By Lucy Martin
The term ‘Expressionism’ refers to the cultural movement originating in Germany at the start of the 20th Century. The term originally related to art, where Impressionist painters attempted to express their inner vision instead of objective external reality. These paintings were deeply subjective and often eccentric.
Expressionism peaked in 1920’s Berlin, with playwrights including Carl Sternheim (From The Heroic Life of The Bourgeois 1911-22), Ernst Toller (Masses Man 1921), and Georg Kaiser (Largely considered to be the most successful expressionist dramatist, wrote From Morn To Midnight 1912, one of the most frequently performed works of German ...view middle of the document...
Pre-War expressionism was mainly concerned with protests against materialism and loss of spirituality. Early Expressionist playwrights objected to the introduction of machines and industrial technology to the world, and were apprehensive of the impact these changes would have on humans, regarding them as a threat to the human spirit. They believed that society was becoming too caught up in a life filled with material possessions, and regarded the war as necessary in order to purify society. German Expressionists also protested against the society of a patriarchal family system, an arrangement which tended to smother individuality, especially that of the youth. This theme is explored in Wedekind’s Spring Awakening.
Initially, many playwrights may have seen the war as necessary; however the massive loss of life during the war (including the death of many Expressionist dramatists) changed the face of the movement. Those practitioners who were not killed were transformed. Expressionism took on a more overtly political complexion, changing from private protest into complex political argument.
Expressionism was also prevalent in a time where a newer class of society was being established. Before the Industrial Revolution, western humanity generally fell into one of two classes – the upper or the lower. The introduction of machines meant the development of a new class, the middle. Expressionist dramas played on the idea of the ‘Everyman’ character, someone who was neither rich nor poor. Because this character’s life was not watched by the rest of society, a bigger focus could be placed on the subconscious and the workings of an individual’s mind.
The practitioners of Expressionism sought to convey a heightened interpretation of the world through the use of many theatrical conventions and techniques. The features of expressionism included –
A transformation of reality into a dreamlike and fantasy world. This can often represent the character’s subconscious, and a transformation of reality allows for greater artistic license in relation to plot and characters.
Use of fantasy and symbolism, with moments of realism. The marrying of realism and non-realism in Expressionist plays was also common, and playwrights did this to raise questions about the...