythms of sudden shocks and abrupt pauses. Human beings are carefully subtracted from the scene, whereas the pistol is invested with the power of speech, and inanimate objects like the curtain and the hat seem to be animated with independent volition.

As the Op walks into a boxing arena in Red Harvest, he gives an atomic inventory of the scene in four sentences, one word each: "Smoke. Stink. Heat. Noise." This intensified brevity recalls the telegraphic conventions of expressionism. One of the Op's colleagues speaks exclusively in miniaturized fragments of information. He reports his activities in the manner of a speaking machine: "Spot two. Out three-thirty, office to Willsson's. Mickey. Five. Home. Busy. Kept plant. Off three, seven. Nothing yet." The Op then flaunts his semiotic prowess by translating the meaning of these prefabricated signifiers for the benefit of the reader. Hammett parodies this convention in a section from The Dain Curse, where the Op objects to the verbosity of a friend who responds, "Tell me what's up while I try to find one-syllable words for you."

The brevity of dialogue and description in Hammett makes his novels almost appropriate to stage production. Sometimes he dispenses with description entirely, and large sections of his books (particularly The Thin Man) are composed exclusively of character dialogue and monologue. The extended monologues, often confessions or case histories, can be highly idiosyncratic in their use of colloquialisms and regional slang. At other times they are simply journalese, speech stripped down to the delivery of commodified fragments of information. In Red Harvest, some nameless detective informs the Op, "'Donald Willsson, Esquire, publisher of the Morning and Evening Heralds, was found in Hurricane Street a little while ago, shot very dead by parties unknown,' he recited in a rapid singsong." The detective's mechanical voice confirms what his speech has already made clear: He is an automaton capable of replicating prefabricated speech patterns devoid of human inflection or digression.

The Op is located in San Francisco, an appropriate city for the gothic atmospheres of Hammett's scenery. The fog hangs low, and figures are obscured like ghosts wandering in and out of the darkness. In "The Big Knockover," the shadows themselves are personified, speak and vanish. The Op is often performing the function of the shadow, tailing unsuspecting nomads of the city. During pursuits, Hammett inserts precise geographies of the city streets, reminiscent of Döblin's insertion of urban topographies in Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Hammett's interiors, perfectly appropriated by noir film, are defined by their angular composition and harsh dark and light contrast. A typical interior is described in "The House on Turk Street":

the hall was lighted with the glow that filtered through the glass from the street lights. The stairway leading to the second-story threw a triangular shadow across part of the hall-a shadow that was black enough for any purpose. I crouched low in this three-cornered slice of night, and waited.

This highly expressionistic scenography suggests the anthropomorphic character of darkness that seeks to penetrate the interior. The unstable demarcation of inside and outside dramatizes the threat posed to urban interiors by the external forces of crime and darkness. The Op as the morally ambivalent figure who crosses that boundary is significantly attracted to the Page 274  |  Top of Articledarkness in which he seeks refuge and the cover of invisibility.

The Op's invisibility constitutes the foremost characteristic of his wavering and mutable identity. His capacity as detective consists mainly in his ability to disappear into the background or transform his personality to deceive his antagonists. He is presented without preexisting personal relationships or familial antecedents. Just as he busily removes all traces of his presence before leaving the scene of a crime, he is constantly erasing his identity in personal relationships.

The absence of stable identity in Hammett's work corresponds to an epistemological uncertainty concerning the nature of being. The anthropomorphic character of objects suggests a capacity for mutability that undermines the potential for a fixed essence. The symbol for this epistemological emptiness is the Maltese falcon: the priceless artifact of historical significance that motivates a global pursuit and inspires a murderous determination in all those attempting to take it into possession. At the conclusion of the novel, the falcon turns out to be counterfeit: an empty projection of the fictions imposed on it by imagination.

The verbal reticence of so many of Hammett's figures can be partially ascribed to a conviction that the act of signification is a philosophically futile process that does nothing to alter the fundamental emptiness of signified phenomena. The Op's customary reliance on tautological utterances reflects a conscious inability to construct an authentic discursive response. After hearing the impassioned confession of a murderous bank clerk straggling to understand his own motives, the Op reflects, "I couldn't find anything to say except something meaningless, like: 'Things happen that way."'

The emptiness of signification in Hammett's work negates the possibility of satisfactory closure to the mysteries and puzzles conjured up in his narratives. The conclusions of his novels are always vaguely unsettling because the final solutions seem like false constructions and shed suspicion on the inventive powers of the detective. The Thin Man concludes with a highly conjectural and somewhat preposterous explanation of events by the protagonist, who concedes that his hypothetical resolution is based on speculation. The last word of the book belongs to his wife, Nora, who responds, "That may be, but it's all pretty unsatisfactory." This is a startling concluding note for a genre conventionally based on the expectation of definitive resolution and stable closure.

How does a detective operate in an epistemologically uncertain universe in which there is no stable truth behind the deceptive illusions on the surface? The Op responds by abandoning the chimerical search for concealed master narratives and instead scrambles signification by inventing falsehoods and projecting them onto phenomena. The Op's most important talent thus becomes his capacity for discursive intervention as a means of generating conflict. Unlike most detective figures, he rarely resorts to physical coercion, but rather relies on his ability to spread rumor and create subversive alliances and antagonisms. He walks into a boxing ring in Red Harvest, and merely by the utterance of the phrase "Back to Philly, Al"—which conceals a false threat of reprisal against one of the fighters—he manages to unfix the flight and provoke a series of murders and conflicts among rival gangs. He routinely fixes false alibis for himself and manufactures evidence against others. In "The Golden Horseshoe," unable to sustain a conviction due to lack of evidence, he invents a false crime to hang a criminal for a murder he didn't commit.

The Op's illicit tactics of detection suggest the profound moral ambivalence of his identity and activity. The diabolical character of Hammett's protagonists is reinforced by the visual analogy of Spade to Satan in the first paragraph of The Maltese Falcon. Edenbaum refers to the Op's method as "not a divine plan but a satanic disorder." The subversive potential to collapse systems of signification places these characters in opposition to the reified administrative structures that dominate and determine their environment.

In Red Harvest, the Op explains his twisted methodology to Dinah Brand: "Plans are all right sometimes . . . and sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you're tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you'll see what you want when it comes to the top." Freedman and Kendrick translate this strategy as "the apparently spontaneous capacity both to activate the energies present in the dialogic world and to weather the anarchic psychological and social effects that are thus set in motion." The Op works to short-circuit the machinery of Page 275  |  Top of Articlesocial relations through an expenditure of surplus energy; his liberating function is his destructive capacity for dismantling systems of signification and discursive alliances and preserving himself in the process of their collapse.

Hammett's detectives operate as agents of sabotage in the manner of Benjamin's "Destructive Character": "For destroying rejuvenates in clearing away the traces of our own age; it cheers because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed eradication, of his own condition" (Reflections 301). This reduction and eradication is performed by the narrative as well, which obliterates referential capacities through a relentless application of dissonant aesthetic maneuvers designed to dis-mantle narrative content. The utopian aspect of this narrative is achieved by the momentary liberation from ossified discursive reifications.

Freedman and Kendrick contrast modes of detection in Hammett with conventional detective narration by explaining that "it involves not the decoding of a discrete series of facts but, rather, an encoding process that activates the surplus energy inherent in his world." It is within this encoding process that the Op enacts his rebellion against instrumental reason. By imposing his own creative narrative on the world, he constructs a utopian moment that evades the administrative imperatives of his work. He momentarily defies the mechanisms that otherwise determine his reified function, and gives his labor the aesthetic character of play.

Source: John Walker, "City Jungles and Expressionist Reifications from Brecht to Hammett," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 44, No. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 119-33.

J. M. Ritchie

In the following introduction excerpt, Ritchie provides an overview of formal elements in and original sources of German Expressionism.


However disparate the views on Expressionism may be, it is generally true that an Expressionist play will tend to be different from a Neo-Romantic or Naturalistic play, no matter how extensive their common roots. Perhaps the most striking formal feature of Expressionist drama is abstraction. Essentially this means that the Expressionist dramatist is not concerned with projecting an illusion of reality on the stage; instead he gives something abstracted from

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reality, that is, either something taken from the real world but reduced to the bare minimum, or something totally abstracted from reality in the sense that the norms of time and place and individuation have been completely abandoned. Hence in Expressionism there is constant stress on giving the essence—the heart of the matter—deeper images instead of "mere" surface appearances. Not surprisingly, actions and plots are also pared down to the important outlines and only crucial situations are presented, while all "unnecessary" detail is eliminated. This same tendency is noticeable in the treatment of the dramatic figures, which show no characteristic features of particular individuals but tend to embody principles which the author holds to be important. As such, they bear no names and instead are often simply designated as Father, Mother, Husband, or Wife. Other dramatic figures can similarly represent states of mind, social positions, official functions, etc.; hence they are introduced merely as Cashier, Officer, and the like. The intention is clearly to move away from the specific and the conditioned to a more general sphere of reference and significance.

Abstraction of this kind is, needless to say, by no means restricted to Expressionistdrama; indeed, it is a feature of Expressionist art in general. All in all, this is in line with the Expressionists' reaction against the materialistic philosophy of the Naturalists, who tended to show the force of milieu, race, class, and social circumstance as factors conditioning the character of the individual. The Expressionists were not interested in character in this sense and did not attempt to create dramatic characters in their Page 276  |  Top of Articleplays. Character for them meant a limitation of scope. They were more concerned with the soul, that which is common to all men. Instead of creating an impression of real people in real situations, the Expressionist dramatists will therefore strive with religious longing for something beyond the merely material, for eternal and transcendental values.

While this is the essential nature of Expressionistic abstraction, the rejection of the principle of mimesis was given various explanations. Kasimir Edschmid, for example, said in a speech on literary Expressionism: "The world is there. It would be senseless to repeat it." But whatever the reasons offered, time and place were ignored by the Expressionist dramatist so that he could feel free to create his own subjective universe. The dream, with its associations apparently lacking in cause or logic, was substituted for normal reality. For this practice there was a model to hand in Strindberg, though there had been forerunners within the German dramatic tradition, among whom Kleist attracted most attention. Thus, from Sorge's Der Bettler (The Beggar) to Kaiser's Gas II, one constantly encounters dream-like sequences and figures.

After the dream, the most outstanding formal element in the Expressionist drama is the monologue. This is perhaps not surprising considering its function as the main vehicle for expressing the subjective developments within the soul of the lyrical-dramatic protagonists. The use of the monologue demonstrates yet another contrast with the Naturalists, who had argued that in real life people were supposed to converse and not soliloquize. No sooner had the monologue been banished, however, than it made its way back into the drama with even greater force than before, not least through the monologue dramas of Neo-Romantic dramatists like Hofmannsthal. The revival of the monologue was propitious for the Expressionist dramatist, who did not see life in terms of communication and sociability. Even his very explosions of longing for brotherhood and Gemeinschaft express an awareness of the fundamental isolation of man. Thus, egocentricity and solipsism become another hallmark of his works, expressed in formal terms by the long soliloquies of the one central figure, about whom all the other figures cluster like satellites around a major planet. The protagonist expresses himself lone; he does not speak for others, however much he may apostrophize mankind in general.

This solipsistic character of the Expressionist drama explains another feature, namely the scream. The Expressionist dramatist is not concerned to show normal life lived at a normal level or tempo. Instead, he strives for the exceptional and extreme situation, in which the protagonist simply explodes. In this way, once again he breaks through the restricting bonds of normalcy and is beside or beyond himself. At its best this means arriving at a state of ecstasy, which is the aim of the fundamental religious striving of the Expressionists. Ecstasy means experiencing the Divine immediately and absolutely, and not merely attempting to grasp it logically or rationally. At the same time, rhetorical and ecstatic monologues are not merely an expression of the thoughts and feelings of the isolated protagonists; they have a powerful effect on each member of the audience who is there to be stirred up out of his bourgeois mediocrity by powerful utterance. Clearly, such monologues can be as unwieldy as similar speeches in a Baroque drama by Andreas Gryphius or Daniel Caspar von Lohenstein; but the effect, once the improbability is accepted, can be equally overwhelming.

It must be admitted, however, that a potential source of weakness in Expressionist drama is the almost exclusive focus on one central protagonist, while all the other figures in the drama are reduced to mere reflections of his central position. However, it is possible to overstress the dangers of the single-perspective play. The same kind of technique was, after all, employed by Kafka in his fixed-perspective narratives to very powerful effect. At its best, as for example in Kaiser's Von morgens bis mitternachts (From Morn till Midnight), the solipsistic drama could be extremely successful in the way all other characters in the play mirror and reflect the problems of the cashier. Less successful is a more lyrical drama like Sorge's The Beggar, where even the hero's mother, father, and girlfriend seem to have been introduced simply in order to illuminate significant aspects of the young hero's soul.

As far as the actual structure of an Expressionist drama is concerned, dynamism has been singled out as the one significantly new element. By this is meant not only the forceful nature of the language employed, but also the principle whereby the protagonist is shown following a certain path through life. Hence, the drama Page 277  |  Top of Articlebecomes a Stationendrama, following the ancient religious model of the stations of the cross. This means, in effect, a sequence of scenes which follow rapidly one upon the other, often with no obvious link between them. Here again there were models in the German dramatic canon, notably in the theater of Storm and Stress, though nearer to hand were the examples of Strindberg and Wedekind. Essentially, the dynamic, episodic structure mirrored the inner turmoil and awareness of chaos in the soul of the central figure, who, following the religious model, often goes through a total transformation. Such a Wandlung (the title of one of Toller's plays) is most clearly apparent in the case of Kaiser's cashier who is a mere machine-man in a bank and is electrically switched on by the touch of an exotic Italian lady. Through her his transformation becomes possible; he becomes aware of "life" and tries to realize his full potential as a human being. So from being a robot he is awakened to the possibility of human existence and sets off on his quest for fulfillment, being totally transformed from one second to the next. The religious parallels to his Aufbruch (new start) and his pilgrimage are made symbolically clear throughout.

Even on the printed page, one major difference between an Expressionist drama and its predecessors is immediately obvious by reason of the frequent alternation between verse and prose. Here again the Expressionist sees no reason to be arbitrarily limited to the single register of natural speech and is prepared to be unnatural and poetic; not that the verse is generally poetic in the normal melodic sense: instead, the Expressionistic dramatist preferred free verse which he could move into and out of quite easily, depending on the level of speech in the particular moment of the action. In verse he was able to leave the rational, logical world behind and penetrate to the deeper levels to express the stirrings of the soul. Here the poetic utterance conforms to the ecstatic state and the elevated manner. That here the Expressionist was yet again laying himself wide open to attack from hostile critics is readily apparent. Such attacks were not slow to come and have never stopped. Yet such pathos was not a simple sign of artistic impotence; on the contrary, it was a deliberately chosen style of the large gesture and the grand manner. The scream could end in stammering incoherence; pathos could result in Baroque-like effusion; but at its best the drama could be deeply stirring in its combination of rational control and surging emotion. Here once again extreme opposites seem to be the mark of the Expressionist style, which could be extremely dense, concentrated, compressed on the one hand, while on the other this shortness, sharpness, and eruptive spontaneity could overflow into seemingly endless monologues.

It is generally easy to identify the Expressionist style on the page not merely by the alternation of verse and prose but also by the proliferation of exclamation marks, dashes, and question marks, sometimes in clusters, while even the longest speech generally breaks down into shorter units, characterized by missing articles, eliminated particles, and condensed verbal forms in order to create the lapidary style of Ballung. Yet while such a style is, or can be, extremely aggressive and disturbing, another feature needs to be mentioned, namely its hymnic quality. Here Sorge's The Beggar and Hasenclever's Der Sohn (The Son) offer excellent examples of the manner in which the dramatists can soar higher and higher in tone, in the manner of a musical crescendo.

And yet it must not be thought that the Expressionist always operates at such a high level; indeed, it could be argued that the most striking weapon in the Expressionist armory was the ready exploitation of the grotesque, a technique deliberately designed to effect a break from a high level of tension and plunge down to the banal. The possibilities of the grotesque had been amply demonstrated by Wedekind in Frühlings Erwachen (Spring's Awakening) and elsewhere, and the Expressionist playwrights were not slow to follow his example. Hence, in the excitement of the Six Day Race in From Morn till Midnight the cashier sees five people squeezed together like five heads on one pair of shoulders till a bowler hat falls from one head onto the bosom of a lady in the audience below, to be imprinted on her bosom forever after. The bowler hat is followed by the middle man of the five, who plunges to his doom below as Kaiser puts it, like someone just "dropping" in! Such a use of the grotesque can be screamingly funny, but also screamingly terrifying. The mark of the grotesque is the distortion and exaggeration of the normal, the exploitation of caricature and distortion for effect.

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One question that has exercised the minds of ritics is how far back one has to go to find the sources of that modernism in form and content associated with the theater of Expressionism. Medieval mystery plays have often been mentioned in this context, not merely because so many Expressionist plays share the religious striving of such early forms of theatrical production, but also because one of the features of Expressionism seems to have been a highly intellectual longing for a return to simpler forms. Hence, such obvious delight in tableaux as the "gothic" setting of Kaiser's Die Bürger von Calais (The Burghers of Calais) reveals, while the striking conclusion to Kaiser's play not only deliberately stresses the religious parallels to a secular situation, but also abandons language completely for a mode of expression relying on the visual impact of light, grouping, and gesture. Similarly, the whole play tends to follow a medieval "revue" pattern, in which sequences of scenes, or pictures, take the place of continuity of plot. Constantly referred to in connection with Expressionistic plays is the term Stationen-drama. Hence, although an Expressionist play may appear on the surface to be very modern-istic, modeled for example on Strindberg's To Damascus, the idea suggested is the far older one of the quest, involving the equally religious possibility of a revelation or transformation in the course of this path through life. Little wonder, then, that Expressionistic plays often adopted the form of the Läuterungsdrama, i.e., the play of purification in which an Everyman figure experiences an illumination and changes his life from one moment to the next. A feature of the Naturalistic play was the depiction of man as a creature of many conditioning factors. Man was a product of his environment, his class, race, and creed; his life ran along certain fixed tracks from which he could not deviate. The Expressionist dramatist, on the other hand, demonstrates that man is always free to choose and change. His are plays of "becoming," like Barlach's Der blaue Boll (Blue Boll). This character has been forced into a certain role in society, but, as the play demonstrates, he is a man and not a machine or an animal, and in the epic form of seven stations, or tableaux, he makes his "decision." Many Expressionistic plays are therefore also Entscheidungsdramen, plays in which a crucial decision for the course of a whole life is made. Very often, as in Blue Boll, the decision is a fundamental one involving the "Erneuerung des Menschen," the regeneration of man, a phrase which once again stresses the religious nature of so many Expressionistic works. Not surprisingly, plays of this kind tend toward universal themes and cosmic dimensions, which may mean that the characters are diminished, in one sense, as beings of flesh and blood and expanded, in another, to become representative figures for some aspect of the human dilemma.

But it would be wrong to seek the roots of Expressionist drama exclusively in the religious drama of the Middle Ages. Much more to the point is the general tendency to go back beyond the comparatively recent tradition of nineteenth-century drama to absolute simplicity combined with universal significance. This, Nietzsche had demonstrated, was to be found in the classics, not however, in the Apollonian world of beauty and light, but in the Dionysian sphere of darkness and ritual. Hence, from Kokoschka's Mörder Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer Hope of Womankind) onward, there is an increasing emphasis on myth. The process of condensation and compression becomes a paring down to the quintessential. The result is an economy going beyond the extreme simplicity of Greek classical drama and a concentration on all the hymnic, rhetorical potential of language. But it must be admitted that this process of reduction and concentration, combined with ritual incantations and myth-making, has some unfortunate results. However exciting it may be, Kokoschka's playlet on the myth of the purification of man who, in his struggle with woman, dies to be reborn, is so compressed that the meaning is largely obscured. In a myth-seeking play like Unruh's Ein Geschlecht (One Family), which was much praised in its own time, practically every permutation in the relationship between a mother and her children is projected through highly charged language—love, hate, incest, possible fratricide and matricide—while the action, which is not bound to any particular age or country, takes place before a mountain cemetery high above the wars in the valley. The results of such mythologizing can often be ludicrous, as for example in the mother's dying words which sound like an echo from Kleist, whose Penthesilea was indeed one of the sources of Unruh's inspiration: "Here, here and there too, plunge all your steel shafts deep into my blood! I'll melt them down till nothing remains to hurt my children."

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An example of the fruitful use of classical simplicity is Goering's war play Seeschlacht (Naval Encounter). Unruh's play is marked by shouts, screams, and exclamations, and Goering's play too is a Schreidrama or "scream play," another label often attached to Expressionist drama. But the striking feature of Naval Encounter is the tight discipline and the controlled, hard, highly stylized language. The quick switches from short, sharp stichomythic utterances of classical brevity to long monologues of considerable eloquence are a feature of the new Expressionist style which revels in the conjunction of extremes-ice-cold with fever-heat, compression with expansiveness, logicality with ecstasy, stasis with dynamicism. Characteristically, too, there is little or no plot-merely the situation of men moving toward their inevitable fate, in this case sailors in a gun turret going into battle, and hence to their death. There is no realistic detail: the stylization is now complete, the compression to abstract form extreme, the process of depersonalization total. The whole work with its Socratic dialogue has the style and rigor of a classical tragedy with its constant suggestion of forces outside man controlling his destiny. Yet the final outcome is not determined by fatalism but by the individual who stands out against the forces that threaten to control him and mankind. Man's duty to man is thus the chief criterion. Hasenclever, too, adopted the classical style in his antiwar play Antigone; his play Menschen (Humanity) is an even better example of the dangers of hovering between classical simplicity and a passion-play structure.

However, Expressionist dramatists were not generally accused of excessive formalism (though, as has been seen, the tendency toward classical concentration and condensation laid them open to this charge): they were more likely to be accused of formlessness. On the whole, this charge is probably unfair and brought about by the Expressionistic predilection for the open forms of drama associated with the German Storm and Stress. These open forms, in fact, as used by the previously underestimated Klinger and J. M. R. Lenz, whose works included ballad-esque and filmic scene sequences, gradually came to be appreciated in the period which began just before World War I and ended just after it. Indeed, Lenz in particular emerged as a model for the twentieth century. An even more important influence than Lenz was Georg Büchner, also an exponent of the open form, whose most important drama was produced successfully for the first time about this period. The impact of his Woyzeck can be seen particularly in the Alban Berg opera Wozzeck, which it inspired.

Source: J. M. Ritchie, "Introduction," in German Expressionist Drama, Twayne Publishers, 1976, pp.15-39.


Allen, Roy, Literary Life in German Expressionism and the Berlin Circles, UMI Research Press, 1983.

Bahr, Hermann, Expressionismus, 1916.

Benn, Gottfried, "The Confession of an Expressionist," in Voices of German Expressionism, edited by Victor Miesel, Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Benson, Renate, German Expressionist Drama: Ernst Toller and Georg Kaiser, Macmillan, 1984.

"Federico GarcíaLorca,"in, (accessed July 17, 2008).

Forche, Carolyn, Introduction, in Autumn Sonata: Selected Poems of Georg Trakl, Asphodel Press, 1998.

Furness, R. S., Expressionism, Methuen, 1973.

Gibson, Ian, Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life, Pantheon, 1997.

MacShane, Denis, "Spain: Poet Who Had to Die," in the New Statesman, Vol. 135, No. 4809, September 11, 2006, p. 17.

Ritter, Mark, "The Unfinished Legacy of Early Expressionist Poetry: Benn, Heym, Van Hoddis and Lichtenstein," in Passion and Rebellion: The Expressionist Heritage, edited by Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner, J. F. Bergin, 1983, pp. 151-65.

Sokel, Walter H., The Writer in Extremis: Expressionism in Twentieth-Century German Literature, Stanford University Press, 1959.

Toller, Ernst, "Post-War German Drama," in the Nation, Vol. CXXVII, No. 3305, November 7, 1928, pp. 488-89.

Walker, John, "City Jungles and Expressionist Reifications from Brecht to Hammett," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 44, No. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 119-33.

Weisstein, Ulrich, Expressionism as an International Literary Phenomenon, Didier, 1973.


Bridgwater, Patrick, Poet of Expressionist Berlin: The Life and Work of Georg Heym, Libris, 1991.

Bridgwater provides an accessible and entertaining biography of one of the leading poets of the expressionist movement.

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Brod, Max, Franz Kafka: A Biography, Da Capo, 1995.

Brod was a friend of Kafka's, and his biography is an insider's look at Kafka's life. This is a accessible, very sensitive, and thorough biography written on Kafka.

Dickey, Jerry, and Miriam Lopez-Rodriguez, eds., Broadway's Bravest Woman: Selected Writings of Sophie Treadwell, Southern Illinois University Press, 2006.

Sophie Treadwell was an inventive dramatist, known largely for her one expressionistic play Machinal. This volumes collects essays, plays, and fiction by Treadwell, highlighting her themes of feminism and social activism.

Dove, Richard, He Was a German: A Biography of Ernst Toller, Libris, 1990.

Toller was a socialist and leading expressionist dramatist. Dove provides an entertaining biography of his life and art.

Johnson, Walter, August Strindberg, Twayne, 1976.

Johnson's work on Strindberg's life and plays is an excellent place to begin study of this expressionist writer.

Styan, John, Modern Drama in Theory and Practice: Expressionism and Epic Theater, Cambridge, 1981.

Styan considers expressionist theater as embodying a "rigorous anti-realism" in its representation of the world. Styan argues that Expressionism is most coherent in theater as opposed to poetry or fiction.

Webb, Daniel Benjamin, The Demise of the "New Man": An Analysis of Ten Plays from Late German Expressionism, Verlag Alfred Kummerle, 1973.

Webb's study traces the depiction of the "New Man" in expressionist plays from the 1920s and 1930s, concluding that playwrights became disillusioned with the ideal of such an entity and began writing about his downfall.

Willet, John, Expressionism, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.

Willet considers the expressionist movement in relation to historical, political, and social developments.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3279300019