Expressionism arose in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a response to bourgeois complacency and the increasing mechanization and urbanization of society. At its height between 1910 and 1925, just before and just after World War I, expressionist writers distorted objective features of the sensory world using symbolism and dream-like elements in their works illustrating the alienating and often emotionally overwhelmed sensibilities. Painters such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Edvard Munch helped to lay the foundation for Expressionism in their use of distorted figures and vibrant color schemes to depict raw and powerfully emotional states of mind. Munch’s The Scream (1894), for example, a lithograph depicting a figure with a contorted face screaming in horror, epitomized the tone of much expressionist art. In literature, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche emphasized cultivating individual willpower and transcending conventional notions of reasoning and morality. His Thus Spake Zarathustra (1885), a philosophic prose poem about the “New Man,” had a profound influence on expressionist thought. In France, symbolist poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire wrote visionary poems exploring dark and ecstatic emotional landscapes.
In Germany in the twentieth century, poets such as Georg Trakl and Gottfried Benn practiced what became known as Expressionism by abandoning meter, narrative, and conventional syntax, instead organizing their poems around symbolic imagery. In fiction, Franz Kafka embodied expressionist themes and styles in stories such as The Metamorphosis (1915), which tells of a traveling salesman who wakes to find himself transformed into a giant insect. Expressionist dramatists include Georg Kaiser, Frank Wedekind, Ernst Toller, and August Strindberg, often referred to as the “Father of Expressionism.” Some critics claim Strindberg’s play To Damascus (1902) is the first true expressionist drama; others argue that it is Reinhard Johannes Sorge’s The Beggar, performed in 1917; and still others claim it is Oskar Kokoschka’s Murderer, the Women’s Hope, written in 1907. The discrepancy underscores the question as to whether or not a coherent literary movement called Expressionism with a common set of features ever really existed, or whether it is more of an attitude towards art and society. In the early 1930s, the Nazi regime, which considered the movement decadent, banned its practitioners from publishing their work or producing their plays.
Franz Kafka (1883–1924)
Born on July 3, 1883, in Prague, Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia), Franz Kafka was an introverted, sickly, and shy boy who struggled to meet the expectations of a demanding father. After receiving a law degree in 1906, Kafka began writing in earnest, publishing his stories in the literary magazine of his good friend, Max Brod. Kafka died of tuberculosis on June 3, 1924, in Austria. While alive, Kafka directed Brod to burn all of his manuscripts. Brod ignored Kafka’s wish and, over the next few decades, edited and published all of his unfinished stories.
Like many of the expressionists, Kafka was influenced by Nietzsche and Strindberg. His writings, primarily novels and stories, depict an absurdist view of the world, which he describes in paradoxically lucid terms. In the use of symbols and types, his stories often resemble parables. Like Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of The Metamorphosis, Kafka’s characters often find themselves in the midst of an incomprehensible world, consumed with guilt and alienated from those they love. The Trial, for example, a novel unfinished at the time of Kafka’s death, concerns a bank clerk who is arrested but never told the charges. He attempts to negotiate a Byzantine legal system to find the answer, but never does, and is finally killed “like a dog.” Today, the term “Kafkaesque” is used as an adjective suggesting something possessing a complex, inscrutable, or bizarre quality.
Georg Kaiser (1878–1945)
Widely acknowledged as the leader of the expressionist movement in theater, Georg Kaiser was born November 25, 1878, in Magdeburg, Germany. Kaiser’s father, an insurance agent, was frequently away on business, and his mother, who schooled her six children at home, raised Kaiser. Like many of the characters in his plays, Kaiser was a traveller, venturing to Argentina for a time and throughout Europe. As business did not temperamentally suit him, he had difficulty making a living. However, his family financed his travels, until 1908, when he married the wealthy Margarethe Habenicht. In plays such as The Citizens of Calais (1917) and From Morn to Midnight (1917), Kaiser juxtaposed fantasy and reality, used rapidly shifting scenes, and gave his characters generic names to underscore their symbolic and universal significance. Kaiser’s plays typically feature a questing protagonist who searches everywhere for meaning but finds none. These characters often commit suicide. Kaiser’s famous trilogy of plays—Coral (1917), Gas I (1918), and Gas 2 (1920)—are as relevant today as they were eighty years ago in their indictment of mindless and mechanized labor and the selfishness of big business.
Kaiser’s influence on the development of European drama cannot be understated. Along with Strindberg and Toller, he changed the direction of twentieth-century drama by opening it up to other dramatic possibilities. Critics consider Kaiser and Bertolt Brecht, who also used expressionist techniques, the two leading German playwrights of the twentieth century. Kaiser’s plays were banned when the Nazis came to power in 1933. At the beginning of World War II, the writer fled to Switzerland, where he died of an embolism on...
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