Three-quarters of a century ahead of his time, Christian Dietrich Grabbe was a direct precursor of Friedrich Hebbel’s realism, Gerhart Hauptmann’s naturalism, the expressionist theater of the 1920’s, and Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater. In the early nineteenth century, both Georg Büchner and Hebbel studied Grabbe’s dramatic techniques. It was not, however, until the vogue of naturalism in the last decades of the century that Grabbe was rediscovered for the stage. In the twentieth century, expressionism brought a second rediscovery. Technically, Grabbe’s theater represented a strong move away from the rounded plot and the unities of the classical theater to an “open” form. Instead of the traditional five acts, his plays juxtaposed numerous separate scenes to light up the theme from many sides. In their general tone, his plays, like the man himself, “poured the corrosive acid of the intellect” on feelings with a relentlessness that resulted in nihilism: “My intellect is empty and feeling destroyed.”
Grabbe’s life was dramatized by Hans Johst in a play entitled Der Einsame (pr. 1917; the lonely man). Brecht’s Baal (wr. 1918, pb. 1922; English translation, 1963) was written as an ironic reply to Johst’s sentimentality and seems to reflect a dynamic poète maudit such as Arthur Rimbaud or Paul Verlaine rather than the more passive, shattered figure of Grabbe.