Mar 2014 Journal

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The drama of German Expressionism

The National Theatre recently staged an important, but rarely seen, play by the best-known of the German Expressionist dramatists, Georg Kaiser (1878-1945). From Morning to Midnight (Von morgens bis mitternachts) was written in 1912 and first performed in April 1917 at the Munich Kammerspiele. It is a classic piece of Expressionist theatre, with its clipped, staccato dialogue, its abandonment of a conventionally structured plot and realistic, individualised characters, and its attempt to pierce through the surface detail of everyday bourgeois life to convey the deeper reality of human existence in an industrialised, mechanised society devoid of values beyond soulless materialism.
Although this play was performed at the Garrick Theatre in London in 1922, in a translation by Ashley Dukes, German Expressionism never established itself on the British stage. For all that, it remains one of the most important theatrical movements of the twentieth century. Like the avant-garde, modernist movements that erupted into the visual arts in the first years of the twentieth century, when figurative paintings representing external reality were replaced by extreme distortions of that reality or by abstract, non-figurative compositions, Expressionist theatre aimed to break decisively with the tradition of realism that had dominated the nineteenth century.
Expressionism, which began around 1910 and petered out in the mid-1920s, sought to create a wholly new artistic means of conveying the human experience. In place of the representation of surface reality, it aspired to express the essence of a situation or scene and, in place of the investigation of the psychology of individuals, it presented types, whose experience stood for that of whole categories of people. In From Morning to Midnight, the main character is simply called the Bank Clerk, while the other characters are also named functionally, according to their roles in the drama. They include the Lady, whose arrival in the bank at the play’s beginning causes the Clerk to throw over years of arid working routine and abscond with a pile of the bank’s money; his Wife and Daughters, representing the conventional family life that he abandons; and the various figures that he subsequently encounters in his whirlwind, one-day trajectory through the pleasures of Berlin, culminating in the Salvation Army Girl, who seems to offer him redemption but ultimately betrays him to the police.
The provincial bank where the Clerk works is depicted as the archetypal setting for the dehumanised, alienating routines of modern working life, dominated by the power of money. Expressionist stage sets concentrated on the essential features of a scene, often using lighting to focus on the central character, while other figures exist in a secondary, half-lit world, emphasising their status as mere players in the protagonist’s drama. This was the case with plays like Walter Hasenclever’s Der Sohn (The Son) (1916), the first Expressionist drama to reach the stage, where secondary characters embody aspects of the Son’s inner life. In its structure, From Morning to Midnight is also an example of the Expressionist Stationendrama (the term is taken from the Stations of the Cross), a loosely knit succession of more or less autonomous scenes, almost cinematic in effect, charting the fate of the main character.
The play’s language is stripped down to its basics for maximum expressive effect, in line with the Expressionists’ desire to rediscover the essential humanity of mankind beneath the deadening layers of modern life. This striking, declamatory style was known as the ‘Telegrammstil’, attributed first to the poet August Stramm: ‘Mensch, werde wesentlich!’ (‘Man, become essential!’) was the final line of the poem ‘Der Spruch’ (‘The Saying’) by the Expressionist poet Ernst Stadler. The characteristic mode of expression for these writers was a rhetorical outcry of extreme intensity, which became known as ‘der Schrei’ (‘the scream’), with obvious reference to the celebrated painting by Edvard Munch. Stadler began his poem ‘Anrede’ (‘Address’) at a white-hot pitch with the line ‘Ich bin nur Flamme, Durst und Schrei und Brand’ (‘I am but flame, thirst and scream and fire’).
These dramatic and stylistic devices served the purpose of conveying a new and more truly humane vision of life. Expressionist plays tended to begin with the main character’s abrupt break with his existing life - in From Morning to Midnight the Clerk’s theft of money from the bank. The protagonist then sets out on a series of experiences (the ‘Stationen’) in which he – or, as in Ernst Toller’s Masse Mensch (Masses and Man), she - discovers a new set of values - moral, social, political and aesthetic - to replace the corrosive materialism, militarism and authoritarianism of existing society. Through that discovery, the main character undergoes a transformation (‘Wandlung’ – the title of Toller’s first drama), becoming a ‘New Man’. This ‘neuer Mensch’ was the ideal of playwrights like Toller, Hasenclever and Reinhard Johannes Sorge, whose play Der Bettler (The Beggar) (1912), is often seen as the first Expressionist drama to be written. This process of the spiritual regeneration (‘Erneuerung’) of the hero was intended to foreshadow the regeneration of the whole of society. Expressionism was thus a utopian, idealist movement that strove for nothing less than a spiritual renewal of society, a renewal whose necessity was drastically reinforced by the mass slaughter of the First World War.
Kaiser’s plays are ambivalent about the possibility of such a renewal. In From Morning to Midnight, the Clerk, having been disappointed with the pleasures of the metropolis, glimpses a new world of spiritual values in the figure of the Salvation Army Girl; but, when he throws away his money at a Salvation Army meeting, the supposedly otherworldly penitents hurl themselves on the banknotes and the Girl denounces him to the police. Utterly disillusioned, he shoots himself. However, in Die Bürger von Calais (The Burghers of Calais), written at almost the same time as From Morning to Midnight, Kaiser depicted the triumph of regeneration through a historical case - that of the six citizens of Calais whose willingness to sacrifice their own lives to save their town from the besieging English in 1347, immortalised in Rodin’s sculpture, secured the lives of all. In his essay Vision und Figur (Vision and Figure), Kaiser stated that all true drama was underpinned by a vision. ‘Von welcher Art ist die Vision? ’ (‘What is the nature of the vision?’), he asked, and replied emphatically: ‘Es gibt nur eine: die von der Erneuerung des Menschen’ (‘There is only one: that of the regeneration of mankind’).
Expressionism marked the revolt of the young generation of the 1880s and early 1890s against the materialism and commercialism, the complacent philistinism of pre-1914 Germany, where man’s spiritual side seemed to have been stifled in the dehumanised world of the modern industrial metropolis. It was that spiritual side of human existence, ‘Seele’ (‘soul’), that the Expressionists sought to rediscover, as their dramatic techniques sought to reveal truths that lay beneath the surface detail of modern life. Paul Kornfeld’s important essay Der beseelte und der psychologische Mensch (The Spiritual and the Psychological Person) (1913) develops the distinction between the ‘old’ alienated, soulless man and the New Man of the future. That caused a generation conflict, as the sons, for example in Hasenclever’s Der Sohn or Arnolt Bronnen’s Vatermord (Parricide) (1920), rejected the alienated, materialistic world of their fathers and sought new values.
The Expressionists’ sense of the imperative necessity of creating a new and better world was greatly accentuated by the toll the First World War took on the young writers: Sorge was killed on the Somme in 1916, August Stramm on the Eastern Front in 1915, and Ernst Stadler, the intermediary between three cultures who had studied French and German literature at the (then German) University of Strasbourg before being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, near Ypres in October 1914. Only a complete transformation of existing society, it seemed to the Expressionists, could avert such catastrophes in the future. Their works frequently have an apocalyptic note, predicting both the end of existing society and the birth of a new, spiritually regenerate community. Kurt Pinthus gave his famous anthology of Expressionist verse the title Menschheitsdämmerung (1920), meaning either the dawn or the twilight of humanity, thus implying both the demise of the old world and the birth of the new.
But these hopes for a radically better world faded rapidly after 1918. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they resolved to destroy the entire legacy of Expressionism, along with its exponents, many of whom were Jewish. Toller committed suicide in New York in 1939, and Hasenclever took his life in a French internment camp in 1940, to avoid falling into the hands of the advancing Germans. Paul Kornfeld, who had enjoyed success with his drama Die Verführung (The Seduction) (1917), was deported to Poland, where he died in 1942. Hans Davidsohn, who under the pseudonym Jakob van Hoddis had written the classic Expressionist poem Weltende (End of the World), was deported from a mental institution to Sobibor in 1942. Georg Kaiser, non-Jewish, fled Germany in 1938; he died in Switzerland in June 1945.

Anthony Grenville

next article:Justice - it’s never too late