The term expressionism refers to the movement in Scandinavia and Germany that first started among painters. In 1901, French painter Julien-Auguste Hervé coined the term to distinguish his work from impressionism. In 1911, aesthetician Worringer imported it to Germany, where the playwright Hasenclever was the first to apply the term expressionism to theatre and drama. Expressionism harbors the idea of art as an expression of the artist's internal and subjective world, opposing the notion of art as a reflection or mirror to objective reality. Vasil Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoshka, and Edward Munk were among the major expressionist painters. Expressionism in film started with Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and continued with Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). The unifying features of the movement include rebellion against artistic and social conventions, distortion, and bold innovation. The overall aim of the expressionist artists is ambitious-to offer a total spiritual renewal by confronting the darkest aspects of reality through apocalyptic and nightmarish visions of the world.
One of the first expressionist performances was Murder, the Hope of Women (1907) by Oskar Kokoshka. Works of Frank Wedekind and August Strindberg epitomize expressionist tendencies in drama. Wedekind's anti-bourgeois plays Spring Awakening (1891), Lulu (1895) and Pandora's Box (1902) confront taboos, unmasking social and family norms and values. Strindberg's Dream Play (1907) establishes the expressionist aesthetic as a theatre of the mind, almost independent of the physical world and staging limitations. Yet conservative critics attacked Strindberg's plays for speaking against religion, monarchy and science. German expressionist playwrights of the 1920s further re-worked and developed Wedekind's and Strindberg's expressionist aesthetics towards openly politically engaged theatre. Ernest Toller's Masses and Man (1920), Walter Hasenclever's Humanity (1918), and Georg Kaiser's From Morning to Midnight (1916) are concerned with conflicts between generations, sexes and classes.
Expressionist dramaturgy is episodic often modeled on the structure of the "stations of the cross" and tableaux vivants. Instead of following the principles of cause and effect, the action is patterned on montage where each scene can stand on its own. Dramatic characters-either fragmented or replaced with the notion of a collective hero-are usually social or spiritual archetypes. Categories of space and time are non-mimetic depictions of allusive and abstract places such as "the world," "a church," "a graveyard." Expressionists staging is highly visual involving atmospheric lighting to express the emotional nuances of the play. It involves crowed scenes, as well as various devices of expansion, including treadmills, staircases, bridges, and revolving doors, that make the stage space more allusive. This staging approach introduces a new style of acting that rejects verisimilitude in favor of loud utterances, expressive movements, and make up based on strong contrasts.
Even though generally considered out of date, expressionism had a strong impact on a number of very different dramatists, including Bertolt Brecht, Eugene O'Nill, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch, and many others.
MLA citation for this chronology:
Christopher Innes (ed). "Expressionism." Modern Theatre in Context. Christopher Innes, ed. Mar. 2003- . Canada Research Chair in Performance and Culture. [15 Nov. 2018]. ‹http://moderndrama.ca/crc/chrono/sup.php?id=38&print›
Copyright: Canada Research Chair in Performance and Culture, York University.