Expressionist Theater – History, Development and Representatives


What is Expressionist Theater?

Expressionist theater grew out of the same impulse of rebellion against the materialistic values of the older middle-class generation that gave rise to both reformist naturalist theater and aestheticist symbolist theater. This opposition was clearly expressed through the themes and often the titles of plays by authors of the time.

The forerunners of expressionist theater are generally accepted as the German actor and playwright Frank Wedekind, who criticized the Ibizan reformist movement for not attacking the morality of bourgeois society, and Strindberg. Wedekind who sought in his plays to expose what lay beneath the surface of gentility and decorum, introducing in the process roles that served more as emblems than realistic characters.

The greatest expressionist theater was Der Tribune in Berlin, an expressionist theater stage that neither simulated reality nor suggested unreality, but rather existed in its own right as the platform from which direct statements could be made. Thus, the scenarios tended to be abstract or, when specific, were highly subjective. Techniques of distortion and incongruous juxtaposition expressed the ideological position of the director or playwright and the mood of the protagonist, or both.

In expressionist plays, the walls of houses could be tilted at sharp angles, threatening to crush the protagonist, windows could be illuminated like eyes peering into the secret and intimate. Likewise, trees could take the shape of the skeleton that signified death. In this way, instead of simply forming the atmosphere of the action, the stage became a dramatic force.

How does the Expressionist Theater develop?

The action of many plays of the expressionist theater was fragmented into a series of small scenes or episodes. This style of theater was called Station in drama and was clearly derived from the principles of medieval mystery plays. This led to the consideration of the scene in drama as something independent.

The importance and significance of the development of expressionist plays, derived from the juxtaposition and accumulation of scenes rather than from a continuous narrative progression from scene to scene, and from this it followed that there was no need for coherence in staging. In Ernst Toller’s Man and the Masses (1920), for example, scenes alternated between reality and dream throughout the play.

The characters in expressionist drama were often impersonal or nameless. Very often they served to illustrate some aspect of the protagonist’s thoughts or feelings or expressed aspects of the world and society. In Toller’s Transfiguration (1918) the soldiers on the battlefield had skeletons painted on their costumes.

The characters were often presented as fragments of a unified consciousness. Crowds were often not differentiated, but used en masse to express or emphasize the power of the protagonist’s position. Expressionist roles often required actors to express aspects of the character through the use of isolated body parts.

Types of Expressionist Theater

Types of Expressionist Theater

Constructivist theater is considered a type of theater that sought to turn around the abstract nature of expressionist theater, which was exciting but rarely artistically successful. By 1925 the movement had ended, giving way to the epic theater developed and cultivated by Piscator and Bertolt Brecht. Further experiments in German theater were interrupted by the coming to power of the Nazis in 1933.

Theatrical creation in 19th century Germany was determined by the political and social context that accompanied the end of the previous century. Napoleon’s rise to power in France and his campaigns in the East met with the nationalist enthusiasm of artists who brutally opposed the classicism of French thought and the abstract rationalism of the Enlightenment.

The end of the 19th century marked a turning point in theatrical aesthetics, which saw the development in Europe of a real crisis of drama, faced with the monopoly of a theater of entertainment, where theorists, playwrights and artists of the spectacle tried to find together the means to satisfy the demand for a theater of art.

Since then, the theater has not ceased to reflect on itself in its relationship with the text, the stage and the world. This questioning gave rise to the opposition, the rapprochement and the overcoming of two great aesthetic currents that dominated the whole of European artistic creation at the end of the century, naturalism and symbolism.

In 1887, the Théâtre-Libre was inaugurated, where plays by French and European playwrights were staged. Taking up the principle of scientific analysis or police investigation, drama involves man as determined by the environment in which he evolves. To give an artistic interpretation of reality, the theater must use real materials. Darkness is created in the room, while gas and then electricity make it possible to design various lighting systems that reflect, for example, the transition from day to night.

Representatives of this theater

Shortly before the war of 1914, a new style appears, instead of the refinement and nuance of post-symbolism, with raw and pathetic images, violent and bumpy colors. This movement, in which Germany would again take the lead and lead the way, was called expressionism.

Dramaturgy was one of the main genres of work of the expressionist writers. Their interest was not to describe the events of the outside world, but from the inside, i.e., the emotions and thoughts of individuals. For this reason, their work was interested in subjectively describing mental states.

Normally, the main character in an expressionist play manifests his inner ills through long monologues. In these expressions, the spiritual malaise of youth, rebellion against previous generations, and possible political and revolutionary paths are expressed.

Expressionist theater emerged at the same time as dramaturgy and shares certain characteristics with it. Primarily, it moved away from the narration of reality and nature to focus on the exploration of emotions.

On the other hand, the aesthetics of expressionist theater has a great associative power. Its aim was to eliminate narration and description, seeking rather, to express the essence of feelings, in dialogues and monologues used chains of nouns, adjectives and verbs in the infinitive.

The main themes of the theater as well as poetry were the horror of urban life and the collapse of civilization. Some of these poets were pessimistic and expressed this through satire of bourgeois values.

There were also other expressionists who were concerned with the political and social transformations of the time. So they used theater to express the hope of a future revolution.